Plan Your Free Education At Lifehacker U

Plan Your Free Education At Lifehacker U

Spring is here: why not revamp your mind as well as your living space? Lifehacker U returns with our latest listing of some of the best free classes available online.

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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

  • Harvard University – Computer Science 50x – Professor David J. Malan – When budding computer scientists and programmers find themselves at Harvard University, CS50 is the class they wind up in. It’s demanding, but completely doable. Whether you want to get a job as a developer and need some real skills under your belt, or you just want to brush up on your codewriting technique, this open course will do the job. Video lectures and additional content are available at and
  • MIT – 6.00x: Introduction to Computer Science and Programming – Professors John Guttag, Chris Terman, and Eric Grimson – MIT’s beginner computer science course will teach you the basics. You’ll need to refresh your mathematics skills for this course, since the instructors won’t pull punches on the algebra and basic maths required to grasp computer science concepts, but aside from that, you can go in bright-eyed and take away applicable skills. Best of all, you can follow along at your own pace.
  • University of California, Berkeley – CS169.1x: Software as a Service – Professors Armando Fox and David Patterson – If webapps are more to your taste and you’re interested in building the next big, scalable platform that will draw users to you to make use of your big idea, then this Berkeley course is for you. You’ll use Agile techniques to build scalable platforms using Ruby on Rails, from design and development to testing and rollout. You’ll learn how cloud applications work and publish your own. You’ll need some programming experience for this one though, so make sure you’re ready!
  • University of Washington – Information Security and Risk Management in Context – Professor Barbara Endicott-Popovsky – Privacy, security and confidentiality are more than buzzwords describing “keeping secrets”. In this course you’ll learn modern techniques used to secure networks, protect individual privacy, and how businesses and technology professionals alike are addressing modern security issues.
  • CSSE490 – Android Development (iTunes U) – David Fisher – While not strictly an online class, the CSSE490 Podcast series will help you learn how to build Android applications from start to finish. Last term we helped you build apps for the iPhone or iPad; this term, take some time to learn to develop for the other side, with self-paced skill-based lessons that will help you build your first Android app quickly, with supporting documentation on the web.
  • Stanford University – Human-Computer Interaction – Professor Scott Klemmer – Form matters, sometimes as much as function. In this HCI course, you’ll learn how to design and build interfaces and systems that people actually want to use – something that a lot of developers often overlook. Building incredible function is important — often paramount — but if your interface is so poor that your tool is unusable and difficult to operate, you’ve got a dud on your hands. This course will teach you the basics of visual design, help you learn to poll individuals for design ideas, build paper prototypes, do field work, and test your designs with others. The end goal is for you to learn what it takes to incorporate intelligent design into any technology.
  • MIT – Culture of Computing – Professor Stefan Helmreich – Computer science may be at the cutting edge of technology today, but as a discipline it has a long and storied history that’s well worth learning. This course will look back at the history of computing in our society, including the manufacturing of automata, early computers during the second World War, the development and growth of the Internet, the rise of hackers and the subcultures that have risen thanks to technology, as well as social issues like gender and hacker culture and how they play into modern perceptions of technology.

Finance and Economics

  • Investopedia – Budgeting Basics – Amy Fontinelle – Budgeting sounds easy, and it’s something everyone should do, but if you’re having a hard time making your budget work, or having a hard time sticking to your budget, it might be time to look at how you did it or start from scratch. This course from Investopedia may not be professor-driven, but it’s a great set of instructions that you can follow along with in your spare time to help you get your expenditures under control and start saving money.
  • Yale University – ECON 252: Financial Markets – Professor Robert J. Shiller – If the way the stock market, commodities markets, and bonds both puzzle and interest you, this course will help demystify how global financial markets work, and give you some insight into what you can expect when economists on the news say things like “erratic” and “psychology driven.” The course explains what risk is in a financial setting, how financial institutions manage risk, regulate themselves (or require outside regulation), how monetary policy set by agencies and governments affect the market, and more. The course is available via YouTube or iTunes U at the link above.
  • Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health – Principles of Obesity Economics – Professor Kevin Frick – Obesity, whether it’s an individual issue or a public health problem, is more complicated than “putting the fork down” or “not eating so much”. This course addresses the issue of consumer sovereignty — or the concept that we alone are responsible for our consumption decisions, alongside topics of consumer pressure to make decisions based on factors like time constraints, budgets, value, and more. The course also addresses governmental intervention into the issue as a public policy concern, and how that plays into and against business interests and the issue of consumer choice.

