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Continue Your Life’s Education With Free Online Classes


Have extra time at home? Want to keep your brain busy with new things to think about? Consider doing a little remote learning of your own. After all, Benjamin Franklin famously set aside and hour or two each day to study, reflect and experiment so he could fill in the gaps in his own education, and he went on to several successful careers.

Hundreds of major colleges and universities offer online courses that anyone with an internet connection can take. While you won’t get academic credits for taking free classes, you expand your knowledge — and can even show a little solidarity with your children as they head back to school themselves. Here’s a guide to getting started.

First, ask yourself what subject you want to study and how it might benefit you. Are you pondering a career shift? Looking to pick up new skills? Or do you just need a distraction in unsettled times? Make a note of your ultimate goal to help focus your search, as classes are available across a wide range of academic disciplines.

Some schools, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are generous. M.I.T. freely offers the content from most of its on-campus courses on its OpenCourseWare site.

To see what’s available from multiple schools, try Class Central, a search engine for online courses. You can also browse the Open Culture site, which lists more than 1,500 courses from accredited institutions and hosted on educational platforms like Coursera, edX and FutureLearn; these platforms have many subscription or fee-based classes as well.

Click the enroll button to sign up. If you’re on the “free” plan, you’re essentially auditing the course. However, if you pay a fee, you can often get graded assignments — or a “certificate of completion” that typically starts around $50.

If you’re not quite ready for a college-level class or wish to supplement your child’s learning, the nonprofit Khan Academy hosts lessons designed for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Here, you can find math, science, economics and humanities classes, as well as inventive computer courses like “Pixar in a Box,” an overview of the digital-animation process.

Apple’s iTunes U service hosts free audio and video lectures from schools around the world, although the company has announced plans to discontinue the platform at the end of 2021.

An hour a day of study is a sensible goal, but when considering a course, check its specific duration and time commitments so you can plan more precisely and slot the space into your calendar. Some classes are self-paced, while others have a more traditional meeting structure that can last for nine weeks.

Find a place to do your homework and keep your school materials. Depending on the course, you may also need certain books, software or other materials. Even if you’re watching recorded lectures, taking notes may help you better retain the information, so ponder a cheap notebook or a note-taking app.

Too busy to commit to a lengthy course? The Coursera site has a list of courses you can complete in a day; all are free until the end of the year.

And consider the lectures and webinars offered by museums and libraries. The Museum Computer Network site has a lengthy list of online learning resources from major institutions. Browsing your favorite museum sites directly for educational content can also yield results.

Want to know how to change the oil in a late-model Honda Civic, perform basic toilet repairs or mend torn clothes? Instructional videos posted to YouTube provide a hands-on education on the practical matters of daily living. Many popular do-it-yourself sites have their own YouTube channels, so you can find content like The Handyman’s home-improvement tutorials or iFixit’s gadget-repair videos in one place.

And if you’d like to upgrade your home-cooking repertoire, fire up a recipe search on the site. YouTube chefs will guide you through making red velvet waffles and chicken or even the infamous Twinkie wiener sandwich, because with school in session, the fall comfort-food season is right around the corner.


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