Amy Potthast | Instructional Coach & Designer | Learning Design Studios


Laptop keyboard for online learning

From baddog_ on Flickr

Having just finished grad school, I am in the habit of studying at the feet of masters, and learning amazing new things. So I am thrilled to discover a surge in new elearning platforms whose aims are to expose me to new knowledge.

Coursera: is a platform offering over 100 courses from major universities on a wide range of topics. With Coursera, you register on the site, then you can sign up for any courses — most of which look to be five to eight weeks long, and are scheduled through mid-2013.

For example, I signed up for a stats course that’s to begin in September.

What’s refreshingly unique about Coursera is that you actually get readings and homework — in addition to watching lectures by your professor.

Some courses even send you a certificate of completion at the end.

iTunes U:

Many universities have uploaded audio and video recordings of course lectures on a huge variety of topics, which you can download or stream from the Apple iTunes Store (navigate to iTunes U inside the “store”). Some of these courses offer supplemental course materials, and some don’t. No homework is involved, and no one but you will know if you completed a course.

One advantage of iTunes U courses is that non-academic departments on a campus — for example a career services office — can share non-credit workshop recordings and lectures through the platform. It’s not just for-credit coursework that’s offered.

Another thing I like about iTunes U is that you sometimes get to hear comments and responses from students (especially if the professor asks a lot of questions).

A final (maybe obvious) benefit of iTunes U is that the lectures are easy to listen to on the go, on your iPad or iPod for example.

Khan Academy:

Khan Academy features short beginning and refresher video lectures on a range of academic topics. Through the Khan Academy app, the lectures are easy to access for mobile users.


TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, is a collection of video-recorded multimedia presentations from all over the world, often featuring people on the cutting edge of their field.

I’ve watched TED (and TEDx, which are local, independently-organized TED events) presentations on YouTube, NetFlix, and the TED iPad app on subjects as varied as Khan Academy (see above) to robotics to personal branding.

One giant advantage of TED lectures is that they’ve been vetted — it’s not like attending conference lectures, where any given presenter might be (surprise!) boring. Most TED presenters offer something redeeming — humor, gripping content, quick pace.

A related benefit of watching TED at home is that you can turn a video off if you find that it’s not your cup of tea after watching a bit of it.

Learnist is a new social learning platform, still in beta (as of this writing). (Email me at amypotthast[at] for an invitation to join, or request an invitation from the site.)

Similar to pinning images to a board on Pinterest, Learnist allows you to browse curated, multimedia educational content on boards that other people have created. You can also create your own board and curate content (video, images, text) on topics you know about.

Like many social apps, you can login to Learnist using Facebook, and Learnist updates your Facebook timeline (unless you tell the app not to) with your Learnist activity, so your friends see what you’re learning about.

Of course if you’re confused about how to use Learnist, you can always check out the learning board on Learnist called How to Use Learnist.

Caveats to all these platforms

Before you drop out of your brick & mortar school (the kind that charges tuition), let me warn you that most of these free elearning opportunities operate under the notion that listening, watching and/or reading equals learning, and they therefore rely heavily on lecture with some slideshow support.

For me, some benefit of a lecture are that the speaker — an expert — has made decisions about what to include and what to leave out; and the speaker can communicate facts and anecdotes efficiently.

Some downsides of the lecture are that it does not typically allow for skills practice, or ongoing learner assessment (because of the lack of interaction between lecturer and listener), and they can be boring.

To get the most out of any lecture, find ways to re-expose yourself to the content in the weeks and months following it:

  • take notes and be sure to review them later (a few days, a week, a month, etc.)
  • review the video/audio again after a few days or a week
  • reflect on what you learned in a blog post or journal entry
  • tell a friend what you learned.

You, there!

Have you used any of the platforms mentioned here? Do you have others that you rely on? What’s been your experience with these online nonformal learning pursuits?


Comments on: "5 ways to learn online — for free" (10)

  1. Barbara Davis said:

    Amy, this is a wonderful resource. Us ‘older’ folks would love to take courses and continue learning, and to be able to keep our minds active and FREE is awesome. I started taking the course on the Moon from iTunes University. Can’t wait to look into some of the others. Will be sure to share.

    • Amy Potthast said:

      Oh good! I want to hear how you like the moon course. I like learning about the Tudor dynasty in various ITunes U courses…so many history-shaping things took place during those years. Thank you for reading!


  2. My wife has been using iTunes U to get back into practice with Calculus. I continue to use to learn new software and keep on top of changes to old favorites. Of course, in NOT free so it doesn’t really fit with your article.

    • Amy Potthast said:

      I’m glad you brought up Lynda because it’s one of my favorite online learning sites. It’s not free, like you wrote, but I should write another blog post about learning platforms that are subscription or fee based. Please let me know if you think of others that fit in that category. Thanks so much for reading!

  3. jill lomax said:

    I used Khan Academy for a statistics course that I took two years ago… It was really helpful! I actually came across it while trying to find math tips on youtube. I’d be interested in coursera. In addition, my mom, who loves to learn, is buying her first computer… Im going to tell her about these learning platforms! Nothing like learning for free!

    • Amy Potthast said:

      Thank you! I haven’t used Khan to supplement other formal learning, but that’s what it started as, a way to tutor long distance. I love it that you looked on YouTube to get stats help! Brilliant. I only thought of that for knitting.

      Thank you for reading!

  4. HB Lozito said:

    Thanks, Amy! I just signed up for “Learn to Program: The Fundamentals” on Coursera. There’s also the MIT platform (which I’m sure you know about…) OpenCourseWare! No homework for most courses…and generally i don’t think they’re live but a good archive of MIT courses. I’ve heard they’re looking to expand in the future and may start offering certificates for completed coursework as well.

    • Amy Potthast said:

      Good tip! I didn’t know about that one. I will check it out … My son loves MIT + robotics so I’ll see if there’s anything about that! Thanks!

  5. Erin Neff said:

    Great suggestions for quality on-line learning opportunities. I heard of Coursera for the first time the other day while watching Daphne Koller speak of it during a TED talk. TED is also an incredible resource that I have barely tapped. I look forward to watching more of what they have to offer.
    What’s fascinating about Coursera is that they are able to gather data on how students interact with the online program to improve the learning experience. Koller even mentioned how several students presented certificates of completion of courses taken at Coursera to get better jobs and some universities/colleges give students school credit for some of the classes they have completed in this way. Very cool.
    I also appreciate your suggestions of ways to solidify the learning by telling others about it or journaling. Even watching or listening to the information a second time would be helpful for me. I was giving myself a hard time the other day about not being able to recall a news story I had heard on the radio that had piqued my interest. Reflecting upon my study habits in graduate school, I remembered that I didn’t immediately grasp the material the first time I read it or heard it. I reread it, wrote it down, discussed it with peers and then it stuck (usually!). Your suggestion to interact with the material and repeat it really resonated with me.

    • Amy Potthast said:

      Hi Erin,
      Yay! Thanks for reading! You might like a book called Brain Rules, which describes different ways (like exercise, sleep) to get your brain to work better…John Medina talks about re-exposing yourself to material episodically. Ruth Colvin Clark writes about similar things, in terms of educating adults.

      Okay I’ll look up the Ted talk on Coursera! Good tip! I saw one by the Khan Academy guy. Maybe I’ll embed them in the blog post.


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