Updated on 11.02.14

Online Learning: College Without the Degree (or the Cost)

There's more to a good education than just getting a degree.

Coursera app

You can get a college-level education online, often for free — you just won’t get a degree. Photo: Coursera

Online learning is revolutionizing education. Most of us take for granted that we have access to an incredible array of learning resources right at our fingertips.

But what’s the point?

Unfortunately, we live with a slightly distorted view of what education is and how it works. We go to college not to learn, but to get a degree. We get a degree to get a job.

We’re forgetting to embrace learning itself and the actual education.

The online options below don’t offer traditional college degrees, but they do come with great benefits you’d be foolish to ignore. Here are some of the ways you can benefit from these online learning resources:

  • Learn or improve upon skills that could build your resume and help you excel at current job or qualify for a better one.
  • Gain expertise in a new skill or hobby that could help you start a part-time job or side business for extra income.
  • In lieu of degrees, many programs offer certificates of completion or accomplishment, adding to your professional qualifications.
  • If you plan on heading to college in the future, taking online courses ahead of time can save you money: You may be able to test out of certain classes.
  • If you’re currently in college, online learning resources can provide supplemental education to help you pass a class. Failing, of course, results in wasted money and time, but a good GPA can help you earn scholarships and looks great on a resume or graduate school application.

Online Learning Resources


Udemy offers more than 20,000 online courses, including completely free courses and those with a fee. Topics include IT and software, marketing, photography, health, design, teacher training, academics, and language. A few examples of courses are HTML5 Programming, Java Tutorial for Beginners, Principals of Pain Management, Introduction to Microsoft Project, and How to Use a Photographic Light Meter.

To learn more, visit Udemy.com.

Khan Academy

Totally free, Khan Academy offers courses in a wide variety of subjects, including math (K-2 all the way to differential calculus), science, biology, chemistry, astronomy, arts and humanities, and computer programming, as well as test-prep resources for exams including the SAT, MCAT, and GMAT. Khan Academy has also partnered with NASA, museums, orchestras, and Stanford School of Medicine to provide free lessons on related topics.

To start learning, visit Khan Academy.

Better Money Habits

If your goal is learn more about personal finance, check out this partnership between Khan Academy and Bank of America aimed at educating people about their money.

You can start by choosing a goal, such as paying down student loans, reducing credit card debt, refinancing your home, or improving your credit score, then watch a sequence of free video tutorials on your chosen topic. Or you can dive right to the individual videos, such as how to make a budget and stick to it, an explanation of student loans, ways to build credit, and the mortgage process.

Start learning at BetterMoneyHabits.com.


Skillshare is described as an “online learning community to master real-world skills through project-based classes.” Topics include copywriting, photo retouching, architecture, animation, blogging, business development, baking, CSS, electrical, public speaking, engineering, fashion illustration, and jewelry design. There are plenty of courses on computer software such as Adobe products, Final Cut Pro, JavaScript, Excel, and WordPress.

You can use the site for free, but your usage is limited to one hour per month and the ability to participate in community discussions. For $9.99 per month, you’ll get unlimited video access with no advertisements.

To learn more, visit Skillshare.com.


Coursera partnered with universities and organizations to provide college-level, quality content for eager learners around the world. You can watch short video lectures, take interactive quizzes, and complete peer assessments for 846 courses.

You can join for free, or pay a fee to earn a verified certificate for your work. For example, it’s $49 for Fundamentals of Global Energy Business taught by an instructor from University of Colorado. Other available classes include Microeconomics Principals from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Grow to Greatness: Smart Growth for Private Business from University of Virginia, and Child Nutrition and Cooking 2.0 from Stanford University.

Learn more at Coursera.org.


If you’ve been putting off learning a second language because of the cost, Duolingo’s got you covered. It’s a free way to learn a new language with interactive lessons. Dulingo is also available as a mobile app, so you can practice during downtime. You can also certify your English proficiency for $20, which, according to the company’s website, is far less than the average cost of an English proficiency exam.

Visit Duolingo for more information.

MIT OpenCourseWare

You can check out course content from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology online for free. Categories include business, engineering, energy, health and medicine, fine arts, humanities, mathematics, social science, and teaching and education.

Some of the most popular courses include The Art and Science of Negotiation, Working in a Global Economy, Real Estate Economics, Entrepreneurial Marketing, Introduction to Computer Science and Programming, Documentary Photography and Photojournalism, Psychology of Gender, Introduction to Japanese Culture, Managerial Psychology, and Principals of Human Disease. You can even learn a foreign language with classes on German, Portuguese, and Chinese.

Start learning at MIT OpenCourseWare.


This tech-focused website offers more than 1,000 videos to help you sharpen your technology skills and learn new ones. Courses include Publish an Android App, Moving from WordPress.com to Self-Hosted WordPress.org, Python Collections, PHP Basics, How to Start a Business, and Getting Started with WordPress, just to name a few.

