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Online learning is becoming the rule rather than the exception. Here are the best online learning courses And tools.
Everyone daydreams about taking a class at the local community college to pick up a new skill or to learn about a subject just for the love of learning. But it often stays a daydream because who has the time or energy to go to class after a long day of work? That’s why online learning has become so popular—there are a slew of online learning courses out there which can help you master everything from a second language to sleight of hand to Native American culture.
The best online learning courses offer a variety of curriculum with credentialed or qualified instructors at affordable prices. And there are so many options to choose from. Here are the best online learning courses, plus a bonus: the definitive online learning tool that you can use to master the arts of math and science.
Udemy is an online learning site that offers about 130,000 online courses for both individuals and businesses. For individuals, there’s no subscription model; you pay for each class you take, and prices vary quite a bit, ranging from as little as $50 to more than $150 each. But classes are frequently marked down such that a $140 class might routinely be available for as little as $15. There’s also a business plan available, which is only a good deal if your employees make frequent use of the courses, since it’s $360 per person per year.
The range of courses is absolutely enormous, with categories that include coding, business, finance, IT, office productivity, personal development, design, marketing, lifestyle, photography, music, academics, and health and fitness. If you’re honing your programming skills, you’ll find classes on machine learning, all major languages and software testing. There are courses on business skills like entrepreneurship, business law and practical e-commerce classes on tools like Amazon FBA and Shopify.
Not surprisingly, Udemy works with a lot of instructors, and anyone with a desire to teach can sign up and create a syllabus. The site has some guidelines instructors must follow to ensure course quality, but the site has no specific requirements for who may become an instructor and offer classes, which means course quality—and instructor competence—will vary from class to class.
Rosetta Stone has been around a very long time—it launched in 1992, though obviously it wasn’t an online service at the time—and has developed a reputation as a superb language course. Nonetheless, Rosetta Stone is a demanding program. It immerses you in language and doesn’t always provide clear definitions for new vocabulary, preferring to have you build your knowledge through context. That’s not for everyone, but fans of the program often return to focus on yet another language.
There are a total of 23 languages you can learn in Rosetta Stone: Arabic, Mandarin, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Farsi, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish (both Latin American and European), Swedish, Tagalog, Turkish and Vietnamese.
And you don’t need to choose; while the three-month plan ($36 total) only unlocks a single language, any of the other subscription plans gives you unlimited access to all of Rosetta Stone’s languages. You can get a year for $8 per month or a lifetime subscription for $199. Keep an eye out for discounts; Rosetta Stone frequently reduces prices, making the lifetime plan a good deal, especially if you plan to tackle more than one language.
Looking for some online language lessons but you’re not sufficiently motivated to subscribe to a course like Rosetta Stone? Duolingo might be the learning solution you’re looking for. First and foremost, it’s completely free—both the website and mobile app are ad-supported. If you want to remove the ads, though, you can pay $7 per month. Even that is something of a bargain, though.
Duolingo offers no fewer than 36 languages. Of those 36, 34 are “real” languages: Arabic, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Esperanto, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hawaiian, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Navajo, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Scottish Gaelic, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Turkish, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, and Welsh. If the real world isn’t enough for you, you can also pick up Star Trek’s Klingon and Game of Thrones’ High Valyrian.
Babbel is an interesting language learning platform that combines communicative didactics, cognitivism, behaviorism and constructivism in its lessons for faster learning that will stick with you. Your efficiency and proficiency are helped along by progressive lessons, an interlinking framework to help keep you on track when building up to more difficult lessons. Refresh your Spanish or learn Italian, Russian and Swedish with the help of Babbel.
Babbel provides two options when you sign up—either a live option that provides you access to classes with a teacher or an app subscription, where you get unlimited access to lessons for all languages, levels and time commitments. For a limited time, you can save 50% on your first subscription.
Skillshare has a catalog of about 27,000 classes (plus another 2,000 free classes), but unlike some online learning sites, it leans hard into creative topics. The site is broadly divided into three main categories:
If you want to learn how to animate in After Effects, learn about composition and color use in street photography or learn responsive web design fundamentals, this is the site for you. Even many of the Build and Thrive topics seem aimed at creatives.
There’s a course on productivity tips for artists and “Art from Your Heart: How to Art Journal for Wellness and Balance.” And the classes on how to start a business and Microsoft Excel Bootcamp are skills any freelance artist needs to know. That said, there’s also content on the site that doesn’t fit into any of Skillshare’s three categories, which you’ll probably only find by random searches, like a slew of cooking classes and some stargazing and astronomy classes.
You can get a sampling of Skillshare with the site’s free lessons, but the real meat of the site is unlocked with a Premium membership, which lets you access an unlimited number of courses. Skillshare Premium costs $32 per month, or you can save $216 over the course of the year by getting an annual subscription for $168.
Some of Skillshare’s courses are built and presented by individuals. Skillshare doesn’t vet the instructors, but does enforce course guidelines. While what you’ll find in these classes is of somewhat uneven quality, Skillshare also creates high-quality classes called Skillshare Originals. These classes generally have high production values and are taught by noted experts or celebrity instructors.
