Gas station without pumps

2011 November 28

Free online education

I recently saw the post 12 Dozen Places To Educate Yourself Online For Free, and was wondering how many of the sites listed there I had heard of, and whether any of them were of any use in our current home-schooling adventure.  (By my count there are more than 144 sites listed, but I don’t mind their title underestimating what they provide.)

Of the 21 “Science and Health” sites, I had previously visited only 4 (MIT OpenCourseWare, Khan Academy, Wolfram Demonstrations Project, and Scitable), none of which had ended up being useful to us, though I could see some value in each.  The other sites in this category look like more of the same (several other university open courseware sites, for example).

I have no interest in learning about “Business and Money” and have never visited any of the 12 sites listed under that category. Similarly for the 14 sites under “History and World Culture”, several of which seem more focused on genealogy and biography more than history, and history much more than culture.

I also have no reason to visit the 10 “Law” sites, which seem to be mainly from law schools (perhaps as advertisements from the schools), though I do occasionally look up things in the local ordinances ( and state laws (  In both cases, I would prefer a more transparent posting of the laws, so that I could use a better search engine to find things—the database search engines provided are terrible.

The “Computer Science and Engineering” has 13 listings, but does not include Stanford Engineering Everywhere, nor does it include some of the most important learning tools (Scratch, Alice, Python online tutorial, Project Euler, …), leading me to suspect that the author of the list really did not know much about what online self-teaching resources were available, and just had dumped the results of some Google searching.  The 9 math resources showed a similar lack of depth.

The 8 “English and Communications” resources looked a bit better, though National Novel Writing Month is not really an online educational tool. I am particularly interested in finding writing resources for my son that will get him past his writer’s block and through high-school English, but the list here did not seem to be very useful for that rather specific problem. For one area of this field that I know something about (technical writing), the advice at Writing Guidelines for Engineering and Science Students  seemed rather thin and not particularly helpful for the sorts of problems I see in student writing.  None of the resources here looked particularly useful for our needs, though I kept hoping that I’d find some gem I’d previously missed.

Of the 6 “Foreign and Sign Languages” sites, I have heard good things about two, BBC Languages and Livemocha, but I’ve not used any of the sites, and we prefer to have our son take language classes at the community college, where he can get face-to-face interaction with others as well as detailed instruction in grammar and vocabulary.  It may be possible to emulate that experience by combining different web-based sites, but it would be much harder to maintain engagement than with a regularly scheduled class. In fact, that is a major problem with most of the on-line learning resources: it requires considerable dedication to stick with the learning and do the necessary practice in the absence of teachers, classmates, and regularly scheduled homework deadlines.

The 19 “Multiple Subjects and Miscellaneous” are indeed quite varied.  I’ve heard of  iTunes U (though not used them, since we find video lectures a particularly boring and slow way to learn), Brigham Young Independent Study (we’d investigated their non-free online high school classes and decided that none of them were suitable for our needs), and TED (again, we find video lectures—even TED talks—extremely boring).

The 20 “Free Books and Reading Recommendations” look useful, though I’ve only ever used Project Gutenberg and Scribd (and Scribd only because some teacher-bloggers put handouts and other documents they are discussing on the web via Scribd). There are several sites claiming tens of thousands of books to download for free, but I’m wondering whether they all have the same core of books with copyright expired, and that the union of the different sites is not much larger than the largest single site.  It would have been useful for the list creator to have merged the free-book sites into a single comparative entry, suggesting which order to try sites in to find a free book fastest, or giving some other hints about how to prioritize a search.  Right now, I suspect that Google books (which was not listed) provides a more comprehensive list of free books than any of the sites listed, though the free audio books through Books Should Be Free may be an otherwise difficult-to-find resource.

The 9 entries under “Educational Mainstream Broadcast Media” provide access to educational content associated with TV shows.  There are a few good things there, but you probably need to know precisely what you are looking for, so access through a search engine seems more useful than through the home pages of the content providers.

The 8 entries under “Online Archives” look interesting—I did not even suspect the existence of some of them. The only one I’ve used is U.S. Census Bureau, which has a lot useful information—unfortunately, it can be very difficult to find the information on their web site.

Of the 4 “Directories of Open Education”, the only one I’ve used is Google Scholar, which has slowly become a decent way to search the scholarly literature (the indexing used to be terrible, but now it seems to be only a little worse than much more expensive dedicated indexing).  I’ve tried using OpenCourseWare Consortium, but the organization and indexing seems to be poor, and it takes a lot of clicks to get information about specific courses.  Finding courses that meet particular criteria is nearly impossible (say, for example, that I was looking for a course that taught Java to someone who already knew Python—how many hundreds of “course details” links would I have to click to find out whether there was such a course or not?).


  1. We took a cursory look at Livemocha after trying Rosetta Stone, and found LIvemocha uninteresting–probably like trying a PC if you’re used to a Mac, which we are…

    Comment by Tamara Lichtenstein — 2011 November 28 @ 18:07 | Reply

  2. A fabulous foreign language learning resource for those with some basic knowledge of the other language is e-Tandem, at

    This website partners up people in different countries who want to learn each others’ languages. You get to specify how often & how you want to communicate with your partner, and if you want to you can specify the age, gender, country etc of the partner you hope to find. You chose how often you wish to communicate, and how–email, skype phone calls, skype video chat, snail mail, etc.

    Once you have a partner, you agree to split your time together between the languages–so when I write to my French partner, I write part of my letter in French, which he then corrects, and part in English for him to practice reading. Likewise when we speak.

    The program tries to match up partners where one person is fairly fluent in the other language, so that you are able to communicate. You have to have a basic knowledge of the other language, but you don’t have to be good at it at all.

    I skype regularly with my partners, and record the conversations. I find it highly motivating to read something that was written just for me, as opposed to a textbook. And it’s great to hear natural expressions with the feeling that an authentic speaker puts into them.

    Comment by Brenda Leach — 2011 November 29 @ 10:38 | Reply

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