People who love to learn may find the Internet provides opportunities to nourish their brains without depleting their wallets.
Several well-known colleges and universities offer free online undergraduate and graduate-level materials for personal development. Although most offerings are noncredit, they present the same material that degree-seeking students study.
Some adults take these courses for work purposes or to simply brush up on material.
"These courses are an effective and efficient way for midcareer professionals to keep current in their fields," says David Szatmary, vice provost of educational outreach at the University of Washington, which offers classes through its Open UW program.
Traditional college students also sign up to preview materials before deciding whether to enroll in a course or to prepare for upcoming courses after they've enrolled.
Many schools provide free open courses through the OpenCourseWare Consortium. The OCW Consortium is a collaboration of more than 200 higher-education institutions that provide free access to high-quality educational materials via the Web.
Institutions and organizations from all over the world participate in the consortium. The United States, Japan and Spain have the greatest number of schools involved.
"Literally tens of millions of people have accessed OCW content," says Steve Carson, Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare external relations director and president of the OpenCourseWare Consortium.
Free and popularMIT in Cambridge, Mass., is among the institutions offering online learning opportunities. Through OpenCourseWare, MIT provides open course offerings for virtually all of MIT's 1,800 undergraduate and graduate courses.
As with many open courses offered by other schools, no sign-up is required to take part in MIT's free online noncredit courses. Participation does not grant a degree or offer access to faculty or other learners.
“These courses are an effective and efficient way for midcareer professionals to keep current in their fields.”
MIT's open courses have been available for the past seven years, and traffic has steadily improved. The school's open-course Web page has more than 1 million visits each month, Carson says.
The open-course Web page offers materials such as syllabi, lecture notes, assignments and exams. Each year, the school updates about 200 sets of materials, Carson says.
"Free courses made available to the public provide a great advantage to learners, and they provide a tremendous global benefit," he says.
A sampling of institutions in the United States participating in the consortium include Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore; Utah State University in Logan; the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind.; Tufts University in Medford, Mass.; and the University of California, Berkeley.