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Get a free education online: Learning at the library

Don't let clichés about elderly canines and their supposed inability to grasp new concepts fool you; you're never too old (or too young) to learn, and in this increasingly connected world, scrounging up a free education online is actually a relatively simple affair. What's that? You don't have an Internet connection at home? Don't sweat it! Just head down to your local library and plop down in front of one of their freely available computers.

We've already covered the best online college classes available, as well as the top gratis audiobook and podcast resources. Most of those should be available at the library, though strict time limits of computer usage time could cut some of those lessons short.

Here, we'll focus on free online educational resources that offer briefer—yet still highly informative—experiences more conducive to the 45 minute to one hour time limits set by major metropolitan libraries. Don't forget to bring your headphones! Most libraries enforce a strict code of silence by requiring video watchers to pop in some ear buds.


Khan Academy's Lebron Asks

No talk about autodidactic learning would be complete without mentioning the venerable Khan Academy. Founded by MIT and Harvard Business School graduate Salman Khan in 2006, Khan Academy offers a deep selection of 3- to 10-minute educational videos covering a wide swath of topics, including abundant math, science, and economics segments. You'll also find basic humanities lessons, and the site began offering computer science tutorials earlier this year.

People on the road to formal education will appreciate the extensive test preparation assistance available, while casually geeky types may prefer fun clips such as the futility of dividing by zero or the "Lebron Asks" science series.

Khan Academy doesn't stop with videos, though. The site also includes progress tracking and practice exercises based on skill level, ensuring you're picking up the practical skills taught by the easy-to-digest clips.

YouTube: More than just Epic Meal Time

Khan Academy delivers the educational goods for viewers from all walks of life, but a lot of its materials are geared more toward advanced high school-level knowledge and below. YouTube's Education channel, on the other hand, covers the full spectrum of knowledge, from basic videos covering kindergarten-level skills to full lectures from top university professors.

YouTube's Education Channel

No matter whether you need a lesson in counting by ones or an introduction to lasers and fiber optics, YouTube Education has you covered. We loved finding in-depth explanations of niche topics like the science of dreaming and Latin American revolutions.

Even better, the Education channel's excellent organization makes drilling down to find the information you need easy-peasy. YouTube sorts the videos by education level, then by topic (math, science, business, engineering, and "lifelong learning"), then even further by subtopics such as statistics, calculus, and algebra. It's a wonderful setup, and you'll find Khan Academy clips worked into the mix.

Now for the downsides.

Unlike Khan Academy, the videos on YouTube originate from a myriad of sources, which muddies the waters when you're trying to figure out which video to watch next to progress your knowledge systematically. Also, while the vast majority of YouTube Education's videos are nothing short of top-notch, some are of a more… questionable quality. Don't get us wrong; YouTube Education is an absolutely tremendous resource. It's just a bit rough around the edges.

A virtual classroom for geeks

If you're looking for a more structured approach to learning and a higher level of learning than Khan Academy typically offers, check out Udacity, which includes regimented coursework similar to what you'd find in a formal college course, but for none of the cost.

Udacity is the brainchild of computer science professor Sebastian Thrun, who led the Stanford team that developed Stanley, the robotic car than won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. Udacity offers14 different geek-centric courses, starting with basics like "Introduction to Physics," to intermediate courses such as "How to Build a Startup," and culminating in advanced programs that teach you how to program AI for a robo-car or use Nvidia's CUDA technology to harness the power of GPUs, amongst other things. Heady stuff.

And when we say courses, we mean courses; Udacity's programs are split into multiple units, each containing short lectures, quizzes, exercises, and homework assignments with no set deadlines to accommodate today's fast-paced world, but Udacity graduates say the work involved is no joke. Kevin Charles Redmon took Udacity's "Building a Search Engine" course and reports that despite it being an introductory course, the program proved detailed and difficult—but intensely informative. Only one out of every ten students in his class managed to stick it out to the final exam.

Udacity certification.

If you manage to last until the end, you're assured to have learned your chosen subject inside and out. Depending on your final exam grade, you'll even receive a certificate of completion indicating your knowledge level. Some courses offer certified exams that you can show off to employers, but those cost extra.

