Back to School: Free Online Courses 2017

It’s that time of year. A new school year is starting, and not just for traditional students. For the past few years, lifelong learners have had access to courses offered by some of the world’s top higher ed institutions via online courses known as MOOCs. You can choose between thousands of topics ranging from the academic to the practical and fun-to-know. The best part: They’re free, and you can participate at any time of day, from any place that has an internet connection.

What Is a MOOC?

MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. It’s massive because being online, the number of people who can join isn’t limited by physical space. It’s open because anyone with a good internet connection can sign up and follow along; no application required.

MOOCs are designed to engage. They usually include videos and reading materials, all of which are posted online, plus an online forum where students and instructors connect with one another and discuss topics or ask questions.

Although MOOCs are structured to be taken over a specific number of weeks, you set your schedule—simply access the materials when you’re ready. You can even jump in after the course has started. Most MOOCs are free unless you want access to graded assignments and need a certificate.

To find a MOOC that interests you, browse course listings on MOOC platforms—we recommend Coursera, edX and FutureLearn—or check out our smorgasbord below. If you do your own search, pay attention to the reviews by former students.

Read a good intro to MOOCs, including a how-to, here.

A Smorgasbord of Courses

We’ve combed through the course catalogues on the top MOOC platforms and highlighted several. Note that some courses below have already started; since you can dive in anytime (materials are available online through the duration of the course), you can catch up if you enroll soon.

Expand Your Mind

  • Moralities of Everyday Life  How does a culture determine right and wrong, and why do some people lack moral feelings? Explore these and other questions in this highly rated course.
    • Yale University on Coursera
    • September 11 for 6 weeks
  • A Global History of Architecture Like a travelogue through time, this hefty course explores moments in history though architecture and its interactions with culture, religion, politics and technology—from the introduction of iron in the ninth century BCE to the emergence of corn and the rise of temple construction in Mexico.
    • MIT on edX
    • September 19 for 12 weeks
  • Rethinking Ageing: Are We Prepared to Live Longer? Get a broad view of what it means to be part of an aging world, including a look at how we can be active, independent and socially connected into late life.
    • University of Melbourne on Coursera
    • September 25 for 5 weeks
  • Buddhism and Modern Psychology Scientists have been scrutinizing Buddhist practices to learn how effective they may be on a physiological level, and Western philosophers are exploring Buddhist thought. This course gives you an overview of what they’re discovering.
    • Princeton University on Coursera
    • October 2 for 6 weeks
  • Modern Art and Ideas In this video-centric course, artists and educators help you engage more deeply in modern and contemporary art through four themes that shine a light on context and meaning.
    • MoMA on Coursera
    • October 2 for 5 weeks
  • Minds and Machines What is the relationship between mind and body? Can computers think? Do we perceive reality as it is? Can there be a science of consciousness? Explore these and other fascinating questions at the forefront of a burgeoning discipline: the study of consciousness.
    • Platform:edX
    • October 3 for 12 weeks
  • Introduction to Italian Learn conversational language skills and gain an understanding of Italy’s culture in this video course.
    • University for Foreigners of Siena on FutureLearn
    • October 16 for 6 weeks

Care for Your Health

  • The Human Body as a Machine Our bodies are made of systems that interact with one another on a cellular level. This course clues you in to how that works so you can be more holistic in your approach to your own health.
    • Flinders University on Open2Study
    • September 11 for 4 weeks
  • Healthy Aging in 6 Steps. Let Your Environment Do the Work Health issues like heart disease, diabetes and arthritis may seem like inevitable products of aging, but in fact they’re governed by lifestyle, not years. This course helps you take control.
    • Delft University on edX
    • Self-paced for 6 weeks
  • Stanford Introduction to Food and Health With a focus on simple home cooking, this course turns what scientists have learned into practical discussions and tools that will help you distinguish between foods that support your health and those that threaten it.
    • Stanford University on Coursera
    • October 2 for 5 weeks
  • Heart Health: A Beginner’s Guide to Cardiovascular Disease Home exercises and practical tips developed by cardiovascular experts combine with discussions of how the heart works, the causes of heart diseases and what you can do to avoid them.
    • University of Reading on FutureLearn
    • September 18 for 4 weeks
  • The Science and Practice of Yoga Blending science with practice, yoga experts teach you   how to practice yoga on the mat and in your everyday life, using aspects of yoga that are immediately applicable to you.
    • University of Texas, Arlington on edX
    • October 16 for 4 weeks