Science and Medicine

  • Carnegie Mellon University – Anatomy & Physiology – Our bodies are some of the most glorious and complex tools we’ll ever have the privilege of using, so why not take some time to learn how they work? This introductory course from CMU’s Open Learning Initiative gives you the opportunity to learn how your body works, covering the levels of organisation from the cellular to the macro.
  • MIT – Physics and the Chemistry of the Terrestrial Planets – Professors Benjamin Weiss and Leigh Royden – Although a touch dated (thanks Discovery!), this course will walk you through the basics of the composition of the planets in our solar system, including rocky bodies like Earth and Mars all the way out to the massive gas giants like Jupiter and Neptune. The course pays attention to how each planet formed and got its chemical composition, and what probes headed for those planets can expect to find there.
  • Yale University – GG 140: The Atmosphere, the Ocean, and Environmental Change – Professor Ronald B. Smith – Climate change, El Nino, the ozone layer — all of these topics are fair game in this introductory course about the Earth’s climate, its history, its changes over the millennia, and how it’s changing today. You’ll learn the importance of separating weather from climate in the course while still understanding how weather can be a symptom of climate events, you’ll learn whether those cyclical climate changes you’ve heard about are really true, and you’ll have the opportunity to challenge your own beliefs on environmental science and climate change with facts and data to back them up in an environment led by a geophysicist.
  • Caltech – Drugs and the Brain – Professor Henry A. Lester – Bring your neuroscience pants to this class: Lester covers the issue of drug use for therapy, prevention, treatment, and recreation, all in one packed class full of information that won’t require that you have a specific background, but a mind familiar to science and scientific thinking will do well here. By the end of the course, you’ll have a new appreciation for the complexities of the brain and how chemical interactions can change everything about our body chemistry.
  • Duke University – Introduction to Astronomy – Professor Ronen Plesser – This course doesn’t start for a while, but it’s one of the best introductions to the machinations of the universe around us. You’ll definitely need to flex your mathematics muscles here – this is no all-observation course. You’ll learn not just how celestial bodies move and operate, but also the equations and mathematics that explain how it all works.
  • Yale University – EEB 122: Principles of Evolution, Ecology and Behavior – Professor Stephen C. Stearns – If topics like evolutionary biology confuse you, or if you’re looking for a way to challenge your own confirmation bias by learning more about biology and natural selection, this course is a great way to start. You’ll walk through topics of transmission genetics, natural selection, adaptive behaviour, sex (the evolution of and sexual selection), the importance of biodiversity, and even the evolutionary rationale between selfishness and altruism in a social context.
  • MIT – Science Communication: A Practical Guide – Professors John Durant and Dr. Bina Venkataraman – If you’re scientifically inclined (like myself) you also understand how difficult it can be to communicate the complex concepts addressed in scientific research to people who know little about the topic. This course offers tools that can help you discuss topics such as climate change, astronomy and genetics with people for whom the topics seem advanced, or whose education on the matters consists largely of heresy and Facebook posts. By the end of this class, you’ll be ready to be an expert witness or give a live interview.


  • Stanford University – Introduction to Mathematical Thinking – Professor Keith Devlin – Mathematicians have a certain “way” about them, and this class you’ll learn to approach problems with the same mindset. Break down the problems you’re confronted with into manageable components, see how they interrelate, and approach them individually. This isn’t about how you deal with maths problems in school: the skills you’ll learn in this six week course will be applicable far more broadly to problems you may never have encountered before.
  • La Trobe University – The Algebra of Everything (iTunes U) – Professor Marcel Jackson – If you’ve forgotten all of the algebra you learned in school because it just “wasn’t applicable”, think twice. This course will brush off those skills and show you how there is algebra everywhere around us, and show you how you can put those algebraic skills to good use.
  • Udacity – Intro to Statistics (ST101) – Professor Sebastian Thrun – We’re assaulted with statistics on a daily basis, to the point many of us ignore them. This course helps you learn to use statistics for decision-making, whether it’s a matter of probability or whether it’s looking at the flip side of a societal debate and using the statistics of the matter to see through to the truth. You don’t need a maths background for this course, but by the end of it you’ll be familiar with terms like regression, correlation and standard deviation.

