My Favourite Free Online Learning Resources

June 04, 2018

It's a fabulous time to be a lifelong learner. In this digital age, we have a wealth of information right at our fingertips. We can learn anything, from how to tie our shoelaces to biblical Aramaic wherever in the world we may be.

As a lifelong learner, I yearn for resources beyond the epistemological. Specifically, my favourite resources have three requirements:

  1. A means to document learning, so I'm able to realise if I've mastered a subject or course
  2. Be freely available (or at least, be available within my tiny budget)
  3. Cover a range of subjects, to ensure I can branch out into other areas as impulse requirement dictate.
A few years ago, when I first began formal learning online, most of the MOOCs I encountered were free, and frequently certified. I was able to fill many gaps in my formal learning, from calculus to basic psychology and the fundamentals of physics, complete with a PDF certificate to satisfy my sense of pride. 

The rise in popularity of Massive Open Online Courses has attracted interest from some of the world's best educators and universities, though this also means, more often than not, that certification (and the recognition of having completed a course of learning) now comes with a cost. So rather than simply provide a list of online learning resources, I'm limiting this guide to only the ones I find most useful, and which meet my three requirements explained above.

iDEA (Inspiring Digital Enterprise Award)

Though relatively new, the iDEA website is among the best free learning resources I have encountered! Founded by The Duke of York, the Inspiring Digital Enterprise Award is a programme designed to help you develop digital, enterprise and employability skills. 

Badges are earned by completing challenges in five different areas: Citizen, Maker, Worker, Entrepreneur and Gamer. Once you've earned enough badges in each category, you'll be able to earn an award and certificate to demonstrate your competency.

Currently, only the Bronze (beginner level) award is available, though the Silver is scheduled to be released later this year followed by Gold in 2019.

Update: Currently both Bronze and Silver levels are available, Gold will become active later this year.

At any point, iDEA learners are able to download, print and share their achievements to date by means of the integrated Record of Achievement which can be verified by potential employers or learning institutions.

I really enjoy the variety of subjects available. Though all are loosely connected by the theme of "digital enterprise", learners can earn badges in such varied subjects as "Brain hacking", Farm Technology, Animation, Advertising and Game Design. Learners can receive recognition for subjects in which they have become independently competent, or choose to learn new skills to fill the gaps in their knowledge.

iDEA aspires to be the digital and enterprise equivalent of The Duke of Edinburgh Award. Judging by the quality and breadth of content available so far, I'm sure this venture will soon become as prestigious an award as it's "offline", character building brother-award.

Big History Project

Founded by entrepreneur and businessman Bill Gates, Big History Project is a "supercharged social studies curriculum". Covering 13.8 billion years of life on earth, the BHP curriculum takes students on a journey from the big bang, through early human civilisation and major societal changes, covering physics, geology, history, sociology and even elements of literature, language and psychology along the way.

There are several ways to access and benefit from BHP. The most basic level is a six-hour long curriculum, which could be completed in as little as one day. The chapters at this level include:

  • Threshold 1: The Big Bang   
    Beginning at the beginning. As far as we know.
  • Threshold 2: Stars light up   
    How stars are born
  • Threshold 3: New chemical elements   
    How stars forge elements in the universe
  • Threshold 4: The solar system   
    How tasty morsels of gas and rock created our home
  • Threshold 5: Life on earth   
    How life evolves, adapts and thrives
  • Threshold 6: Collective learning   
    How humans are different
  • Threshold 7: Agriculture   
    How farming sows the seeds of civilisation
  • Threshbold 8: The modern revolution   
    Why change accelerates faster and faster

Each chapter presents videos, reading material and activities to test your learning and earn badges. Students in the U.S. and Australia can receive a sticker upon completion of this curriculum.

For those seeking a more comprehensive curriculum, take a look at the BHP School Site for a year long plan. Educators across the world choose to deliver the BHP in schools and learning institutions; comprehensive resources are available for teachers as well as students, and all material provided by the site is completely free of charge.

