Free online classes are popping up all over. And not just at community colleges and trade schools. Some of the highest ranked universities in the U.S. are leading the charge, offering free sample online classes to anybody with an Internet connection. Mostly, these classes involve videos of lectures, downloadable books and readings, and sometimes virtual study groups. Although they cannot earn credit through these online classes, casual students can login and get as much learning as they want. Maybe they will even want to enroll full-time after getting a taste.

To give you an idea of just what kind of free online classes are available, we’ve put together this list of 12 online classes that available to you right now from the nation’s top three universities (according to U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings):

Harvard University

The Open Learning Initiative at this prestigious university is dedicated to bringing more free online classes to students than ever before. And they’re not skimping on the quality, either. Harvard’s selection of free online classes draws from some of their best, most-renowned professors, making lectures available via video and materials available online for anyone to read. Here’s a sampling of what they’re offering:

1. Abstract Algebra

This online classes is pulled from Harvard’s Mathematics 122 course and is taught by the distinguished Benedict Gross, PhD. Here’s a description from the website:
“Algebra is the language of modern mathematics. This course introduces students to that language through a study of groups, group actions, vector spaces, linear algebra, and the theory of fields.”

Interested in taking online classes in algebra? Visit our Online Mathematics Degree page for more information.

2. Bits

Taught by author and computer science expert Harry L. Lewis, PhD., this course promises to:

“[Focus] on information as quantity, resource, and property. We study the application of quantitative methods to understanding how information technologies inform issues of public policy, regulation, and law.”

If you want to learn more about computers and how the information they control is shaping our world, this online class might be the perfect way to get your feet wet.

3. Intensive Introduction to Computer Science

Or maybe you just want to dive right into the field of computer science headfirst. Although the word ‘intensive’ in the course title is intimidation enough for us, this online class might be exactly what prospective computer science geeks might be looking for to get acquainted with the field. According to their page, the online class includes:

“… algorithms (their design, implementation, and analysis); software development (abstraction, encapsulation, data structures, debugging, and testing); architecture of computers (low-level data representation and instruction processing); computer systems (programming languages, compilers, operating systems, and databases); and computers in the real world (networks, websites, security, forensics, and cryptography).”

And our heads hurt just reading that.

If you’re interested in enrolling in online classes in the growing field of computer science, check out our Computer Science degrees page to learn more.

4. China: Traditions and Transformations

If you are interested in history and Asian culture, you might want to sit in on this free online class about the history and development of China, the world’s most populace nation. This course promises to discuss themes which which will help students “… to understand China in the modern world and as a great world civilization that developed along lines different from those of the Mediterranean.”

And while you’re checking out online history courses, you might want to visit our Online History degrees page to see what options are available.

5. Shakespeare After All: The Later Plays

Can’t get enough of the Bard? This online course by Shakespeare expert Marjorie Garber, PhD, will take you deep into the “…key themes, issues, and interpretations of the plays, focusing on questions of genre, gender, politics, family relations, silence and speech, and cultural power…” in Shakespeare’s later plays. Each week of the course digs into a different play.

6. Sets, Counting, and Probability

Maybe you’re interested in improving your odds in Vegas. Then this online class, which “develops the mathematics needed to formulate and analyze probability models for idealized situations drawn from everyday life,” might be your cup of tea. And, yes, the course covers how probability principles apply to poker, gambling, sports, election results, and more.

Princeton University

By way of free online classes, this second-ranked university has a ton of free video lectures that you can watch at any time. these lectures cover a broad range of topics from the toxic properties of sugar to how to survive in the wilderness. Some are given by professors and others are provided by celebrity speakers like Tom Brokaw. All of them are worth your while. Here are some that peaked our interest:

7. Secrets of the Human Genome

Find out just how much the genes in your DNA determine what you look like, what diseases you get, and how long you will live. This lecture is delivered by Eric Lander, MIT professor and official big deal in the study of the human genome, and will definitely expand your mind.

8. Green Fluorescent Protein: Lighting Up Life

Yeah, the title just says it all. But just in case that didn’t hook you, consider that this lecturer is the chair of the department of biological sciences at Columbia University and Nobel Prize-winner for the discovery and development of, you guessed it, green fluorescent protein. Basically, this guy is a biology genius, so you should probably give him your time. And how awesome would you be at parties if you could speak, off the top of your head, about glowing green proteins.

9. Representation, Narration, and Iconoclasm in the Zen Garden

Out of our entire list, this online lecture wins the “Most Intriguing Title” award. Honestly, we have no idea what this lecture is about, but the lecturer is a professor of performance studies at New York University, which means he’s bound to be very entertaining.

Yale University

As of the time of this posting, Yale University offers 42 different free online classes through their Open Yale Courses program. These courses cover a wide variety of subjects from Dante’s Inferno to Political Philosophy to Astrophysics, and they offer an entire term worth of lectures and assignments. You don’t earn credit for these free classes, but you can get a taste of what it’s like to study at one of the world’s most revered universities. These free online classes at Yale captured our notice:

10. Death

Nothing says fun and sunshine like a course about death. But seriously, this philosophical approach to that darkest of all topics is bound to make you think. It will make you think about the thorny questions around the subject of death. What happens when you die? What does it mean to die? What does it mean to mean? Yep, this is one of those classes. So if you’re ready to do some heavy pondering, give this one a spin.

11. Financial Markets

Want to know what all that Dow Jones business is all about? Or what that jagged line that goes up and down every day means? This free online class on financial markets will show you how humans organize to create more money through banks, insurance, and securities. More importantly, it will tell you what all that stuff has to do with you.

12. Introduction to Ancient Greek History

These guys started it all: democracy, philosophy, science, togas. So it only makes sense that we should learn more about them in an online course to understand our world better. The professor is an author of multiple books on the subject of Ancient Greek History and a recipient of the National Humanities Medal. This online class also includes study groups that you can join to discuss class topics with other students.

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