Five ways to get into digital learning for free

Posted by matthew on Apr 24, 2017 in education |
Article written for Life News, April 2017
Assoc Prof Matthew Riddle is Director of Educational Innovation at La Trobe University.  To read more about online courses at La Trobe, see
Online learning has been around for over 20 years in Australia, but only recently has it started to receive a lot of attention.  In formal education settings it has now become a staple, either as a component of a traditional student journey, or as a preferred learning mode. Open Universities Australia (OUA) was the first big success story on our shores, offering online degrees from 10 Universities. Online students want an easier way to get into learning or finish a previously started course, maybe wanting a career boost, or are just passionate about learning something new.
What do you do though if you have the time, a good internet connection, know you want to learn something but you’re either not ready to pay for it, or want to try your hand before committing?
It turns out that these days you are in luck, as there are many ways to study online without needing to do an entire degree. Many of these do not attract fees at all. In no particular order, here are my top 5 free (or practically free) ways to study online for 2017.

edX –

Coming out of Harvard and MIT, edX is one of the most prominent online learning platforms in the world, partnering with many other renowned institutions along the way.  The model here is weekly engagement, and you will find a wealth of courses on a very wide variety of topics on offer for free, with the addition of a certificate for a price. More recently edX has gained attention with its micro-masters programs.  As with Coursera, the most successful courses have been around computers and programming, but take a look at some of their other offerings too, like The Science of Everyday Thinking.

FutureLearn –

Originating at the Open University in the UK, FutureLearn was launched as a partnership of a dozen UK institutions at the end of 2012.  With nearly 6 million learners, it is a major player, and boasts a diverse range of courses.  Courses are free, with a fee getting you ongoing access, tests and certificates.  Course materials are beautifully produced, with some of the most popular courses being in English language learning, with another being Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance.  Expect a typical course to last 6 weeks with around 3 hours per week commitment.

Coursera –

One of the earliest movers in the MOOC movement, Coursera has high quality online courses with some of the most interesting designs out there.  Among its most popular courses is Learning How To Learn, a 9 hour course that would be a great place to start.  There are hundreds of other courses across 10 domains here created by some top institutions, and if you pay a small fee for most courses you can receive a certificate to show for it. Courera also offers apps on Android, iOS and AppleTV.

Udemy –

A newer kid on the block, Udemy is focused on the career-changers, and set out with a so-called ‘freemium’ model to capitalise on the MOOC boom.  All courses are non-accredited, and one of the nicest aspects of the offering is that everything can be accessed easily via an app on smart phones, tablets, and even from devices like an AppleTV. Among the free courses are topics like Astronomy, Writing, and Presentation.  The free materials are easy to consume at your own pace, but a little lighter on interaction.

iTunes U (Apple)

iTunes U was announced by Apple in May 2007 and is an entirely free worldwide platform for education built on the iTunes store infrastructure. It has two kinds of offerings called collections, which work like playlists of video and audio material, and courses, which are delivered within a fully featured learning environment complete with discussion forums, assessment submission,and interactive activities.  La Trobe University has a swag of courses on this platform with over 100,000 subscribers, the most popular being Principles of Physics (David Hoxley), Ancient Greece: Myth, Art, War (Gillian Shepherd), The Roman World (Rhiannon Evans) and Principles of Human Nutrition (Regina Belski).  To get to iTunes U content, you need to download the app on iPad or iPhone, or via a browser on your Mac or PC. Instructions:
Screen shot of iTunes U material on offer from La Trobe University.

iTunes U is the largest online education platform in the world now, and it’s all free.


iTunes is a service offered by Apple dating back to a simple music player released in 1998 that has become one of the largest e-commerce platforms in the world.  Since 2003 it has been possible to access content from iTunes from iOS devices and the Macs, as well as Windows devices.
Podcast (from the words iPod and broadcast) is a serialised digital audio medium that came to prominence around 2005 and is still gaining in popularity.  Despite the name, podcasts are available on all kinds of devices, and because they are designed for listening are experienced like a kind of on-demand, highly topic-specific radio series.  All free.
MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses, which became popular from in 2012, the so-called “year of the MOOC”.  Originally these were offered entirely free, but many of the original providers have started to add fees, so take a good look at the information.  Mostly these are small fees for certificates.

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