Online college courses cover exciting topics and bring post-secondary education to your computer, tablet, or phone.
Students interested in personal growth, subject-specific refreshers, or professional development can take individual courses. It is not necessary to enroll in a full degree or certificate program.
Popular learning platforms include Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle. Course delivery can be asynchronous (accessible 24/7) or synchronous, meaning you connect to a virtual classroom at scheduled times. Classes may include discussion forums to interact with classmates and instructors.
Read on to learn about the best platforms, free courses, and top courses on popular topics like business and IT.
Where can I take college courses online?
You can find college courses online via:
- University extension programs including MIT and UC Berkeley
- IT-focused training like ITProTV
- Private companies like Coursera
- For-profit organizations such as edX
We break down the main options below.
Carnegie Mellon OpenLearning
CMU’s Open Learning Initiative makes materials available to independent learners, employers and educators. Subjects include arts and humanities, business, computer science and programming, math and logic, and life, physical, and social sciences. The price of the courses varies from free to medium.
Coursera offers courses from universities (like Duke, Penn, and Imperial College London) and companies like Google, IBM, and Meta. Areas of study emphasize skill building and include business, computer programming, data science, languages, and marketing. Costs differ by course and learning may include video lectures and guided projects.
EdX hosts courses from over 160 member universities. Users can explore business, communication, computer science, engineering, and humanities. The price varies. Teaching methods include video lectures and interactive platforms. Member schools include Brown, CalTech, Sorbonne University, the University of British Columbia and the University of Oxford.
Harvard’s professional and lifelong learning options span its schools of business, theology, education, law, medicine, and public health. You can choose between asynchronous and synchronous options. Costs depend on the course and whether it results in a certificate.
ITProTV offers IT training to help you pass industry certification exams, land a job, or advance your career. The platform hosts training resources from Apple, Cisco CompTIA, Linx and Microsoft. Educational content includes daily live streaming, webinars, and “talk show” formats to engage users. Learners pay monthly, although ITProTV offers a free trial.
Unlike the other options on this list, courses on MIT OpenCourseWare do not offer instructor interaction, college credit, or certification. Self-directed learners can access archived programs, reading lists, and assignments or exams from virtually every program and department at MIT. Some courses offer video lectures, online textbooks, and teacher information.
Subscribers choose from three content areas: business skills, technology and development, or both. Materials include videos, audiobooks and interactive labs. Weekly goals and supports can be accessed asynchronously through computer and mobile apps.
Stanford Online offers professional and academic courses for distance learners. Students can learn about everything from creative non-fiction to data science, chemical and materials engineering, or linear algebra. Fees vary by course.
UC Berkeley Expansion
UC Berkeley Extension aims to help online learners achieve their educational and career goals. It lists courses in the humanities, arts, sciences, and trades. Students can access live online scheduled classes, self-study options, and structured asynchronous classes with set start and end dates.
Founded by two former Stanford instructors, Udacity focuses on building technology skills for career advancement. Each program emphasizes hands-on projects. Topics include artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, cloud computing, cybersecurity, and data science.
Online university courses
You can find college courses online in virtually any subject. Many distance learning students who want to improve their marketable skills seek business courses, MBA courses, and computer science courses, as well as engineering and healthcare courses.
Check out these curated selections.
- Child Development: Behavior and Mental Health, Stanford Online
- Health Organizations and Health System, Coursera
- Stanford’s Introduction to Food and Health, Coursera
Free Online College Courses
Major universities offer many online college courses for free.
But classes are generally self-paced and self-paced through videos and reading materials. They will generally not provide instructions, reviews, ratings, credits or certificates.
These providers offer a wide range of topics for motivated learners to explore.
Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative
Open and free courses for independent learners include options for career development, academic course refresher, or personal enrichment. Course topics include communications, computer science, languages, mathematics, and physical and social sciences. Free, open courses are self-paced and do not include instruction, credit, or certification.
The free courses cover many topics for learners interested in improving skills to launch or advance their careers. Hot topics include business, computer science, data science, health and medicine, and programming. Course auditing is free, but you’ll have to pay for certifications, unlimited course access, and graded assignments.
MIT provides users with free access to its archived course materials and additional resources such as textbooks and videos. The more than 2,600 courses include career-oriented and academic content. But MIT OCW does not offer certification or credit. Some free courses may charge for textbooks.
Skillsoft is offering 30 days of free access to its technology-focused courses. Videos, audiobooks and other materials cover artificial intelligence, blockchain and security.
Free online college courses include competency-based content from the School of Medicine, Graduate School of Education, and School of Engineering. Other courses highlight emerging topics in the arts and humanities. Learners can also audit Stanford courses for free through edX and Coursera.
What about taking college courses online for credit?
Online college course providers like Coursera and edX offer very few courses that grant college credit. The same can be said for learning open university courses.
An accredited program like UC Berkeley Extension is more likely to award college credit for its online courses.
Even without earning transferable credits, students can still benefit from online courses. Online college courses can lead to higher salaries and career progression. The IT world tends to view alternative training, like coding bootcamps and online industry certification courses, more favorably than other industries.
Can you take college courses online for free?
Most online college course providers offer free archived course materials from previous years.
Is it cheaper to take college courses online?
Online college courses can cost less than on-campus options. Some schools allow online students to pay in-state tuition. Savings on transport, parking and meal costs are also taken into account.