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Plan Your Free Online Education At Lifehacker U

Your education doesn’t have to stop once you leave school and university — freedom from the classroom just means you have more control over what you learn and when you learn it. Gain new knowledge for the new year with our latest Lifehacker U listing of some of the best free classes available online

Picture by Luis Enrique Ascui/Getty Images

Orientation: What Is Lifehacker U?

As you may remember from previous Lifehacker U posts, many universities offer free classes year-round, but others are tied to a specific time period. We have assembled a list of courses available right now that will inspire you, challenge you, open the door to something new, and give you the tools to improve your life. Grab your pen and paper and make sure your battery is charged — class is in session!

Computer Science and Technology

  • University of Washington – Introduction to Computer Networks – Professors Arvind Krishnamurthy, David Wetherall, and John Zahorjan – Computer science and technology isn’t all programming — sometimes it’s about how computer systems relate to one another. this University of Washington course helps break down the concepts that many of us take for granted in common sense terms that are easily understood. This course will introduce you to concepts such as DNS, 802.11 and its lettered protocols, TCP/IP, HTTP and SSL. Additionally, you’ll get an understanding of how computer networks are designed for reliability and redundancy, and how the internet works. You’ll also get to design your own semi-hosted social networking application for your Android device by the end of the class.
  • MIT – Introduction to C++ – Professors Jesse Dunietz, Geza Kovacs, and John Marrero – If you’re looking for a starter programming language, C++ is a good one to pick. A number of university computer science programs still begin with C++, mostly as it’s a relatively easy language to learn and introduces foundational concepts that you’ll need for more frequently used and more complicated languages you’ll encounter later on. This MIT course is designed to be a rapid introduction to the language for people with little to no programming experience at all (although if you have experience, it will be easier.) You won’t need a lot of prerequisites here, but if you’ve been itching to learn to code, this course can help you do it at your own pace..
  • Udacity – Programming Languages (CS262) – Professor Westley Weimer – Maybe you’re interested in computer science and programming, but you don’t really have a grasp of all the languages out there. Perhaps you’re familiar with a language or two, but daunted by others. This course will help you cut through the fog and give you the fundamentals required to pick up any programming language. You won’t focus on just one language here — the emphasis is on concepts necessary to understand programming in general so you’re never faced with a language you can’t use logic to interpret.
  • University of California, Berkeley – CS184.1x: Foundations Of Computer Graphics – Professor Ravi Ramamoorthi – If you’re ready to get your hands into how computer graphics are generated, or if you’ve followed along with our 3D modelling Night School and would like to learn more, this Berkeley course is for you. You’ll need some maths skills and an understanding of C or C++ to keep up with the class, but if you have that, this course will teach you the fundamentals that a lot of “computer graphics” and “video game school” classes won’t teach you, including raytracing, OpenGL and transformations. If you’ve ever thought you were interested in game design or development, this course teaches skills that will serve you well in the long term
  • Carnegie Mellon University – Principles of Computing – The course description for this class says the goal is to show students that there’s more to computer science than simply writing code, and rightfully so. In this course you’ll learn elementary and conceptual principles of computing, including iterative processes, how data is represented in binary, recursion and recursive processes, and encryption and data security.
  • Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology – Android Development – Professor David Fisher – We highlighted Professor Fisher’s CSSE490 Android Development course last time around, but it’s been updated since then and is definitely worth a fresh look. The full course from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology will help you learn how to build Android applications from start to finish, from design and development to UI. The self-paced, skill-based lessons will help you build your first Android app quickly, and if you get lost, you can pick up supporting documentation on the web. We’ve linked to the most recent iteration of the course, but you can check out the previous version (with videos) at the 2011 course’s website, or over at Fisher’s YouTube channel.
  • MIT – Information and Entropy – Professors Paul Penfield and Seth Lloyd – This course aims to explore the ultimate limits of data communication technology, from the breakdown of digital signals and physical technologies to data compression challenges. You’ll explore topics such as biological representations of information systems, computing architectures, noise, error correction, and even quantum computation and the possibilities it holds over the course of the class. You’ll also be introduced to the concept of entropy in terms of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and how it applies to information technology.

