Free Online Course Offerings Grow in Abundance and Popularity

More universities make free courses available as part of public-service mission.

By + More

More and more universities across the country and throughout the world are contributing their full courses and materials, including video lectures, to their school websites as well as sites such as iTunes U and YouTube EDU. And the cost of these courses that are normally worth thousands of dollars in tuition? Zero. These institutions of higher learning say they're sharing their courses online with no charge to fulfill their mission of making education more accessible to the broader public, not just to students and educators but to independent learners worldwide. While users do not get academic credit for the free online courses, they now have access to an array of educational materials that were not previously available to the public. 

University of California–Berkeley was one of the first universities to enter into the free online educational resources sphere in 2001 with its site. The program automatically records video of faculty lectures in courses across all areas of study. Since its inception, webcast.berkeley has recorded and published around 520 video lectures, says Benjamin Hubbard, the site manager. Berkeley was the second university to publish content on iTunes U in 2006 and the first to publish on YouTube EDU in 2007. Since its inception, Hubbard says webcast.berkeley has received more 100 million views, in addition to 9.3 million views on iTunes U and 13.5 million on YouTube EDU. 

Hubbard says webcast.berkeley viewed the partnerships with iTunes U and YouTube EDU as an extension of the university's ability to distribute content on platforms that students and the public were already using. "Our aim was to broaden the window of access to education," he says. "Our mission as a public university is to make this educational content available to folks from all walks of life." 

These online educational courses can also reach an even more international audience with the help of automatic captions, combining Google's automatic speech recognition with YouTube's captioning system. The YouTube captioning can be translated into over 40 languages, Hubbard says. 

Also in 2001, Massachusetts Institute of Technology began its OpenCourseWare program. This provides nearly 2,000 courses, some with a combination of video lectures, lecture notes, syllabi, and problem sets. Between 2005 and 2008, the program began partnering with other institutions of higher learning in the United States and overseas. In July 2008, the OpenCourseWare Consortium was formed, with more than 200 higher education institutions, domestic and international, sharing their content on the site, says Steven Carson, the chairman of the OpenCourseWare Consortium's board of directors and the external relations director of MIT's OpenCourseWare. 

Not only does the OpenCourseWare Consortium work to increase the number of free educational projects and courses around the world, Carson says, but it also brings educators together to create a broader, open-resources community and to establish principles of best practices. He says the courses are used by students, educators, and self-learners worldwide. While these online educational resources will not serve as substitutes for a university or online distance-learning degree, Carson says these free resources will continue to support the growing independent-learning community. 

Stanford has also contributed free online courses to the Web, many coming from Stanford’s Continuing Studies program. The university was the first institution to contribute its courses to iTunes U in 2006. It later contributed to YouTube EDU in 2007. Currently, the program offers more than 73 courses on iTunes U and 53 on YouTube EDU. Also, Yale created Open Yale Courses in 2006 under the leadership of Diana Kleiner, the principal investigator of Open Yale Courses. She says there are currently 25 courses on the site, as well as on iTunes U and YouTube EDU, and another 11 will be published this fall. All of the courses include a full set of high-quality videos of class lectures as well as other course materials, including syllabi, suggested readings, and problem sets. 

Corrected on 02/17/10: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of videos offered on Academic Earth. The correct number is 3,500 videos. Additionally, the earlier version may have given an incorrect impression about the source of Stanford’s free online courses; many programs at Stanford contribute to the university’s free courses on the Web.