Two people walking around surrounded by floating laptops

How to Learn Online for Free

If you know where to look, you can learn practically anything you want to online for free. It's the biggest opportunity out there that not enough take advantage of - here's how to do it.

Pipe Dream

The thing I remember most about graduating from university was not what you'd expect.

It wasn't wearing a stuffy, expensive, rented gown in the summer sunshine. It wasn't the hours of sitting around, and waiting, and applauding other students. It wasn't the brief stride across the stage for a handshake. Nor was it the feeling of achievement after three years of (reasonably, but not always) hard work.

It was the photograph.

We'd all lined up for our turn in front of the backdrop, to stand there clutching our degrees in our clammy, freshly graduated hands, to beam into the camera from underneath our mortar board caps.

Only problem was, we hadn't been given a physical degree certificate yet. It was going to arrive in the mail in a few weeks. So how did everyone else already have degrees in their photos?

Suddenly, it was my turn. I stood in position, straightened my cap and gown, and was finally handed my 'degree' to hold in the photo.

It was an eight inch white PVC plastic tube with a red ribbon tied around it.

It was the same kind of tube you would buy from a hardware store to plumb your bathroom in. I was told to hold in such a way to bring the bow of the ribbon to the front, one hand at each end of the tube, diagonally across my chest.

Still bewildered, the flash went off as I pulled a cheesy grin.

It's a moment that has stayed in my mind ever since because it was when I realised I hadn't just come to university to learn. I'd also come for the symbolism, for the certificate, for the opportunities it would confer. And also because I didn't know what else to do.

It wasn't until much later that I began to think long and hard about what it means to learn, what we need to do to learn more in our lives, and why it is so important to do so.

Learn It for Free

The miracle of the internet is that, in a few short decades, it has been able to make a phenomenal amount of educational content available for free.

This isn't to say that you shouldn't pay for education anymore. Quite the opposite - I believe paid education has become more useful and needed than ever. The difference now is that, if we want to learn something, there's no reason to wait. We have no excuse but to buckle up and get on with it. Today, if possible.

It may be that we later decide to go even further than that, following our interests all the way through to becoming a university professor. But let's just take things one step at a time.

The order has been subverted. We should aim, first, to learn for free.

Re-Assess What You Know About How to Learn

Education is not the same thing as learning. For many, the two go hand in hand, and often for a very long time - I was lucky enough to be in one form of education or another until I was 21.

But they are not the same thing. Education is a system and learning is a process. This is key.

Spending years learning in an educational system builds certain habits. They are habits that are certainly useful when you're in the system, but may be less helpful when you're outside of it.

For one thing, no one is grading you. No one is testing you. No one is setting your coursework and expecting you to deliver it on time. This means that it's up to you to do the following:

  • Decide to learn
  • Decide what to learn
  • Decide how to learn it
  • Decide what to do with it

You can do this inside or outside of an educational system, but if we grow dependent on those systems for learning throughout our entire life we end up limiting ourselves.

Needing to be inside an educational system to learn can be costly and slow. If you are time-poor or don't have cash, you still have the right to learn. We may not receive a certificate in the process, but then we're not always in it for the paper.

How to Find Good Source Material

Good sources are important. A quick scan of a WikiPedia article or a ten minute YouTube video might be helpful for some things, but they're not always going to cut it.

And yes, there is a limit - you certainly can't learn how to be, and qualify as, a nuclear technician by finding free information online. But do you want to study to an MIT course in Applied Nuclear Physics? Well, you can.

The Fundamentals - Khan Academy

Khan Academy started with one guy helping his cousin learn maths. Then he made more videos. Then he launched it on YouTube. And then it just kept on growing from there. Today, the courses on Khan Academy are still targeted more towards high school students, but you're never too long in the tooth to brush up on your calculus.

Personally, I've been dabbling in their microeconomics course. I don't want to become an expert, I just want the fundamental concepts - so far, it's been perfect for my needs.

Coding - freeCodeCamp

If you want to learn how to code, especially if you are a beginner, there are few places better than freeCodeCamp. CodeCademy also has a number of free courses available as well, but they will try to make you sign up and pay at every possible chance.

I've used freeCodeCamp to learn HTML and CSS. At some point, I intend to take the JavaScript course.

Literature - Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg is perhaps my favourite thing on this list. It's sole purpose is to collate and distribute eBooks for free. It does this by digitising and formatting works that are no longer protected by copyright. It's a piece of cake to download them and then transfer them to a Kindle. Not convinced? Check out their Top 100 books.

Languages - Duolingo

If you've been living under a rock, you might not have heard of Duolingo. With 25 million monthly users, 91 courses and 37 languages, it is somehow still free. It pays for this with advertising and some optional purchases, but you can still learn without parting with your cash.

Higher Education - The Open University

The UK-based (so, a somewhat biased inclusion) 'OU' has been a provider of distance-based degrees since the late sixties. They were, in many ways, way ahead of their time. In 2006 they launched OpenLearn, a free learning platform where the material is covered by a creative commons license. Many who study on the platform go on to become formal students.

Higher Education Aggregators - Open Culture, edX & Coursera

A surprising amount of leading universities make enormous amounts of their course material freely available online. MIT is one such example (see the link above). You might not be solving maths problems in the hallway before your next counselling session with Robin Williams, but it's near enough. (edX and Coursera have paid content as well, but there is much for free.)

Open Access Journals - Too Many to List

A large number of journals have free versions online, and there are also a number of reputable article aggregators such as Google Scholar and the Directory of Open Access Journals. OUP, SAGE and JSTOR all have open content. PLOS One is famously open for all to read and review without any restriction.

Create a Learning System

Anyone with a laptop and an internet connection has all the tools they need to learn an unlimited amount, starting today.


You can access the free courses and online content, yes, but what you then do with that content is just as important.

If Nothing Else, Take Notes

Taking high quality notes is incredibly important and it's the secret to really retaining and understanding what we learn. Although I've got some of my own notes on the topic, Nat Eliason has a comprehensive guide and Anne-Laure Le Cunff goes into the detail of the science behind note-taking.

Don't just stop at taking the notes, either. Take the time to properly process them, elaborate on them, and continue to write. This will help compound what you have learnt and are learning.

Popular tools for taking notes and writing include Roam Research (my personal favourite and what I'm writing this article with) Evernote, Notion, TiddlyWiki, Google Keep and good old Google Docs.

Share What You Learn

Turning what we learn into something useful or, more specifically, creating something is the natural next step. Not only does creating something actively help us to learn, it brings some form of value into the world.

  • Studying code? Write a program to automate a mundane task.
  • Studying business? Fold what you're learning into your job as you go.
  • Studying poetry? Compose poems.

Go Forth and Be Curious

So there we have it: a primer, of sorts, in learning for free. I hope this article has been of some use to at least one person out there. If it has, I'd love to hear from you. Fire me a tweet and let me know if you found something helpful in here; I'd love to know.

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I write a newsletter about the internet. It's called Internet Connection. There's a few hundred of us that fall down the rabbit hole every other week. Want to come along for the ride? Drop your email below.

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