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You’ve finally retired, and you are looking forward to all of that free time that people have talked about.
Or maybe you have been retired for awhile and realize that there is only so much you can do to fill up those hours in the day that used to be consumed by work.
Maybe you are still working, but hope to retire in the near future, and you want to have a plan so that you do not get bored or restless when you start the next phase of your life.
Regardless, you have found yourself with a desire to use the extra time to finally learn about topics that you have always been interested in but did not have time to explore in the past.
With the internet, you have literally thousands of choices to explore both old and new areas of interest.
Technology is ever advancing and finding exactly what you want can be challenging. We are going to give you some pointers on how and where to look for free courses, as well as what “free” might actually mean on different websites.
We will end with descriptions of some free online courses that we have found; at the end, you will find a short list of websites that can give you a broader selection of choices.
Where to Look
The information that you are looking for will determine the best websites to search.
This is the absolute clearinghouse for information geared toward senior citizens. They have an excellent description of lifelong learning as well as links to some individual websites and organizations that offer free courses.
Check your local or county branch. Even though some have changed focus and offer more technology than actual book lending, they are still a fantastic resource. Many, like the Hancock County Library System in Mississippi, have dedicated senior citizen programming, as well as links to courses for seniors.
City and County Recreation Programs
You probably have seen rec programs for kids of all ages, but many people do not realize that city rec departments, such as this example from the Hayward (CA) Rec & Park District, usually offer a wide range of programs and courses for senior citizens as well, many of them offered online.
Both this option (and the library option above) will give you more focused courses, sometimes even particular to the region you live in. If you cannot find the contact information for the recreation department, you can contact your local City Hall and they will direct you to the correct area.
Depending on the area that you live in, the recreation department may fall under the supervision of the county itself, so if all else fails, contact the county offices for information specific to your location.
There are several websites that are devoted to free courses, sometimes called e-learning. Some are at elementary or high school level, and some are offered by actual colleges. Regardless, continuing education websites are a great place to find courses of varying difficulty on multiple topics.
As mentioned in the previous section, many colleges offer continuing education courses free of charge. Local community colleges will be more likely to have online college courses designed specifically for senior citizens.
To be clear, classes offered at colleges will be much more academic than casual. However, most do run on a self-paced schedule, with an option for more rigorous academics – if that is what you would prefer.
In addition, when you get to this level of looking at courses, it is also important to understand exactly what “free” means, and what you might be getting if you take a free course.
Take our first class for example.
Offered by Harvard University and available through edX, this introductory-level class runs for 8 weeks, but is self-paced. It has a recommendation of 2-4 hours per week to complete the materials.
You will notice that it does mention that the course is free of charge. However, if you put your cursor over the dollar sign, you will notice a message pop up.
It reads, “Upgrade for formal credit, premium content, and extended access.” This isn’t to say that you will not get a decent course for free. You will still get the material for the class itself. But you should be aware of what might else be offered so you are not surprised when you sign up for a course.
Other Definitions of Free
It is much more common to see senior discounts than actual offers of free items. Sometimes, free does mean exactly that: you do not have to pay. However, there are times that what is advertised as free is very basic and to get to the “good stuff” you have to pay a fee.
Many courses, including some we have listed below, are actual college classes that are being offered in real time. Enrolled students are taking these classes as part of their college curriculum.
Colleges and universities have gotten smart, however, and now offer several of these class with an “audit only” option. This is why it is free to you. You sign up to “audit” the class. You get the instruction, materials, videos, etc., but you usually do not have to do the assignments or quizzes.
There are also several definitions of “free” when it comes to online courses: grants, reduced fees, and reimbursement are very common. Whatever course you look at, be sure that you understand how any payments work, and guarantee that the course will not cost you money in the long run.
Also, some sites may require you to register to be able to access the courses. Most of these are free registrations, because they only want to know who is interested in taking their courses. Once registered, some will curate your choices, and notify you of any new courses in your chosen interests.
These sites will sometimes charge for premium materials. This could be extra videos, a certificate of completion, or extra help if needed. It will be up to you to determine whether you want to take that extra step.
Now that you have an idea of what to look for, let us take a quick look at what you will need for your online courses.
What You Will Need
You will need something to view the courses on. Most classes are compatible with both Windows and Apple products, so it should not matter if you have a laptop or an iPad.
Many that are document based have the option of downloading the course to multiple devices. Be sure to check when you enroll, because that could influence your availability for time commitments.
A good internet connection will be vital, especially if you are taking a course with audio and video. If your internet is slow or spotty, as it is in many rural areas, you can still take courses. But to save yourself frustration, you might want to stick to the courses that you can scroll or click through and avoid videos.
You can also check to see if the videos in a class are available to download, or if you have to watch them via YouTube or other video platform. If you can download them, you can take the time to do so, and then watch them at your leisure.
