8 great (and free!) free online courses
A catalog of some of the most interesting online classes born in and around America’s college town, from building a website to cooking with culinary legends.
WHETHER YOU'RE A COLLEGE STUDENT or a lifelong learner, the emergence of MOOCs — Massive Online Open Courses — has been good news for your brain and your wallet. MOOCs let thousands of students at a time enroll in courses at some of the world's top institutions, requiring little more than an Internet connection and a spirit of curiosity. Here, some of the most interesting MOOCs and other online courses you can take that were born in and around America's college town.
> ANTH207X, Wellesley College
This class in paleoanthropology will feature a virtual lab in which users will get to analyze 3-D fossils such as skulls and drop in on simulated excavations using images and video of archeological sites, including in places like Kazakhstan, Dmanisi in Georgia, and the Great Rift Valley in Africa, many of them visited in person, Indiana Jones-style, by professor Adam Van Arsdale. Next taught September 25.
> 7.00X, MITx
Yeah, it's kind of a big topic, but it's also taught by someone who can actually explain it all: Eric Lander, one of the scientists who decoded the human genome. The 11-week course covers the basics of biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, and other topics in the same introductory format used to teach MIT undergrads. And if you pass, you get a free "certificate of mastery" from MIT's online offshoot, MITx. Next taught September 10.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
> HKS211.1x, HarvardX
Such a hot topic that access to discussion boards will be restricted, this is a right-out-of-the-headlines course taught by some of the people behind those headlines. National security analyst Graham Allison, a former assistant secretary of defense who served as an adviser to both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, will be joined at the blackboard by David E. Sanger, chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times. By looking at examples, including WikiLeaks — and, likely, Edward Snowden's revelations about the National Security Agency — students will learn how to analyze and develop strategies to contend with everything from the Iranian nuclear program to the Arab Awakening in an all-too-real-world environment of leaks, internal discord, and policy blunders. Next taught September 10.
> 24.00x, MITx
"You're watching this on a machine of some sort. It isn't conscious. You are conscious." That's how Caspar Hare begins this course, at one of the world's foremost science universities, about life's greatest mysteries, which is designed to help develop the ability to make strong arguments. "Some things have free will," Hare says on the course video in a gripping lecture style and obligatory English accent. "You have free will. Or at least you think you do. But how exactly can you have free will, given that the matter in your body is pushed around by the immutable iron laws of physics?" Find out here. Next taught October 1.
> SPU27X, HarvardX
Taught by an unlikely team of physicists, mathematicians, and international chefs, this course includes a weekly lab assignment you can eat: a recipe you make at home after learning some of the science behind the culinary creations of the likes of Ferran Adria, who ran the legendary Spanish restaurant elBulli, Boston's Joanne Chang of Flour and Myers + Chang, White House executive pastry chef Bill Yosses, and David Chang, chef and owner of New York's Momofuku Ko. The syllabus might not sound that tasty, with its references to elasticity, emulsions, and diffusions, but the demonstrations, often in the chefs' own kitchens, definitely are. Next taught October 1.
> 8.01x, MITx
An oldie but goodie by online education standards, this is the famous course in introductory physics taught by MIT professor Walter Lewin, who got robust cheers from his students for his dramatic demonstrations of the laws of physics that made Lecture Hall 26-100 famous. Videotaped in 1999, the lecture series is still riveting; Lewin releases a heavy pendulum from his own chin, for example, to prove he can predict its trajectory to within a fraction of a centimeter and propels himself on a tricycle using a fire extinguisher to show Newton's third law of action and reaction. "Whether you like it or not, I'm going to make you love physics," Lewin says from beneath his wild mane of hair. And he will. Next taught September 9.
> AI12.1x, HarvardX
How can you do better than a course about the work of 17th-century New England poets, such as Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor, from the place where many of them went to college? Literature professor Elisa New uses original manuscripts from Harvard's massive library collections, plus video of where the poets once lived and wrote and students "singing" verses from pews in the university's Memorial Church. This is the first of a series of online courses canvassing 400 years of poetry in America, starting where American poetry did. Next taught in October. (And then you can move on to the next in the series: Walt Whitman, starting in November.)
This exceptionally practical course had a waiting list for its first six-week formal graded version (held this summer), which included discussion sessions and had a capacity of 1,000. But the lessons and materials, including eminently entertaining videos, are available online for anyone to learn from (at umass.edu/journalism/mooc/about.html). The course has attracted students from 48 countries, from UMass freshmen to a woman in her 80s, who are building everything from personal portfolios to a website about sled-dog racing. Available online; graded version next taught in spring 2014.
3 WORTH PAYING FOR
Contrary to the public image, some online courses cost as much as a conventional university class. Also largely unknown? Many put a limit on student enrollment — especially when there's lots of personal interaction with teachers. Look what your money can get you.
> BMP-120, Berklee College of Music
Want to learn to play guitar? Want to learn from internationally known jazz guitarist and assistant chair of the Berklee guitar department Rick Peckham and his colleagues? In the comfort of your own home? With personalized feedback on your weekly assignments? That's why online education rocks. (And when you're finished with this, you can advance to Steve Vai Guitar Techniques, with the Grammy winner who has sold more than 15 million records and backed Frank Zappa, or Gary Burton: Jazz Improvisation, with the man Pat Metheny calls one of the greatest living jazz improvisers.) Next taught September 30, $1,200-$1,400, plus fees.
> COMP 0010A, Tufts University
After covering the basic principles of computer science, artificial intelligence, software code, and robot construction, students build their own robots at home using a robotics tool set loaned out by the university. They then photograph and take video of their little bots in action to post online and share with classmates. Next taught in 2014 at tufts.edu, but worth the wait. This year's cost was $2,265 plus registration fee and some materials.
> MET EN240 OL, Boston University Metropolitan College
Poetry, according to former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky, is meant to be heard. After all, he says, you wouldn't read the score "and never listen to the music." This course uses Pinsky's Favorite Poems Project — in which 18,000 Americans volunteered their most cherished poems — to explore how a reader's voice creates a unique understanding of poetry. Next taught in the summer of 2014; 2013 cost was $2,580. Find more details at bu.edu.
Unless otherwise noted, courses can be found at edx.org, the website of the online education initiative founded by Harvard and MIT that now includes courses by Georgetown, Cornell, and many more.
Jon Marcus is a frequent Globe Magazine contributor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.