The Free School: 8 Online Courses Most Relevant to Tomorrow's Challenges

Learn programming, avoid student loans, save the planet.

In the past few years, cheap or free online courses via some of the world’s leading universities has graduated from novelty to staple of everyday life.

To help decide among the suite of options available to the lay student, here are eight courses that address the big issues of tomorrow, from wastewater treatment to programming to the promise of the self-driving car. And there’s always getting better at writing…

Course: Introduction to Computer Science

Institution: Harvard via edX

Overview: Of HarvardX’s course offerings, Intro to Computer Science is your best bet to maximize earning potential AND be able to say, “I took a class at HarvardX,” which will mean twice as much if you can muffle that “x” with a well-timed cough. This beginner’s course, covering the programming languages C, PHP, and JavaScript plus SQL, CSS, and HTML, is well-reviewed by users. It even comes with a certificate of course completion, provided you pay $90 and, you know, actually pass.

Class: Artificial Intelligence for Robotics

Institution: Udacity

Overview: Taught by Sebastian Thrun, a Research Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University, a Google Fellow, a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the German Academy of Sciences, and a leading researcher of Self-Driving Cars, this course promises to instruct users on how to program a self-driving car using the Python programming language. With everyone and their mother chasing the economic promise of the self-driving car, speaking the language with basic fluency could turn out to be lucrative.

Course: Android App Development for Beginners

Institution: Udacity

Overview: Geared toward total programming beginners, this course from Katharine Kuan, a Google developer advocate, and instructor Kunal Chawla, guides the user through the first stages of Android app development, from layout to language, with the goal of building multiple apps and getting the students on their way to more sophisticated development. It could be the beginning of a whole new career for those who take the time.

Course: Introduction to Cyber Security

Institution: The Open University

Overview: As the description says, we spend most of our lives on the computer, inputting information and receiving messages, goods, services, even a paycheck. This course helps users understand online security and provides recommendations for data protection services as well as suggestions on how to be more conscientious of the way cyberattacks occur and what kind of connections to trust.

Course: Water Management

Institution: DelftX via edX

Overview: With major economic centers like California struggling to deal with drought, knowledge of the technologies available for water and sewage treatment and how climate change is affecting the water table become more and more useful.

Course: Adventures in Writing

Institution: Stanford via OpenEdX

Overview: Learn to write good. Or if you write good now write better. Taught in the parlance of a graphic novel, this course is a tune-up for anyone who has ever failed to grasp core concepts in diction, grammar, and passive vs. active construction.

Course: Solar Energy

Institution: DelftX via edX

Overview: It’s taught by Dr. Arno Smets, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, so you know it’s gonna be aces. An introductory course on the technologies that convert solar energy into electricity, heat, and fuel, this course also provides the student with instructions on how to design and fabricate a photovoltaic (PV) system for any application, even your own home.

Course: Capitalism: Success, Crisis and Reform

Institution: Yale’s Online Course Catalog

Overview: Douglas Rae, Richard S. Ely Professor of Management & Professor of Political Science teaches this course for anyone who seeks to understand the history and practice of the economic system that undergirds our society, and/or is tired of someone blaming capitalism for life’s problems when they mean consumerism, commercialism, or any other distortion. The course comes recommended, as it is “less concerned with ultimate judgment of capitalism than with the ways it can be shaped to fit our more specific objectives.” Hallelujah.

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