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 popular

MIT 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.

Other schools offering materials

Schools that are not part of the consortium also provide open courses. Since 2006, Yale University in New Haven, Conn., has offered courses through its Open Yale program. Currently, Yale offers 15 free college courses online.

Yale’s closed-captioning courses include several disciplines and departments such as astronomy, biomedical engineering, classics, economics and finance. All are formatted for video, audio and text transcript.

“In this increasingly global world, we think it is important that we share our academic treasures worldwide for all who wish to learn,” says Diana Kleiner, director of Open Yale Courses and Dunham professor of history of art and classics.

The university plans to add 10 more courses in the fall in six new subject areas and departments. Learners in more than 190 countries worldwide are accessing the courses provided by Yale, says Kleiner.

“We are finding that high school students and their parents do access these courses to find out more about college in general and about what kind of courses are taught in Yale College,” Kleiner says.

The University of Washington Educational Outreach, which is the professional and continuing education unit of the school, offers a series of 11 free mini-courses through Open UW. These courses cover subjects such as Shakespeare, nutrition and the history of jazz in New Orleans.

The program was launched in 2002 and since then has registered 32,000 users. Unlike some Internet course programs — which simply put notes and syllabi from classroom lectures online — Open UW courses were designed specifically for the Web.

“A good online course is much more than lecture notes or course syllabi put up on the Web,” Szatmary says. “A good online course has been specifically designed for online delivery and incorporates interactive elements such as videos, podcasts and quizzes. It might include online forums and discussion rooms.”

UW’s mission is to increase access to a university education for all and to promote lifelong learning, Szatmary says.

He believes online courses are a great resource for working professionals. Students can start them at any time, which means they are “tailor-made for working adults with busy lives,” he says.

“They help people connect with professional communities of learners all over the country without the need to travel in this time of shrinking budgets,” he says.

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