Finance and Economics

  • Missouri State University – Personal Finance (iTunes U) – It’s a bit elementary, but everyone has to start somewhere. If you’re having trouble even setting a budget or getting started with the concept of credit and goal-setting, this is a great and completely free primer to help you get started. If you’ve been managing your own finances up to this point, you may not learn anything new, but it’s at the very least informative if you’ve been flying by the seat of your pants.
  • The Open University – You and Your Money: Personal Finance in Context (DB123) – Consumer debt is one of the biggest personal finance challenges most people struggle with, and this course from The Open University aims to put that struggle front and centre. The course examines how many people wrangle with their debt every day, and then offers up a complete picture of how debt — especially consumer debt — plays a role in larger economies.
  • University of Florida – Economic Issues, Food, and You – Professor Jennifer Clark – Economics plays a significant role in the production, growth, and distribution of food around the world, and not just in a “farmers and producers need to make money” way. This course examines the way economic factors influence the environment, food prices, government and regulatory policies, labour and food distribution. By the end of the class, you’ll have a better understanding of how scarcity and the rules of supply and demand determine whether or not the avocados at your supermarket are fresh or harvested entirely too early.

Science and Medicine

  • Udacity – Introduction to Physics – Professor Andy Brown – Have you ever wanted to visit Europe? Have you ever wanted to understand some of the basic physical concepts that explain how gravity works, or how we can measure the circumference of the Earth while we’re standing on it? This course will take you abroad to locations in Italy, the UK, and the Netherlands where some of the most basic, fundamental laws of physics were puzzled out, all with real world experiments that you can follow along with. You don’t need much maths here — some basic algebra will suffice, but the real thrill will be in seeing and understanding things like how objects move, what causes motion, and what electricity is.
  • The Open University – The Fundamental Forces of the Universe (iTunes U) – From electromagnetism to gravity, this course from The Open University is a primer to the physical forces that govern the interactions of matter in the universe for non-technical audiences. The video lessons will help you understand the practical implications and observations of these interactions in the real world, and by the end of the course you’ll have an understanding of how experiments at facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider are performed, as well as the forces at work in the cores of stars.
  • The University of Edinburgh – Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life – Professor Charles Cockell – Right now is an incredible time for astrobiologists. More and more earth-like planets are being discovered every day, with astronomers saying our galaxy could be crowded with billions of them. This course will get you up to speed on the current state of the search for extraterrestrial life, and what that really means and what reasonable scientists think they may find out there. The course starts with an understanding of how life even manages to persist in some of the most extreme and inhospitable environments here on Earth, environments that are equally common elsewhere in the universe, and what extraterrestrial life may look like when we actually find it. The course also examines the concept of intelligent alien life and the implications of its detection.
  • Yale University – BENG 100: Frontiers of Biomedical Engineering – Professor W. Mark Saltzman – If topics such as clinical trials, FDA approval, and advances in medicine and drug development interest you, this course is worth a look. Professor Saltzman walks you through how drugs are tested, developed, and ultimately approved, and examines some specific case studies to help you understand the often lengthy and test-heavy process that takes a drug from a test bench to a pharmacy shelf. The course also discusses recent advances in medical testing and biomedical engineering — which in many cases is the science of using biological processes, tissues, and organs to treat human conditions.
  • Duke University – Introduction to Human Physiology – Professors Emma Jakoi and Jennifer Carbrey – If you’ve ever wondered exactly how the human body works to keep all of its systems working and interacting in harmony, this intro to human physiology and anatomy will help you get a grip on the topic. You’ll learn about the body’s various systems, from the nervous to the circulatory to the endocrine, and you’ll get a better understanding of how those systems operate and communicate with one another to create a single living machine. The course is aimed at students with some understanding or background in human biology and aiming at careers in physical therapy or nursing, so keep that in mind when you sign up.
  • Yale University – MCDB 150: Global Problems of Population Growth – Professor Robert Wyman – Global population growth is a huge issue, one that most nations (not to mention the world as a whole) have no idea how to address. This course will highlight some of the major issues of the world’s growing population, especially in developing countries where populations are booming. Additionally, the course will examine human fertility, the cultural causes of demographic change, environmental sustainability, and of course the political, ethical, and religious issues around population growth and planning. The course is global in nature, so while there’ll be some focus on growing developing nations, there’ll also be conversations about the contracting populations of developed nations.