And if you really, truly manage to shine, it might just pay off in a big way: Udacity works with "over 20 high tech companies" to help land outstanding students jobs in their chosen fields. Imagine that: Learning at the library could turn into an honest-to-goodness job at Google or Facebook.

Crowdsourcing knowledge

The Wikimedia Foundation's quest to bring crowdsourced knowledge to the masses doesn't begin and end with Wikipedia. The organization also funds Wikiversity, a project "devoted to learning resources, learning projects, and research for use in all levels, types, and styles of education from preschool to university, including professional training and informal learning."

Wikiversity holds a wealth of information categorized into education level, general topics, and subtopics, all of which can be searched using a number of different filtering methods. To be honest, it's a bit overwhelming and difficult to navigate, especially if you're used to Khan Academy and YouTube Education's well-designed sites.

It's worth the trouble, however. Since it's maintained by passionate contributors, Wikiversity espouses on a much wider range of topics than most other online education resources, ranging from basic reading, writing, and arithmetic to oddballs like stellar evolution, dentistry, and "Media information cognition." There's a lot of stuff here, folks, and it's ambitious to say the least. The site even offers resources in line with what you'd find at a traditional school, such as curated courses with progressive learning schemes, assigned Wikibooks reading, handouts, presentations, and essay ideas.


Unfortunately, the ambitious crowdsourced design sometimes bites off more than it can chew. While some of the courses and lessons offer polished materials of university-level quality (check out Historical Introduction to Philosophy!), a large number of the courses and individual pages lie dormant and half-finished, especially if you delve into niche topics. Also, while most of the resources here are fully legit, keep in mind that schools typically don't allow Wikipedia as a source for a reason.

Our recommendation? Scope out a course before you fully invest your energy in it, and if you're looking for a detailed education on a topic, stick to the courses found in the Completed Resources and Nearly Completed Resources lists.

Como se dice "Learn a New Language" en Español?

Aspiring world travels don't need to invest in costly language courses to learn a second tongue; the San Francisco Public Library offers its patrons access to Rosetta Stone Online Language Lessons for the low, low price of absolutely free. Rosetta Stone software normally costs hundreds of dollars.

To take advantage of the amazing offer, sign in here. After you enter your PIN and the barcode number on your library card, you'll be asked to create a Rosetta Stone Online account. BrokeAssStuart reports that full 19-unit courses are available in Mandarin, French, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean and Spanish, while primers in English, Italian, Greek, German, and Russian stick to three-unit tutorials.

The goodness doesn't end there. Any California resident can swing by a San Francisco Public Library location and sign up for a library card, even if you don't actually live in the city. Plus, the tutorials can be accessed by any computer with an Internet connection—not just PCs at the library proper.

Update We've been told that the Rosetta Stone program is no longer available through the SFPL, however, the Library still offers language learning through the Gate PowerSpeak and Mango Languages programs, which you can access here.

Kicking it old skool, new skool style

Project Gutenberg books.

Finally, don't forget you're at a library. Read a book! Or rather, read an ebook! Online services like Project Gutenberg, Textbook Revolution, the Library of Congress and the aforementioned Wikibooks all offer awesome freely downloadable titles, though they can be a bit dated.

Most libraries also let their patrons check out more current ebooks to their ereaders, if you have one. The New York Public Library, for example, offers over 30,000 ebooks, a great many of which are modern titles.

You're only getting started, Padawan

What, you've learned all you could from Khan Academy, taught yourself Spanish, earned a certificate in programming autonomous automobiles and even brushed up on astrophysics at Wikiversity? You must be on a first name basis with your librarian. Fortunately, the options we covered are only a small fraction of the free resources available for autodidactic learners.

University of Reddit

If you're looking for a bigger challenge, check out Coursera, Academic Earth, Google Code University, or even the University of Reddit. (Seriously!) Heck, you can even take free online courses in theology. There's a whole world of information available at your fingertips down at the local library. Take advantage of it!

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