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The Most Important Open Course Materials Online

In case you haven't already heard: free digital coursework is the next big thing in education. Hundreds of universities are now uploading free and shareable educational content online. The effects of these free publications, podcasts and videos are rippling far wider than anyone could've guessed. What began as a supplemental online tool for U.S. students is transforming into a worldwide learning bank. Netizens of all ages are now accessing these open materials for a multitude of reasons—from satisfying continuing education requirements to exploring abiding academic interests.

The time is ripe for students and learners of all stripes to take advantage of these free educational materials. And so far, the most popular and noteworthy online courses, podcasts and open source content online are proving themselves worthy of everyone's time.

The Rise of Open Content

Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) are a relatively recent phenomenon. The term was first coined in 2008, and early courses were administered as discussion threads, blog posts, online meetings and Second Life. Today, a variety of top schools share free online classes and coursework on a network of cutting edge open source management platforms. Open content doesn't need to be interactive to be valuable: most open source materials are hosted as free databases, documents and podcasts.

Top Universities and Programs

One learning platform, Udacity claims its on a "mission to democratize education." Co-founded by Google co-founder Sebastian Thrun, Udacity offers free courses in computer science, general science, math, entrepreneurship and programming. Taking advantage of the online, podcast format, Udacity provides traditional course content in unique ways, such as learning physics while touring Europe. Udacity also offers certificates. And while courses are free, certification is not.

At Coursera, social entrepreneurs partner with top universities offering free online courses. Coursera students learn with interactive activities and from top professors from around the world. Courses are offered in medicine, social sciences, business, mathematics, computer science and the humanities. Coursera partners include top universities like Michigan, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, CalTech, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, University of Illinois, and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been another leader of the open source content movement. In addition to making all of its course materials online for free through MIT OpenCourse Ware, the premier university also offers free online courses through MITx, one of the founding partners of edX. Online courses feature interactive instruction, online labs and the opportunity for individual assessment and certification.

EdX is a partnership between MIT, Harvard, Berkeley and, beginning in 2013, the University of Texas, that provides free and interactive online courses. The universities have committed to offer free subject certification through 2012, although in the future, a modest fee may be charged.

Sources for Open Content

Libraries and Archives

The Internet Archive offers free access to a wide array of audio, video, software and texts from digital collections. Vast in scope and offerings, the Internet Archive has 10 petabytes of data saved.

Over 1 million movies, 1 million audio recordings and 3 million texts are available to download for free at services like Open Library. Moving images range from videos from the Hubble Space Telescope to 9/11 archives. Audio recordings include everything from recordings to broadcasts to sermons.

Other libraries offer thousands of texts online such as the University of Pennsylvania's Online Books Page and Stanford University's High Wire.

The U.S. Library of Congress provides free access to a variety of digital collections including American History & Culture, Historic Newspapers, Prints and Photographs, Legislative Information and Early Sound Recordings.

Databases and Search Engines

FreeFullPDF offers over 80 million free publications in life, health and physical sciences as well as mathematics and the humanities.

Students can find abstracts, articles and discipline specific search engines for free at Academic Publications eJournal.

At Cornell University's arXiv, students search and access thousands of science, mathematics, finance and statistics texts.

Students may also freely search directories of open access journals at Lund University and GenamicsJournalSeek. Genamics also offers free tools in biochemistry at SoftwareSeek and access to eukaryal and microbial genome projects at GenomeSeek.

Google Scholar is a bibliographic service that searches all scholarly literature and directs researchers to copies of the work on the web or in a local library.

At HAL, students may search a wide array of research papers, including otherwise unpublished documents in the humanities, life sciences, physics, non-linear sciences, mathematics and the social sciences.

Mendeley offers a database of crowd-sourced documents.

The National Institutes of Health produce PubMed and MedlinePlus that offer free access to a wide-array of health-related documents, including scholarly articles and abstracts.

At, users can search and access 2100 websites and 50 databases from over a dozen federal agencies.

Podcasts and Lectures

A number of providers have free podcasts on a variety of topics, including iTunes.

At Backdoor Broadcasting Company, students can download academic research for free, and access specific articles by searching its archive.

The Do It Yourself Scholar provides a guide to academic broadcasts, and at LearnOutLoud, students are free to listen to and download podcasts that focus on the humanities.

At the Forum Network, access lectures on a variety of topics in the humanities, sciences, business, economics, media and the arts.

Subscription Services

Additional resources are available for a fee.

EBSCOhost offers a variety of databases, including legal, educational, applied science and technology, humanities and library information and science super databases, to name a few.

Elsevier offers a combination of free and paid access to science and health information, including books, journals and online tools.

Ingentaconnect has over 4 million articles available to purchase by individual article or through subscription.

Lexis-Nexis provides its subscribers with access to over 45,000 news, business and legal sources.

ProQuest offers vetted research from its partner libraries from government, academia and the private sector in a wide array of fields.

Thomson Reuters provides subscription services for a large number of databases including legal, science, media, government, financial, intellectual property and even tax accounting.

With millions more resources currently being archived in digital collections, the massive potential of online learning only continues to expand. Open content is not only revolutionary for enhancing student engagement and comprehension. Massive online open classes, archives, databases and podcasts are revolutionary because they democratize learning. Thanks to free and open digital archives, the hallmark of higher education—its elite coursework—is more accessible across the globe.