Mathematics

  • University of California, Irvine – Algebra – Professors Sarah Eichhorn and Rachel Cohen Lehman – A number of the mathematics classes we’ve focused on in the past have been conceptual in nature, aiming to teach maths based on real world experiments or exercises. This term, we’re going right for the basics with some serious maths classes that will teach you the real skills and theory you need for more advanced topics, starting with algebra. If your skills are rusty from high school, or you just never got a chance to master algebra, this self-paced course will help you learn what you need to know. You’ll start with the basics: variables, exponents, radicals. You’ll eventually move through polynomials, graphing, coordinates and quadratic functions. This is the real deal, so get ready to exercise your brain.
  • The Ohio State University – Calcululs One – Professor Jim Fowler – Calculus is required for a number of scientific concepts, from biology to astrophysics, and a number of the courses we highlight at Lifehacker U are much easier if you have some basic understanding of calculus. If you took high school algebra (or the algebra class we just mentioned!), you’re already ready for this class. You’ll begin with real-world examples of calculus in action, and Dr Fowler walks you through how the seemingly symbolic mathematics in calculus explain so many behaviours and observations in our everyday lives. By the end of the course, you’ll be taking derivatives and doing integrals with the best of them.
  • TED – Statistics: visualising Data (iTunes U) – This podcast series features a number of TED talks from people such as Hans Roy, Nic Marks, and Nathalie Miebach, all explaining how statistics — a concept so often used as a means to an end — is visible everywhere in the world, from storms to art to information design. By the end of this series, you’ll have a new appreciation for statistics and data collection, and you’ll be able to understand how those numbers are gathered, processed and presented.
  • The Open University/BBC – The CodeThe Code is actually a television series produced by The Open University and the BBC about mathematics in the real world. In the show, a “secret code” lies at the underpinnings of the universe and how it works, how forces much larger than us move, and how forces much smaller than we are interact. Over the course of the documentary, supplemented by a selection of games and exercises that are fun to play, you’ll unravel “the code” and begin to understand how mathematics truly is the universal language.

Social Sciences, Classics And Humanities

  • Wesleyan University – The Modern and the Postmodern – Professor Michael S. Roth – Have you ever wondered what terms like “modern” and “postmodern” really mean in fields such as design and architecture? This course examines when “modern” and “postmodern” become common currency, and what they mean when we we interpret, examine and analyse culture and cultural change.
  • Harvard – PH278x: Human Health and Global Environmental Change – Professors Aaron Bernstein and Jack Spengler – Global environmental change is one of the biggest challenges of our time, and left unchecked, there may be more than vanishing coastlines and rising sea levels to adapt to. This course examines the human health concerns that tie into climate change around the globe, including biodiversity loss, which can impact the health of billions of people worldwide and create new habitats for illnesses and disease vectors that were never present in the past. The course also examines the challenge for health professionals around the world to adapt to a changing environment.
  • Harvard University – CB22x: The Ancient Greek Hero – Professor Gregory Nagy – From Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey to Blade Runner, this course takes us back and forth through time to examine the Greek Hero, his attributes, his flaws, and his story, and how that same story has been told, adapted and retold over thousands of years. The course starts with the Homeric poems, and walks through ancient literature like the songs of Sappho all the way up to present day treatments of the epic hero and the cult of the hero that, to this day, surrounds our natural love for brave and endearing protagonists that we can relate to.

Law

  • Harvard University – Justice – Professor Michael Sandel – Nearly a thousand students pack the lecture halls at Harvard every year to hear Dr. Sandel talk about justice, and how the concept has evolved and changed over the millennia. The ethics of fair treatment, the beginnings of the justice system, the line between the freedom to choose and the responsibility of the state to protect, the moral side of murder, and even a good conversation about cannibalism are all integral to the topic at hand and discussed in this wide-reaching course. By the end, you may find yourself questioning some of your longest held beliefs, and that’s a good thing — confirmation bias will not be well-served in this class.
  • The Open University – Justice, Vengeance and Forgiveness (iTunes U) – The law and justice is more than just a process of society punishing criminals for violating our social norms, it’s also an intricate process of forgiveness, rehabilitation and ultimately social vengeance against those who have committed crimes. This course examines those topics, along with what exactly we mean as a society when we discuss “justice”, and different interpretations of the best approach to criminal justice, from ancient societies to today.
  • Liberty University – Computer and Cyber Forensics (iTunes U) – This podcast series will examine federal information security and cyber crime laws, examine case studies in cyber forensics, ethical considerations as an investigator in digital forensics, and the tools of the trade. If you’ve been interested in getting involved with information forensics and the legal concepts surrounding the discipline, this crash course is worth a look.

