The best free courses from Harvard, Stanford, MIT and more…
I tend to prefer courses to books. Although the best books definitely beat mediocre courses, there’s a few reasons why a great course can leave a lasting impression.
For starters, courses tend to teach foundational topics. Most books try to be original. But much of what’s worth knowing is actually fairly old.
Courses tend to be more balanced. A professor teaching a basic course will try to explain most of the major viewpoints. Yet a popular book written by the same professor might be completely one-sided, as they try to make the strongest case for their views. Polemical works can be useful, but they can be misleading if you mistake a contentious issue for an open-and-shut case.
I also just like watching courses. Reading is good. But so are listening and watching. If you do all three, you’ll probably learn more than if you just stick to text.
Here are my picks for the best free online courses to watch.
1. Justice — Michael Sandel (Harvard)
Honestly, this course is worth watching just to witness one of the best teachers of all time. Sandel teaches moral philosophy, not always known for being the most gripping topic. Yet the lectures are compelling, as students debate real-world examples that illustrate philosophical principles.
What impresses me most is Sandel’s ability to teach esoteric points through Socratic dialog with his students, using their own reactions to illustrate the philosophical principles he wants to teach. There’s a reason this class is one of Harvard’s most popular among incoming freshman. Now you don’t need to attend Harvard to take it.
2. Physics — Walter Lewin (MIT)
Walter Lewin’s physics lectures (both classical and electromagnetism) were the ones I followed during the MIT Challenge. They’re some of the finest classes I’ve ever taken online. Lewin manages to explain deep concepts about how the world works through exciting experiments. He’s also really good at drawing dotted lines.
Unfortunately there was a bit of a scandal on MIT’s open platform which resulted in MIT removing any affiliation with Lewin for the course. Thus the lectures are harder to find online than they used to be. But since nothing ever truly gets removed from the internet, I think they’re still worth watching if you want to learn physics.
3. Learning How to Learn — Terrence Sejnowski and Barbara Oakley (UCSD)
Coursera’s most popular course, this one also happens to be taught by my friend, Barbara Oakley. The course is engaging and easy to follow, using neuroscience and psychology to illustrate the principles for studying better.
I have to admit, when this course first came out, I was a little nervous since my income depends a lot on my own, paid learning course. But, I’ve since come to appreciate that learning better is a pretty broad subject, so there’s always going to be more to teach (and learn). Nonetheless, I recommend this course as a useful resource!
4. Machine Learning — Andrew Ng (Stanford)
This course started the MOOC explosion, with Ng leaving his Stanford teaching position to launch Coursera. This course has gone through multiple iterations, first as recorded lectures from an actual Stanford class, later as a simplified MOOC and now as a full-blown machine learning educational platform.
I’ve linked to the original Stanford class, as I prefer to embed YouTube. The Coursera version is also a little unclear as to whether it is actually free, or whether there’s a small fee. However, you may prefer the MOOC version here since it is more recent.
5. Quantum Mechanics — Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman is my all-time intellectual hero. He does a brilliant job here of explaining quantum mechanics — without using any math. I would have thought it was impossible, but somehow Feynman manages to pull it off. (And barefoot, no less!).
While I highly enjoyed Allan Adams MIT quantum physics class, the math requirements are fairly steep. The amount of people who both have the math and physics requirements, but somehow didn’t study quantum mechanics in their undergraduate education, might be fairly limiting so I didn’t include it here. (That said, the first lecture of the class is math-free and very well done, so I recommend it, even if you don’t know calculus.)