Free Resources for Lifelong Learning

Posted on December 17, 2014 at 6:00 am

By Brian Vander Veen

Free Resources for Lifelong Learning by Brian Vander Veen | Spokane County Library District

It’s been nearly twenty years since the film Good Will Hunting came out, and honestly, I don’t remember much of it, but there’s one line that has long stuck with me. Working-class genius Will is arguing in a bar with Harvard student Clark, and what Will says, the redacted PG version at least, goes something like this: “You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on an education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library!” 

I’ve always loved that line, but until I just looked it up, I had forgotten Clark’s response: “Yeah, but I will have a degree, and you’ll be serving my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip.” 

Looking back years later, I have to admit that, for all his pompous overstatement, Clark did have a point: On average, there’s a significant gap in income and employment opportunities for those without a college degree. A formal college degree is still a smart financial investment, despite the rising costs of tuition.

On the other hand, though, there are intrinsic rewards to learning that can’t be easily quantified in terms of one’s return on investment. What if your goal is merely to learn for the sake of self-improvement or to sate your own intellectual curiosity? In those cases, the cost of a college course can be much harder to justify.

Fortunately, however, there’s more opportunity than ever for ambitious learners to access quality educational resources for free, so much so, in fact, that the choices can be a little daunting. So to help you make sense of it all, here’s my quick guide to a free education:

SCLD Learning Resources

Through our digital library, SCLD offers several options for online learning: Gale Courses provides a variety of instructor-led six-week courses, with new sessions of each course opening up every month. A range of topics are available, from business basics, like “Creating a Successful Business Plan,” to more recreational interests, like the popular “Beginning Writer’s Workshop.” There are also classes to help you prep for various tests or certifications, including GED, GRE, CompTIA certifications, and more.

Free Resources for Lifelong Learning by Brian Vander Veen | Spokane County Library District

For in-depth technical training, Microsoft IT Academy offers a number of self-paced courses ranging from Word or Excel basics to more advanced topics like Microsoft server administration or web app development with Visual Studio.

And if learning a second language is more your thing, you may want to try Pronunciator, which provides interactive, self-paced courses in some eighty different languages and dialects from Afrikaans to Xhosa. The more popular languages, like Spanish or Mandarin, also have simplified courses for younger learners and shorter crash courses for travelers.

All of these resources are free to use for residents of Spokane County through the SCLD website (those within Spokane city limits can access Gale Courses and Microsoft IT Academy through the Spokane Public Library website).

Finally, if you don’t mind visiting us at your neighborhood library, we have a selection of products from the Great Courses series available for checkout. Each “course” is a set of DVDs or CDs of recorded lectures by well-regarded scholars. For example, you can learn about the principles of cosmology with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the history of the New Testament with bestselling author Bart Ehrman, or the symphonies of Beethoven with award-winning composer Robert Greenberg.


Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are a relatively new development in online education: these online courses are “massive” because the enrollment can easily number in the thousands, and “open” because anyone can enroll at no cost (although some MOOC sites may charge for an optional certificate of completion or formal assessment).

Generally, lectures are delivered through streaming video presentations, slideshows, or short readings. Because of the size of the courses, however, activities like peer discussions or automatically graded multiple-choice tests tend to take the place of more detailed assignments and instructor feedback.

Free Resources for Lifelong Learning by Brian Vander Veen | Spokane County Library District

As a potential replacement for traditional educational methods, MOOCs have raised hackles for a variety for reasons, not least of which are the relative lack of personal interaction with instructors and the fear that college administrators might use MOOCs as an excuse to downsize instructional faculty.

Without taking a particular side in that debate, however, let me just say that I’ve found MOOCs useful enough personally despite the limitations of the format: If you have a basic level of computer literacy, the discipline to learn something new without a lot of external oversight, and a subject that doesn’t require a lot of detailed feedback to perfect, MOOCs can be a fun learning experience. Not a replacement for a formal classroom experience, but useful nonetheless.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but since MOOCs don’t cost you anything, I figure they’re at least worth a try. There are several MOOC providers that you can browse for upcoming courses, including Canvas Network, Coursera, and EdX. Individual MOOCs scheduled to begin in the new year include the courses “Evolution and Natural Selection,” “Introduction to Linux,” or “Minecraft for Educators.”


OpenCourseWare is a catch-all term for educational materials, organized by course, that are published for free to the web. In other words, it’s all the printed material associated with a college-level course—the syllabus, reading list, assignments, handouts, lecture notes, and so on—that a suitably motivated individual can use to structure their exploration of a subject without having to formally take (and pay for) the course. Some of the more elaborate courses may also include audio or video of the actual lectures.

Compared to MOOCs, the advantage of OpenCourseWare is that you never have to wait for a course to be formally offered; you can start working through the course materials whenever you want and at your own pace. The disadvantage is that you’re completely on your own, without even the peer interaction that a formal MOOC usually provides. That being said, if you want to learn something new and merely need a little structure, OpenCourseWare definitely has a use.

MIT’s OpenCourseWare site was the first to really kickstart the OpenCourseWare movement, but a number of other quality educational institutions and organizations have since begun their own extensive sites, including Notre Dame, Tufts University, and the non-profit Saylor Foundation.

Gamified Learning Sites

Finally, another big trend in education, in both online and traditional classroom environments, has been the use of game-like rewards, like points or badges, to help individuals track their progress and get motivated to continue.

In recent years, a number of free educational sites have been built around gamified learning. The best known among these is probably Khan Academy, which uses brief video tutorials and awards users with various badges and other game-like rewards for completing interactive quizzes. Khan Academy mostly focuses on teaching math, with tutorials from basic arithmetic through advanced calculus, but they’ve recently been expanding into other areas in the sciences and humanities.

Following Khan Academy’s success, similar sites have emerged with different educational emphases, such as Codecademy, which teaches basic web coding skills through interactive tutorials in HTML, CSS, PHP, Javascript, and more.

Resolving to Learn

In my intro, I neglected to mention the next line in Good Will Hunting, after Clark predicts for Will a future in fast food: “Yeah, maybe, but at least I won’t be unoriginal.” Sure, a degree is a smart choice economically, but it’s that lifelong pursuit of learning that actually makes a person interesting. And with New Year’s just around the corner, this as good a time as any to rekindle those curiosities and resolve to learn something new.

Want to brush up on your Spanish with Pronunciator? Learn to code with Codecademy? Finally get that novel started with the Beginning Writer’s Workshop from Gale Courses? What do you want to learn in 2015?


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