Cross-Disciplinary Courses And Seminars

  • Udacity – HTML5 Game Development (CS255) – Professors Colt McAnlis, Peter Lubbers, and Sean Bennett – If you’re interested in game development, especially for the web, this class is a must-take. It hasn’t started yet and there’s still time to sign up to take it as it’s being offered. Over the course of the class, you’ll learn how to build an HTML5-based game, and actually build one yourself before the end of the class. You’ll walk away with the principles required to build your own, including 2D canvasing and techniques to improve game performance for your players.
  • University of Michigan – Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World – Professor Eric Rabkin – If you’re a science fiction fan or fantasy buff, this class will help you understand not just why you’re so drawn to the genre personally, but also why sci-fi and fantasy have such a profound impact on society as a whole. Every culture around the globe has its own fantasy and science fiction stories. This course examines those stories, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Avatar.
  • University of Virginia – Know Thyself – Professor Mitchell Green – The Delphic Oracle had two oft-repeated messages for those who would seek her advice: “Nothing in excess” and “Know thyself”. This course examines the latter statment in terms of philosophy, psychology, religion and neuroscience. The course also aims to test the limits of one’s possible understanding of oneself from a philosophical perspective.
  • MIT – Introduction to Video Game Studies – Professor Clara Fernandez-Vara – This look at video games is more than just a crash course in playing them, but also in the art and design of gaming, the aesthetics of video games, the economy of video games and entertainment, and more. The course will challenge you to not just play video games, but to do so after reading current research into the industry and its mechanisms and influences. No programming is required.
  • The University of London – The Camera Never Lies – Professor Emmett Sullivan – This course examines historical documentation and interpretation in an age of film, photographs and modern photojournalism. The course also discusses films and movies based on actual historical events and how those movies, documentary and fiction alike, shape our perspectives on what really happened. The course will also touch on issues of authenticity and the manipulation of photos and film going back generations.

Extra Credit: How To Find Your Own Online Classes

The curriculum at Lifehacker U is rich and deep, but it may not reflect all of your areas of interests or expertise. If you’re looking for more or more varied course material, here are some resources to help you find great, university-level online classes that you can take from the comfort of your desk, at any time of day.

  • Academic Earth curates an amazing list of video seminars and classes from some of the world’s smartest minds, innovators and leaders on a variety of topics including science, mathematics, politics, public policy, art and history.
  • TED talks are well known for being thought-provoking, interesting, intelligent, and in many cases, inspiring and informative. We’ve featured TED talks at Lifehacker before, and if you’re looking for seminars on the web worth watching, TED is worth perusing.
  • Education-Portal.com has a list of universities offering free and for-credit online classes to students and the public at large.
  • Open Culture’s list of free online courses is broken down by subject matter and includes classes available on YouTube, iTunes U, and direct from the University or School’s website.
  • The Open Courseware Consortium is a collection of colleges and universities that have all agreed to use a similar platform to offer seminars and full classes — complete with notes, memos, examinations and other documentation free on the web. They also maintain a great list of member schools around the world, so you can visit universities anywhere in the world and take the online classes they make available.
  • The Khan Academy offers free YouTube-based video classes in maths, science, technology, the humanities, and test preparation and study skills. If you’re looking to augment your education or just take a couple video classes in your spare time, it’s a great place to start and has a lot of interesting topics to offer.
  • The University of Reddit is a crowd-built set of classes and seminars by Reddit users who have expertise to share. Topics range from computer science and programming to paleontology, narrative poetry and Latin. Individuals interested in teaching classes regularly post to the University of Reddit subthread to gauge interest in future courses and announce when new modules are available.
  • iTunes U hosts podcasts, seminars, lectures and full collections of entire courses from universities around the globe, including many of the ones listed above. Enjoy courses from Stanford, Duke, Harvard and more, all from the comfort of your desktop, or on the go with the iTunes U app for iOS.
  • The Lifehacker Night School is our own set of tutorials and classes that help you out with deep and intricate subjects like becoming a better photographer, building your own computer or getting to know your network, among others.

The beautiful thing about taking classes online is that you can pick and choose the classes you want to attend, skip lectures and come back to them later, and do examinations and exercises on your own time. You can load up with as many classes as you choose, or take a light course load and come back to some of the classes you meant to take at another time that’s more convenient for you.

If you have online course resources or your university offers classes that are available for free online that you know would be a great fit for Lifehacker U, don’t keep them to yourself — share them in the comments.


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