With so much emphasis these days on distance learning and education, it is a little surprising that there has been less attention paid to a vast number of free online courses (with extra features you can pay for). These courses, called massive open online courses and commonly referred to as MOOCs, are part of an ongoing trend towards making higher education – or at least part of it – free for anyone who wants to learn something new. The subjects cover anything from art and philosophy to computer science and physics. Further, many of these courses are offered by faculty from prestigious colleges and universities, including Yale, Columbia, Michigan, Rice, UC-Berkeley, Vanderbilt, Duke, UI-Champaign-Urbana, the Wharton School at UPenn, the London School of Economics, Johns Hopkins and many more. Let’s take a closer look at a website repository for thousands of MOOCs: http://www.openculture.com/ .

Open Culture offers a number of different courses and materials for free. You can take virtual tours and see images of many famous places and works of art, among other things. There are free textbooks, audio books, music, lectures and movies. A bonus for all of you parents out there trying to manage learning at home with your kids: this site includes content for K-12!

The courses come with certificates or statements of completion when you successfully complete them, and many can be taken in other languages. Look at this screenshot from a MOOC I found through Open Culture.

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You can literally access the same course material that a student attending UC-Irvine could! If that is not an impressive accomplishment for the digital age, where Wikipedia has been the center of attention for facts and information for millions of people, I don’t know what is. The movement toward a more open society and free access to knowledge is well underway, and it is an amazing time for innovation in education.

I personally encountered MOOCs when I was doing some research for a course I was teaching on the philosophical roots and intellectual history of the ecological and environmentalist movements in the U.S. and Germany (full disclosure, my background is in German literature, cultural history, and language). I found a video from a professor of English literature at Yale University, who happened to have created and taught a MOOC on literary theory, which covered some of the very thinkers and theorists I was planning to teach in my own course. I shared the links to the video and course alike, and most of the students in my course found it incredibly helpful. It’s amazing what courses you can take online, and that includes languages, too (CORE Languages also offers online courses).

There are many sites that offer MOOCs, but it is important to mention www.mooc.org. This is the website for edX, a joint MOOC project between Harvard University and MIT, which boasts nearly 3,000 courses. In fact, I found one related to a topic I wrote about earlier this week – the Internet of Things – and it’s called “IoT System Architecture: Design and Evaluation,” offered in English by Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan.

Hopefully, you have found this post to be helpful and you will be able to take advantage of what MOOCs have to offer, especially during this time when a little distraction and curiosity may make things more bearable.