Class Act

An Internet guide to online science course offerings

© Coenders

The number of free college and high school science courses available on the Internet has soared in recent years. With more and more people equipped with high-speed connections, the old content (class notes, slides, and reading lists) is being markedly improved with audio and video lectures. (If you work all day, it’s nice to sit back and be entertained a bit while you learn.) There are even free interactive courses that provide the experimentation and feedback essential to learning—all automated, of course. Finding the best online courses takes a bit of work, but there are several sites to help you search. After touching on those, I’ll review a few of the sites that I would award an “A” in online learning.

Two Web sites have short lists of the universities offering open courseware. The Educational Portal has a page that discusses the pros and cons of free online courses. In addition to pointing out that these courses do not lead to a degree and the other benefits of a program supervised by instructors, this page makes it clear that some of the free programs offer little more than class notes. Although the site promotes schools that charge tuition for an online degree, it is a useful place to find articles on the free programs. The Open Courseware Consortium is a site with courses from member universities around the world (many are taught in languages other than English). The site lists nine institutions in the United States that offer free courses, but not all offer recorded lectures that make them worth your time. (See the reviews below for some of the better ones with science content). The OCWFinder is a search engine for finding a free course in the subject you are interested in. But be warned: as the quality of the content varies considerably between institutions, this kind of search may take time to find a good course with something more than a syllabus and reading lists. The World Lecture Hall, at the University of Texas in Austin, is another site that helps you to search by course topic.

For young independent learning, try these two: The OER Commons is a “global teaching and learning network of free-to-use resources—from K-12 lesson plans to college courseware—for you to use, tag, rate, and review.” You can browse by “Category” or “Collection” (see these links right under the introduction). The National Repository of Online Courses has a collection of courses at all school levels. Well designed, the format of the courses is more or less standardized, often with lots of audio and video. The course menu is a pleasure to navigate. If I were a student looking for an AP high school biology course not available at my school, I’d start with this Web site.

The Online Education Database has an eclectic mix of educational content, from “Archives” to “University Webcasts.” There is a lot to explore. If you want to find lessons, scroll down to “Open Courseware Collections.” It has many programs that aren’t listed on the sites above.


MIT is not the first to put course materials on the Internet, but it now has almost all of its courses online in one form or another (adding video lectures is done at the lecturer’s discretion). With access to the materials, educators and students around the world can get an idea of what is being taught in some 1,800 courses. Of the many online offerings, Professor Walter Lewin’s introductory physics lectures is one of most popular. (At the site, go to the menu on the left and select “Video Lectures.”) Delivered with a heavy Dutch accent, his performances are a blur of equations deftly scrawled across the blackboards and entertaining demonstrations of how the world works—in one lecture, I watched him propel himself from one side of the stage to the other with the thrust of a fire extinguisher. MIT’s open courses have been viewed by people from almost country—and materials already have been translated into at least ten different languages. For high school students, MIT has created Highlights for High School. For self-learners who don’t want to wait, it’s hard to beat free lessons from MIT.

The Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University has gone a step further than the others by offering courses with feedback. The ten subject areas, weighted towards math and science, are designed specifically for online teaching. If you want, you can log in to the lessons, which are at an introductory college level, and the site will keep track of your progress as you are complete interactive experiments and answer quizzes along the way. Or you can enter the courses and browse with no log-in. After clicking on “Biology” I found the course description and clicked again on the biology logo to enter. Using the submenu on the left, I navigated through a few sections of the course. I played with an applet on enzyme catalysis and another on DNA. The quick tour left no doubt: Carnegie Mellon University gets the “A” for designing its open content specifically for Internet learning.

On the West Coast, the University of California at Berkeley offers a selection of four dozen courses as webcasts or podcasts. In addition to video and audio course content, you can click on “Events” to find an archive of speakers and campus events.

If you use Apple’s iTunes, you’ll like Stanford iTunes. The university has set up a convenient way to learn with downloaded audio and video files. Go to the button on the upper right to access the course and lecture listings, arranged by subject. Once in iTunes, I selected “Science and Technology” from the left-hand menu, and then I scrolled down to find the natural and environmental sciences categories. Many of the lectures are recorded in video and audio.

While not offering courses, Caltech Today’s “Streaming Theater” has an archive of events in streaming video, since 1999—ancient times for broadband. The content includes many lectures delivered in their Beckman Auditorium from faculty, students, and distinguished visiting speakers. Click on “Science and Technology,” to get to the natural history content, as well as many technology lectures with environmental implications. I found a recent talk by Joann Stock, a Caltech professor of geology and geophysics, entitled “The Pacific-North American Plate Boundary.” As a former geologist living in Los Angeles, I consider it’s always good to learn something new about the nearby San Andreas Fault. For the complete archive go to the top of the menu and click on “Show all events.”

Two more I will mention are Gresham College in the center of London, which offers free public lectures online. And Yale University has a few courses that are recorded in video and audio. The science offerings are limited to physics and astronomy.