I completed the basic curriculum some time ago and found it a highly interesting primer. Currently I'm working my way through the year long curriculum, using the resources found on the BHP website and complemented by my reading and resources elsewhere. 

Visit the Big History Project website to find out more.

Khan Academy

Khan Academy is a fascinating resource: a non-profit, international organisation which offers a comprehensive mathematics curriculum alongside learning modules in Computing, Science and Engineering, Arts and Humanities, Economics and Finance. A comprehensive World History curriculum is also available through the site.

Khan Academy is the brain-child of a single man: Salman Khan, a former hedge-fund analyst who began tutoring his cousins in mathematics back in 2008. As demand for his tutorials rose, he published videos on YouTube which gathered an international following. In 2009, Khan quit his job to focus on publishing his tutorials full time. Though a risky move, his dedication paid off: Khan Academy now employs over 150 educators and content creators to reach millions of students across the globe.

Learners on Khan Academy can track their progress across curriculum and adopts a badge system to monitor understanding, mastery and dedication to learning. In addition to independent learning, students can access material related to formal curriculum to assist with exam revision. Parents, mentors and educators can set up individual or class profiles for students to deliver personalised programs and track progress. It's a truly valuable and highly useful resource.

Visit the Khan Academy Website to learn more.

OpenLearn from The Open University

OpenLearn is a subsidiary of The Open University, which has enabled distance learners to study at degree level (and beyond) for over 50 years. This free education portal provides a massive selection of learning material across virtually all subjects. Students can find articles, videos, quizzes and - most importantly - free courses, which can earn a certificate of participation on completion.

Some longer courses allow students to earn a digital badge, which can be displayed on LinkedIn to demonstrate learning and competence in particular subjects.

There are three levels of courses, depending on how much prior learning is expected. Level 1 is for those new to a subject, Level 2 is "intermediate", delivered with the expectation of some prior knowledge. Level 3 courses are advanced, and can assist learners who may wish to progress to degree level learning.

Additionally, OpenLearn provides printed and digital materials which complement educational TV programmes, such as Blue Planet, Civilisations and Rome.

Although many of the Level 1 courses are quite basic, the huge variety enables us to dip in and explore subjects with no requirement of prior reading or experience. It is a valuable resource for lifelong learners who have interests in a range of subjects, and also offers opportunities for professional development.

Free Courses, Paid Certificates

The following resources are free online learning platforms, though most courses can only be fully accessed or certified by payment. I've accessed various courses from all of these sites, and have found them to offer good quality learning across a wide range of subjects:


Basic skill courses, specializations and online degrees are offered by Coursera. Most of the basic courses are offered for free, though to earn a certificate and have the ability to take tests, you will need to purchase the full course, which can range from $29-$99 USD.


Provides a huge range of short courses, programs and degrees in many different subjects, with partners from top universities (including Harvard, Berkerly and MIT).

Short course content is provided for free, though verified certificates are available for a fee. I particularly enjoyed the literature, philosophy and world history courses offered by EdX.


A MOOC platform owned and operated by The Open University, Future Learn is based in Milton Keynes, United Kingdom, and offers university-level short courses and specialisations; while most are offered for free, a selection of "premium" courses require payment to access. Course certificates and premium content can be purchased from £39 GBP.

Bonus: University of the People

Although I have included UoP in this list, I do not have any prior experience of this platform. However, I feel very strongly that this amazing resource should be promoted to as many people as possible who may benefit from it.

The University of the People is the first higher education establishment to offer tuition-free learning. Learners the world over are able to study completely online towards a fully-accredited undergraduate degree, while paying the lowest rate possible to ensure accreditation ($60 USD for the application fee, $100 per course for undergraduate and $200 for masters degrees).

Fees are payable at the end of the course to allow students time to budget and save, while generous scholarship programs are available to ensure as wide a range of people possible are able to achieve their potential.

Find out more (or even enrol) by visiting the University of the People website.

What are your favourite free online learning resources?

Do you enjoy studying through a learning resource not listed here? Please feel free to share your favourite websites or apps by leaving a comment below.

Header image credit: Marco Verch, via Flickr.

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