Social Sciences, Classics and Humanities

  • Princeton University – History of the World Since 1300 – Jeremy Adelman – It’s a lot of ground to cover, but the world has changed an incredible amount since 1300 AD, and this whirlwind course will take you through it, without just focusing on one continent and one people’s history. You’ll start with Chinggis Khan and the Mongol invasions, and then traverse the globe to Europe, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and the Americas to see how major culture, political and societal shifts took place, many at the same time.
  • MIT -Music and Technology: Live Electronics Performance Practices – Professor Christopher Ariza – Fans of electronic music, unite! This course will walk you through the beginnings of electronic music and musical instruments, from early analogue devices to more modern synthesizers, including how musicians choose to include technology in their live performances.
  • Yale University – Roman Architecture – Professor Diana E. E. Kleiner – The Roman Empire was responsible for some of the world’s greatest marvels of architecture and building design, and many of those examples still stand today across a wide swath of what was once one of the largest empires on Earth. Even today’s architects struggle to match the complexity and precision of those old buildings, and in this course you’ll learn what made Roman architecture so special, so inspirational to modern designers, and see beautiful examples of how good design and building can last the ages, from places where Rome reigned and far beyond.
  • MIT – Foundations of World Culture I: World Civilizations and Texts – Dr. Ghenwa Hayek – This course will introduce you to some of the most brilliant texts in history, starting in antiquity and bringing you up to the 17th century. Ancient civilizations you may never have heard of will come to light and you’ll read some of their world-view defining literature, and other cultures you may have thought you were familiar with will surprise you.


  • The Open University – Laying Down the Law (iTunes U) – Does prison actually work to reform criminals? Do individuals have the right to choose when and under what circumstances they die? This course tackles all of these topics and more, with guest lecturers sitting in for every session discussing a new topic, all centered on the core question: does the traditional rule of law as we understand it work to preserve the stability of society, or does it need to change?
  • Liberty University – Introduction to Forensics (iTunes U) – If you’ve ever wondered how investigators find DNA at crime scenes, test for and record fingerprints, or in general investigate a crime scene with the intent of finding whatever microscopic evidence a criminal may have left behind, this course offers real-world insight from experts. Trust us, it’s better than watching CSI.

Cross-Disciplinary Courses and Seminars

  • Duke University – Think Again: How to Reason and Argue – Professors Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Ram Neta – If your current understanding of arguing and discussion stem from commenting on the internet, you need this course. Sinnott-Armstrong and Neta will show you how to use critical thinking skills to form rational, reasoned arguments to support or refute positions based on information and data, not confirmation bias and “my team is better than your team” thinking. You’ll learn how to spot an argument, how to analyse it, and the criteria for a good argument versus a bad one. By the end of the course, you’ll be able to speak about and discuss issues that are important to you in a rational and intelligent way.
  • Udacity – How to Build a Startup (EP245) – Steve Blank Building a startup requires more than just a few million dollars from an angel investor and a semi-brilliant idea. Steve Blank, a seasoned Silicon Valley entrepenur who’s seen both sides of the coin, can help you build a plan to get your idea off the ground. Blank walks through the process of building your idea, getting people engaged and involved with your ideas, turning those people into customers, and then using their feedback to both improve your product and market it to make your business stronger.
  • MIT – Technology in Transportation – Prof. Sanjay Sarma – From the steam engine to the combustion engine to the rocket, this course will show you how technology has shaped the way we move from place to place, and in turn, how the transportation industry has shaped technology and advancement. Topics including radar, GPS, GIS, aerodynamics and vehicle engineering will be covered, and the materials are all available online.
  • University of California, Irvine – Introduction to Project Management – This course won’t help you become a PMP, but it will show you how to handle projects and massive initiatives from a high level, balancing competing priorities and needs, working with schedules, adjusting deadlines, and more. You’ll learn the “triple constraint” or scope, time and budget, and how to balance them, and come away with the class with not just an appreciation for the profession, but the tools to coordinate your own personal projects.
  • MIT – Special Subject: The Rise of Film Noir – Dr. Martin Marks If you’re a film buff and enjoy the Noir genre, you’ll want to take this course. If you’ve been wondering why every film lately needs to be “dark”, “gritty” and “edgy” to make an impact at the box office, this course is for you too. The class examines what exactly the Film Noir genre really is, how it got started as we know it, and examples of so-called Neo-Noir appearing in today’s cinema.

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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