You can take advantage of their free trial for 14 days. After that, if you’ve got more to learn, it’s $25 a month for access to all videos, live practice with the Code Challenge Engine, and a members-only forum. For $49 per month, you’ll also get to view workshops, interviews, and lectures by industry professionals.

Check out Teamtreehouse.com for more information.


This partnership between Harvard and MIT offers courses from both plus other notable universities such as Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Georgetown, without the student loan debt usually associated with a top-notch education. Most courses are about 12 weeks and include lectures, interactive learning, and an active discussion board; some courses may come with a prerequisite and a time commitment. It’s completely free, but some courses could have a small fee if you want a verified certificate.

Music, medicine, philosophy and ethics, history, food and nutrition, and environmental studies are just a handful of the eclectic subjects offered. Courses range from the Psychology of Criminal Justice to Introduction to Game Design, among many more.

For more information, check out Edx.org.

OEDb (Open Education Database)

This database offers both free and for-credit learning options from accredited online programs, including prestigious universities such as University of Michigan and John Hopkins University.

See what courses interest you at OEDb.org.


TedTALKS isn’t a course, but it’s definitely a great, free educational tool. TedTALKS features thousands of videos from professionals, experts in their fields, and other speakers. Their tagline is “Ideas worth Spreading,” and they deliver on it.

Learn about everything from ocean life to mathematics, from linguistics to food and nutrition. Videos include: The Hidden Force in Global Economics, The State of Climate – and What to Do About It, and Which Country Does the Most Good for the World.

There’s a slew of videos that are not only educational and informative, but also inspiring and beneficial to everyday life. Inspiring titles include: Why Thinking You’re Ugly Is Bad for You, The Simple Power of Hand-Washing, One More Reason to Get a Good Night’s Sleep, How to Live Passionately – No Matter Your Age, Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are, The Career Advice You Probably Didn’t Get, and The Surprising Science of Happiness.

Start viewing at Ted.com.

Academic Earth

Academic Earth has more than 750 online courses and 8,500 online lectures from top colleges, including Princeton, Carnegie Mellon, California Institute of Technology, Berklee College of Music, The University of Chicago, and Yale.

Check them out at AcademicEarth.org.


This website takes the guesswork out of what skills or courses you should learn to make yourself more marketable in the tech field. In fact, the companies you want to work for are designing the courses. Udacity teaches in-demand tech skills from professionals working at the best companies in Silicon Valley, such as Google, AT&T, Facebook, and Clouder.

Choose from categories like data science, Android, software engineering, Web development, or even non-tech classes exploring entrepreneurship, design, and math. You can earn what’s called a Nanodegree, which takes six to twelve months, in categories such as Front-End Wed Developer, iOS Developer, Back-End Web Developer, and Data Analyst.

Check it out at Udacity.com.

Microsoft Virtual Academy

The Microsoft Virtual Academy offers free Microsoft training by experts. Hundreds of courses are taught in 11 different languages in an effort to help developers and IT professionals build their skills and advance their careers. Search by products such as Windows, Visual Studio, Microsoft Azure, Office 365 for IT pros, SharePoint, Lync, and more. Or you can search by topics including HTML5, business intelligence, server infrastructure, app development, cloud development, licensing, mobile development, and more.

Start learning at Microsoft Virtual Academy.

U.S. Small Business Administration

The U.S. Government provides educational videos and courses for those starting or running a small business. Topics include: How to Write a Business Plan, Strategies for Growth, Marketing Advice, What is Business Income, Recordkeeping, Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights.

Learn more on the SBA website.

Foundation Center

The Foundation Center is a database filled with information on philanthropy. Quick tutorials include Proposal Writing, Guide to Funding Research, and Establishing a Nonprofit Organization. Online training courses include Introduction to Fundraising Planning, Introduction to Corporate Giving, and more.

Learn more on their website.

Media Bistro

This website is a great tool for anyone interested in media. Education reaches beyond TV and video to include social media, advertising and PR, publishing, design, and tech issues. For a cost, you can take courses such as Instagram Marketing, Brand Writing, Management 101, Grammar, Blogging: Analytics, SEO and Content, Public Relations, and Freelance Magazine Writing.

Also useful, there are plenty of free how-to videos including How to Build an Online Portfolio, How to Write for SEO, and 10 Digital Media Skills Journalists Need to Know.

Learn more at MediaBistro.com.

Free Online Courses at Universities

Many college students, unfortunately, are probably more focused getting that piece of paper at the end than the actual education they’re receiving. It’s easy to take the opportunity for granted.

If you made that mistake in college, or never got the chance to go in the first place, take advantage of the opportunity to learn for free with courses online. Many colleges offer free access to readings, project examples, lecture notes, videos, and more for thousands of courses. Here are just a handful of colleges that offer this amazing opportunity:

What are some other ways you learn online? Tell us about your favorite online resources, and if you’ve tried any of the courses mentioned in this post.

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