Plan Your Free Education At Lifehacker U

As the cold weather sets in, staying indoors becomes the norm. Rather than rotting your brain in front of bad television, why not take time to educate yourself with a free online course? We’ve rounded up some of the best current options from around the globe. Welcome to our latest Lifehacker U guide.

Picture by Bethany Khan

Orientation: What Is Lifehacker U?

There are an incredible number of free, university-level courses that become available on the web every year, and anyone with a little time and a passion for self-growth can audit, read, and “enrol” in these courses for their own personal benefit.

Some of these classes are available year-round, but many of them are only available during the a specific term or semester, and because we’re all about helping you improve your life at Lifehacker, we put together 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

  • Codeacademy: Codeacademy made waves by offering great development tutorials but saw a surge at the beginning of the year with its Learn to Code in 2012 promotion. It’s a great way to learn a valuable skill like programming, and Codeacademy is willing to teach you at your own pace, entirely for free. If you can get your friends to participate, you can even work with them or compete with them for badges and awards.
  • Stanford University – Introduction to Computer Science | Programming Methodology – Professor Mehran Sahami: If you’re looking to learn how to code, you’ll want to pick up some of the fundamentals and theory to bolster whatever language you choose to learn. Dr Sahami walks students through one of the largest introductory computer science courses at Stanford and will show you how understanding the basics of computer science can be useful in all disciplines, whether you plan to be a developer or you’re a social scientist looking for easier ways to manage data. Designed for a lightly technical audience with no previous programming experience.
  • UC Berkeley – Computer Science 10 – Professor Dan Garcia: Updated for a new term and a new audience, Dr Garcia’s classic introduction to computer science and computing in our society takes students through topics like algorithms and how businesses around the globe use them to predict almost everything, 3D graphics and video games and how they’re developed, social media and communications, social implications of computing, and what the future of computing holds. Designed for lightly technical audiences.
  • Udacity – CS 101: Building a Search Engine – Professor David Evans and Sarah Norell: Designed for audiences with no prior programming experience, this course will walk you through the fundamentals of computer science, how search engines like Google work, how they were developed and built, and finally walk you through the process of building your own search engine, complete with a web crawler and index of highly ranked web pages.
  • University of California, Irvine – Computer Science 171: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence – Professor Max Welling: A primer on how artificial intelligences work, and not in the sci-fi sense (although there’s more on that later in the class.) You’ll study informed and uninformed search, logic, probability, learning and other programmable characteristics in self-improving systems in this course. Designed for somewhat technical audiences.
  • Stanford University – iPad and iPhone App Development (iTunes U) – Professor Paul Hegarty: If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to build an iOS app, now’s your chance. The entire course is a set of free lessons and lectures you can subscribe to in iTunes U, download and follow at your own pace, complete with exercises and reference materials to help you build your own app from start to finish. You’ll need some prior programming experience to make the most of the course though.

Finance and Economics

  • University of California, San Diego – ECON 101: International Trade – Professor James Rauch: Distributed in weekly podcast form, this primer to international trade comes without tests, quizzes or documentation, but it makes for an amazing listen as you learn about how products move across borders, how governments react to price and currency pressures, and both the political and social implications of multinational companies, their growth and their expanding reach.
  • MIT – Economic History of Financial Crises – Professor Peter Temin: The financial crisis that started in 2008 and 2009 has been a long slog, but looking at it through the eyes of economic history is a great way to make sure similar mistakes don’t happen again. This course offers a historical perspective on financial panics through history, including the Great Depression, the Japanese stagnation, the first oil crisis and the economic downturn of 2008.

