Free Online Courses

By Bronwyn Slater


The rise of the internet has brought with it a huge growth in the availability of free online courses. For advocates of the Knowledge Commons this must be seen as a very progressive step. The diversity of topics which you can now study for free is amazing. You can learn new skills such as languages and computing, for example, and there is a myriad of courses in every field which are geared towards practical expertise.

There are many people who simply cannot afford to go to college. It is also the case that many young school leavers do not get enough points in their final exams in order to qualify for entry to a college course. This is often due to the fact that places for particular courses are restricted.

Distance education has been around for nearly 100 years. The earliest forms of distance education were conducted through letters and then via two-way radio broadcasts. But it was only recently that online education took off due to major advances in computing and the Internet. Many of the world’s most prestigious universities now provide online courses, many of which are free.


As well as charging no fees, free online courses provide flexibility in terms of the time a student can allocate to study, plus there is no need to commute to a physical location. This arrangement is perfect for people with full-time jobs and those with children or other commitments.  Older people (or indeed, anyone) with an interest in a topic and a certain amount of free time can take up a subject and study it.

There are downsides to online education, however. One is the lack of social interaction with fellow students, and there also may not be any lecturer or guide to supervise your work. There are some fee-paying online courses, such as the Open University, which do provide lecturers and occasional tutorials with fellow students, but free courses generally do not provide these.  However, study circles, emails, chat rooms, message boards and social media can help to make up for this.

Another disadvantage is that you may not receive certification after completing a course, as there will have been no graded assignments or exams. Some courses do have an option where you can pay a fee to have your modules credited by a teacher. In the absence of accreditation it is still possible to convince a potential employer that you have done the work and that you know your subject – this will ultimately be up to you in any potential job interview. Remember also that many people barely scrape through regular college, so just because you have a piece of paper saying that you have a degree does not mean you are passionate about the field or would make a great employee.

It is also worth pointing out that a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education (Means et al., 2009) found that students in an online learning format actually tended to outperform students learning in a classroom environment.


To summarise, here is a list of the Pros and Cons of Free Online Courses:


  • No fee.
  • Flexibility with regard to time spent studying.
  • Hold down full-time job and study at the same time.
  • No entry requirements.
  • Ideal for those with young children or other commitments which require them to be at home.
  • No need to commute.
  • No need to leave home, or pay rent in another city.
  • Everything is accessed from a single computer.
  • Anyone with an interest in the subject can study it from the comfort of their own home.
  • Learning circles and social media can take the place of physical communication with fellow students.



  • No certification such as a diploma or degree.
  • Onus is on you to prove to potential employer that you have the knowledge and/or skills.
  • No social networking with other students.
  • No supervisors, lectures or guides.



Useful Links:

10 Free Education Websites that will expand your horizons

5 Places on the Internet where you can Educate yourself for Free

List of 40 Free Education Websites

MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses

MIT Open Courseware

250 Free Ivy League College Courses

Learning circles

List of Free books to download



This article is part of the Creative Commons and is free to publish under a cc licence.