Get Creative

  • Sharpened Visions: A Poetry Workshop Take your poems out of the bureau drawer and into the open with this course, which, through practical exercises in form and structure, can help you write poetry that changes the way you and your readers think about the world.
    • California Institute of the Arts on Coursera
    • September 11 for 6 weeks
  • Introduction to Guitar There’s evidence to suggest that learning an instrument can help keep your brain sharp. There’s no experience needed for this hands-on course, which uses an easy approach to get beginners playing quickly. All you need is a guitar!
    • Berklee College of Music on Coursera
    • September 11 for 7 weeks
  • Start Writing Fiction Creating characters, turning events into a plot, editing and refining: Learn the skills you’ll need to get started on or finish your novel, with help from some well-known authors.
    • The Open University on FutureLearn
    • September 25 for 8 weeks
  • Learn Jazz Piano: I. Begin with the Blues You’ll need some basic piano skills for this course, the first of four that uses a unique online teaching tool to get you playing modern jazz piano in a group context.
    • Goldsmith’s College on FutureLearn
    • October 16 for 6 weeks
  • Ignite Your Personal Creativity Based on the premise that we all are inherently creative, this course aims to boost awareness and inspiration, and help you develop creative problem-solving skills you can use in every aspect of your life.
    • SUNY on Coursera
    • October 2, self-paced

Make a Difference

  • How to Change the World Poverty, the environment, technology, health care, gender, education… Learn how we can address the social good in these areas by better understanding what impacts them.
    • Wesleyan University on Coursera
    • September 11 for 6 weeks
  • Engaging and Empowering: How to Become an Effective Mentor for Vulnerable Youth Whether you’re already volunteering as a mentor or plan to do so, this course will teach you about the issues facing your mentees, and how to help them overcome barriers and build resilience.
    • CultureLink on Canvas Network
    • September 11 for 10 weeks
  • Our Earth’s Future How do you respond when you meet some on Facebook or in real life who questions the science behind climate change? This course provides you with the key scientific principles to address misconceptions.
    • American Museum of Natural History on Coursera
    • September 18 for 5 weeks
  • Challenging Wealth and Income Inequality Has the Baby Boom generation really had it all? What is really at the root of age related inequalities in personal finance? This UK-based course examines the causes and implications of growing inequalities and what can be done about them.
    • The Open University on FutureLearn
    • September 25 for 4 weeks

Just Have Fun

Have you ever taken a MOOC? Share your experience with other readers in our comments section below.

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8 comments
  • Kate Walter
    REPLY

    I have taken two fiction writing courses sponsored by the renown International Writing Program of the University of Iowa.
    I enjoyed them and the assignments helped me produce pages but there was very little critiquing.
    I did not have time to watch all the lectures but they seemed very good.

  • Bob
    REPLY

    Really – all you have to comment on is the photo of the apple? Man you need to lighten up and get a life. If you can’t find the humor in using a wrinkly apple to advertise senior learning you are taking this all too seriously.

    If you don’t have a comment on experiences in the actual courses available via MOOC your comments are less than helpful or even relevant.

  • Peggy
    REPLY

    I’ve taken many MOOC’s given by Japanese, American, British, Dutch and Australian Universities, am signed up for the Buddhism one mentioned above and two others this month. They are free unless you want a certificate (which usually costs around $50), take about six weeks. You can access the course any time once it is posted, can do part of a week’s post at a time (I often do this as there are usually about 20 short segments each week) or skip a week or two if you get busy then do several weeks at once. One course I took from a Netherlands University had 10,000 “learners”, as we are called, which made for fascinating discussions of the class as it was taken by people from all over the world. FutureLearn is mostly Brit and Aussie schools, and they often film at historic sites or museums near there. Love these MOOCs!

  • Barbara
    REPLY

    Better a wrinkled apple than a wrinkled senior citizen face! But I agree, just a picture of a regular apple would have been fine

  • Patrick
    REPLY

    I am a huge fan of lifelong learning and I promote it as part of my job with older adults. I was glad to see you promoting it as well…until I saw the picture of the wrinkly dried out old apple you attached to the article. I am not sure what your intentions were when you chose that picture but it sure looks ageist to me. What’s next? A Granny Smith Apple?

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