Science and Medicine

  • Tufts University – Physics for Humanists – Professor Gary R. Goldstein: If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about physics — the science that seeks to understand and explain the very mechanisms behind the universe — but you’ve been daunted by all of the mathematics required, this course is for you. Physics for humanists will walk you through the history of modern physics, major players in physical science over the past hundred years, what their discoveries mean in a big-picture sense, and how far we have to go. The course is designed for people intellectually curious about physics, and covers topics like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Schrödinger’s Cat, General and Special Relativity, and even the interaction between physics and society in areas such as nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.
  • Imperial College of London – Physics: A collection of lectures from multiple professors, this series of free courses will walk you through recent discoveries, research and progress made by physicists around the world. Topics include the search for the Higgs Boson, the now-famous study that posited neutrinos may be faster than light (later discovered to be mechanical error in the experiment), new testing methods in environmental science, the future of fusion-based nuclear energy, and solar effects on climate.
  • HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College – Astronomy 103: Introduction to Planetary Astronomy/Astronomy 104: Introduction to Stellar Astronomy – Professor Robert Wagner: These two courses will definitely take up some time, but as someone who has a physics degree and an astronomy degree, I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t offer you both. The Planetary Astronomy course will walk you through the solar system, from the sun all the way out to the Kuiper Belt, current research being done close to home, and the new things we’re learning about the planets in our own solar system every day. The Stellar Astronomy course will take you thousands or millions of light years away to learn about some of the mysteries of the universe, like dark matter, black holes, and even tackle Astrobiology and Earth-like planets elsewhere in the cosmos.
  • Johns Hopkins University – Principles of Human Nutrition – Professor Benjamin Caballero: Before you sign on with the latest diet craze, take some time to develop an understanding of human nutrition from start to finish. Topics in the course include where to get the essential nutrients for the body to remain healthy, how daily recommended intake levels are calculated, why proper nutrition is so important, and the varying signs of malnutrition, and how diet plays a role in the development of long-term illnesses and other chronic conditions.
  • University of California, San Diego – BIMM 134: The Biology of Cancer – Dr Jean Wang: Professor Wang walks through the biological underpinnings of cancer, the various types of cancer, the various treatments and wide array of research being done into even the most specific types of cancer, and why cancer is so tough to beat. The course is distributed as a podcast you can subscribe to, and while some prior knowledge of biology will be extremely helpful, you’ll be able to pick up a lot without it.
  • Johns Hopkins University – Sexual Health, HIV/STI and Human Rights – Professor Chris Beyrer: Dr Beyrer’s course walks through the delicate intersection between human rights, sexual health, sexually transmitted disease, and how public policy and governments around the world attempt to influence all of those conditions. For example, he discusses how global improvements in human rights at home and abroad can make significant inroads to fighting sexually transmitted infections, and how repressive governments and communities may be doing more harm than good by stigmatizing sexual health, education and medicine.


  • The Open University – Maths Everywhere: If you’re daunted by mathematics, or don’t see the value in studying it, this course is for you. You’ll learn to see the applications of mathematics all around us, from simple arithmetic and natural law to complicated calculus and advanced statistics that help entire societies make decisions about population growth and where to spend billions of dollars. The course also gets you familiar with your old friend, the graphic calculator — so drag it out of the closet and put some fresh batteries in!
  • MIT – Problem Solving Seminar – Professors Hartley Rogers, Kiran Kedlaya, and Richard Stanley: One of the greatest benefits you get from studying mathematics is the ability to look at a problem and come up with a solution. If you find yourself pleasantly challenged by number puzzles and other mathematical problems, or just curious on how to bolster your own problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, this course will help you get reacquainted with them. Students who complete the course can even enter a national mathematics contest to test their skills.
  • The Open University – All of the Fun of The Fair: Designed for iOS devices (but not strictly required), this course walks you through a theme park and helps you understand the underlying mathematics behind four popular carnival rides. This short course details the forces at work so you can begin to see the mathematics under the surface of everyday objects and activities.