Kahn Academy is one of the better known educational resources online; many people know the site’s origin story, in which founder Sal Khan began tutoring his cousin and created animations with voiceover narration to explain math concepts and posted them on YouTube. From those humble beginnings grew a site that’s been lauded by Bill Gates, and today offers a large array of K-16 courses for free.
Kahn focuses on studies that mirror and support coursework that students will encounter in grade school, high school and college: It includes math from algebra to calculus, sciences including biology and physics, history, civics economics, coding and more. And while there’s substantial coverage of most grade school and high school topics, Kahn Academy’s deepest and most comprehensive coursework is in every level of math from first grade through college, including AP (Advanced Placement) prep work.
Kahn Academy is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and offers all of its content for free. Its content is available to independent learners, but Kahn also has extensive partnerships with educators to help students use Kahn Academy content in academic settings. Because of this unique approach, Kahn doesn’t need to partner with unaccredited and unvetted instructors; Kahn works closely with credentialed content contributors, and details about them are clearly listed on the web site.
If someone turned TED Talks into a community college, you’d end up with something a lot like MasterClass. It’s educational, but not in a college curriculum sort of way; instead, it’s what would happen if the most famous person in a given field taught a college survey course on the topic. The result is engaging, entertaining, glitzy and glossy, but also practical and educational.
The result is that MasterClass doesn’t have the sheer volume of courses that some of the alternatives have; to maintain the very high production values on all of MasterClass’s content, it offers somewhere around 100 courses, but each one is dazzling. There are courses in business, politics, design and photography, film, music, science and tech, sports and writing. Want to learn magic? Take Penn & Teller’s course. There’s a comedy course from Judd Apatow and a class in music curation from Questlove. Astronaut Chris Hadfield teaches space exploration. Even a topic as mundane as dog training is taught by Brandon McMillan, a master animal trainer and Emmy-winning host of the TV show “Lucky Dog.”
MasterClass has a single subscription level, which gives you unlimited access to all the site’s content for $180 per year. That works out to $15 per month, though you need to pay the whole year up front.
THE GREAT COURSES PLUS
The Great Courses Plus and MasterClass are often compared to one another, and they do share a lot in common. Both deliver slick, professionally-produced video that uses instructors of some note; neither allow unvetted teachers to create content. But while MasterClass uses celebrity lecturers, The Great Courses Plus tends to use less-well-known but thoroughly reputable instructors. The course on “Unlocking the Hidden History of DNA” is lectured by New York Times best-selling author Sam Kean, for example; a course called “Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths” is taught by Dr. Steven Novella, a Yale School of Medicine professor and host of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast.
There are about a dozen course categories overall at The Great Courses Plus, covering topics as diverse as economics, food and wine, history, math, music, art, science and travel. While there’s some content for younger learners, most of the courses here are aimed at adult students.
A subscription to the Great Courses Plus costs $20 per month or $150 per year, and makes all the content on the site available in all-you-can-eat form. One word of warning: don’t confuse this steaming service with The Great Courses, a sister site in which you pay for each course individually.
Like a handful of other online learning sites, Coursera eschews letting “just anyone” sign up to teach classes in favor of partnering with colleges and corporations—on the site you’ll find course content from major universities (Duke, Arizona State, Case Western and the Georgia Institute of Tech to name a few), museums like the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History, and companies like Autodesk and Red Hat.
All that expertise gets channeled into around 3,000 classes on topics as diverse as business, arts and humanities, IT, math, physics and engineering, social sciences and languages. But here’s where Coursera is different than most other learning sites: not only can you take individual classes for personal enrichment or career development, but you can also leverage the classes into earning an online degree. Coursera allows you to earn a number of degrees and professional certificates, and it’s easy to see which degree programs Coursera offers as you browse the site’s course catalog.
Because Coursera has such a wide range of offerings, there’s no single price to get on board. You can join for free and survey a large number of classes without paying anything. Coursera Plus gives you access to 3,000 courses and the opportunity to earn professional certificates for $399 per year. Or you can enroll in a degree program—costs vary, but are identified on the site. In addition, there are enterprise plans available for businesses, and students enrolled in participating schools can take some Coursera classes for credit for free.
Wolfram Alpha is not an online learning course. In fact, it can be challenging to wrap your head around what, exactly it is. It looks like a search engine, but it’s not, in the sense that Wolfram Alpha does not crawl the internet looking for information that way Google does. Instead, it’s an “engine for computing answers and providing knowledge,” and consequently leans heavily into mathematics, though it also can answer questions about science & technology, society & culture, and more.
The site combines its own curated data with the ability to perform calculations on demand as well as to find the best and clearest way to present the results. The result is that Wolfram Alpha can solve a vast range of math problems from simple arithmetic to calculus and statistics, graphing the results and showing its work as needed. It can tell you how fast a satellite has to be to stay in geosynchronous orbit and tell you the speed of sound at any altitude. If you are in a technical field of study, Wolfram Alpha can become an indispensable tool.
The site is free, though you can upgrade to Wolfram Alpha Pro for $5.49 per month. That unlocks step-by-step solutions to problems so you can see how a problem was solved, along with practice problems, enhanced calculators, and downloadable results so you can import them into other documents. There’s also special pricing for students and educators that brings it down to $4.75 per month.
Dave Johnson has been a tech journalist since the days of the Palm Pilot and Windows 95. He’s the author of about three dozen books about tech, digital photography, small