Social Sciences, Classics and Humanities

  • MIT – Computer Games and Simulations for Investigations and Education – Professor Eric Klopfer: We’ve discussed how video games can be helpful in the past, but this course takes the topic to a whole new level. You’ll learn how we learn from interactive simulations and exercises, how effective those learning methods can be, current research into the issue, and you’ll have the opportunity to design your own interactive games, with an emphasis on learning and engagement.
  • The Open University – Identity in Question: How is identity formed? What does it mean to be “me?” What influences go into establishing an individual’s identity and what they consider to be intrinsic to the “self?” This short course dives into the topic, starting from child-like perceptions of identity, self and gender, and moving through issues of race, ethnicity, tribe, and how we draw identity from the places that we spend time or grow up in. The course also examines how a person can feel they have multiple identities, often in conflict.
  • University of California, Irvine – Anthropology 135A: Religion and Social Order – Dr Sheila O’Rourke: Religion has played a significant role in social growth, development, conflict and change since the dawn of civilisation. This course walks through the ages, addressing topics of social change, disorder, gender, political and social power, and how all of those elements have changed with the influences of various religions throughout history. The course tackles both classical canon and the theologies of old and contemporary religions and their applicability to modern conflicts and geopolitical changes.
  • MIT – Classics in Western Philosophy – Prof Rae Langton: Designed for individuals interested in philosophy but without prior training in it, this course looks back to the “founding fathers” of modern philosophy and their work, including Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume and Kant. Students will tackle the same philosophical questions and challenges they did — the existence of god, where consciousness comes from, what it means to be sentient and more — and students will use logic and reasoning to come to their own conclusions. The course also examines how the prism of time, society and external influences change the way we apply that logic.
  • MIT – How to Stage a Revolution – Professors Jeffrey S. Ravel, Meg Jacobs, Peter C. Perdue and William Broadhead: Everyone talks about revolution and how there’s desperate need for change in politics and government, including local, regional, national and global. But how do you go about making that change a reality? This course walks through how revolutions across the ages got their start, what caused people to take action, and what took entire nations from talking about change to actually making it happen. Students will study the writings, art and memoirs of revolutionaries from nations come and gone to understand their motivations, and what made them succeed or fail.


  • University of Oxford – Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict:A series of seminars by various professors and visiting dignitaries, this political science course approaches conflicts in recent history and attempts to answer the question: Was this an ethical conflict? From the international intervention in Libya to the possibility of preventative cyber-warfare, the course asks when a preemptive strike is considered ethical, when an armed conflict can be called a success (if ever), and wrangles with tough topics like whether or not targeted killing and assassinations are ever ethically sound or within the bounds of international law.
  • Duke Law School – Theft: A History of Music – Professor Jennifer Jenkins: Dr Jenkins sees current legal issues around music and technology as not new at all — and neither should you. At the end of this one hour lecture, you’ll understand how these problems have persisted for thousands of years. During the renaissance, music publishers were granted monopolies to keep anyone else from printing and distributing music, and even Plato argued once that mixing types of music was disharmonious and should be banned by the state. And yet, even today we struggle with issues of ownership, distribution and sharing of music. It’s a battle that seems to reappear with every new technology and every new generation.

Cross-Disciplinary Courses and Seminars

  • Udacity – CS 373: Programming a Robotic Car – Professor Sebastian Thrun and Gundega Dekena: Google’s self-driving car is headline fodder for tech blogs around the web, but how exactly does it — and other self-driving systems in development by automakers worldwide — actually work? Dr Thrun, an AI researcher, will explain how a vehicle can learn and adapt to its surroundings, and how designers and developers integrate tracking and control systems, localisation utilities and other robotic systems into the vehicle. You’ll need programming knowledge to make the most of this course, but you can still watch and be fascinated without it.
  • MIT – Inventions and Patents – Dr Robert Rines: This course will walk you through the history of public and private rights when it comes to engineering, inventions, gadgets, solutions and even software. The focus is on patent law in the United States, and how individuals can apply for patents for their inventions, how patents are handled in a legal context and more. Technology isn’t the only application either — the course discusses the role of discovery and patenting in a medical and pharmaceutical context, and even in terms of genetic engineering and whether a company or person can “own” a gene sequence or modification technique.
  • Carnegie Mellon University – Logic and Proofs: This self-guided course will teach you the basics of using symbolic logic to develop and support arguments and positions. The course’s focus is on strategic argumentation, and while you can’t be there in person to demonstrate, you can still practise your deductive skills and how to present arguments at home.
  • Emory University – Emory Looks at Mad Men: Emory professors discuss the racial, social and historical aspects of the popular television show. How accurate is the historical portrayal of advertising or of society? The course is currently on-going and subscription is available via iTunes U.
  • University of South Florida – Social Media: Most of us use social media to tell our friends what we’re up to and stay close to people who are far away from us, but businesses are using it to make big bucks. What is social media exactly, how do people gauge trends in social media, and what role does social media play in politics, government, and even political rebellion? This course tackles all of those topics, as well as how you can use social media for your personal and professional life.

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, history and more.
  • 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.
  • 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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