If you are the only one taking the course, you may want to have a good pair of headphones ready. Sometimes the sound on videos is distorted, which can make it hard to hear over laptop or tablet speakers.
Headphones can also cancel out background noise, allowing you to concentrate on the course, and not be distracted by what is going on around you. In the case of a music course, others in the house may actually prefer that you use the headphones.
Notebook and Pen
Depending on why you are taking a course, you may want to have a notebook and pen or pencil nearby so you can take notes. Some courses have a lot of useful information, and it might be good to write things down so you remember them easier.
About the Courses
There are all different types of courses online. Many are available at any time and you can return to them repeatedly to gather information.
There are others that have more structure to them. They have set lessons that should be completed in order, but you can still do so on your own schedule.
Still others are even more structured. These are usually the ones that are offered by universities and colleges, like the first class listed above. They will often have a set start and end date, and lessons will need to be watched/completed in a certain amount of time.
The information from these courses will be much more detailed and in depth. They are all 100% online and have suggested time commitments (i.e. 2-3 hours a week) necessary to complete the material.
That’s not to say that you will have a lecture to watch at a certain time. Most of these types of classes are asynchronous, which means you can take everything at your own pace and on your own schedule. The times and dates assigned are just guidelines to help keep you up to date.
We recognize that we have given you a lot of information, so now we are going to share 22 free online courses. We tried to find a cross-section of interests to show you just how many courses are out there. Keep in mind, also, that there are often several different versions of these courses available.
Free Online Courses
Whether it is for your own health or financial well-being, there are some things that you should just be knowledgeable about. Here are some courses that will help keep you informed and up to date.
This “click through” course offered by The Vanguard Group, Inc. is easy to get through. You simply click on the links that apply to you and follow the information as it is presented. There are several options for all stages of life, and information on everything from social security to money management.
This kind of course is typical on investment websites. We listed the one on Vanguard, but if you have your retirement with Merrill Lynch (for example) there is a very good chance that they, too, offer a free course on retirement.
This is probably the area where most senior citizens need some kind of training or assistance. There are so many new apps and platforms being introduced that it is difficult for anyone to keep up.
Techboomers.com offers over 100 free classes dealing with technology. A simple search of “basic computer skills” turns up 72 pages of classes for just about every interest and skill level. Here are a few samples of what they have to offer:
Next time you see that funny cat GIF, you can save it to show the grandkids.
Learn more about malware and viruses, and how you can protect your computer and personal files.
Free up space on your smartphone so you can take more pictures and video of the grandkids. Don’t worry, they have classes for Android and Mac users as well.
Most of the courses are easily to follow. As you scroll through and read them, they contain links to take you where you need to go at an appropriate step of the course.
In today’s reliance on technology to communicate, it can sometimes be difficult to get younger family members to engage. If you have an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude, you could start your own blog as a way to keep them connected.
This course offered by SkillShare breaks the process down into 14 short videos. It is a literal step-by-step process that shows you exactly where to click and what to type. You will be up and writing your first post in just a few hours.
Health and Fitness
This one addresses increased longevity and how to improve your health as you age. It is offered by The Open University (OpenLearn), which is another website that has a lot of classes that are searchable by topic and interest.
This particular course can be downloaded to read on other devices, which is a handy feature. You can start it on your computer then download it to your Kindle to continue the course wherever you are most comfortable.
If you want something more active this site has free yoga videos. Each video is about 20-30 minutes long, and Adriene guides you through each step of the practice. She runs monthly themed practices, with each day building on the previous.
All of the videos are available on her site or on YouTube, so you can go at your own pace throughout her yoga course.
As we age, we have to deal with doctors and healthcare more often, and that can sometimes be a very confusing and frustrating process. Khan Academy’s video course includes an overview and discussions about drug pricing.
Nutrition is a huge part of our health and fitness, and there are several courses that address all aspects of nutrition. This one from Imperial College London is extremely interesting.
The course is 4 weeks long, and only requires 2-4 hours per week, but it is packed with information that will give you both the fundamentals of nutrition and some guidelines for enhancing your nutrition.
You can also often find classes on nutrition in relation to specific health issues. Coursera’s is from the University of Copenhagen and covers fundamentals of the disease, prevention and treatment, and new research.
The course consists of short videos and takes approximately 8 hours to complete on your own time schedule.
Now, remember all of that free time that we talked about at the beginning of the article? It doesn’t always have to be filled up with “real life” stuff. Sometimes you may just want to take a brain break and look at something that interests you.
Fortunately, at least one other person somewhere probably has the same interest, so there are courses across a wide spectrum of topics that match just about any interest or hobby you may have or want to explore.
John C. Kline graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He offers this course on his website. Broken down into 14 lessons, the videos are clear and easy to understand.
If painting with acrylics is something that interests you, try this page. Their free video courses include Still Life, Landscape, and Townscape tutorials, as well as how to set up materials and color mixing.
Maybe just looking at and learning about art is more your style. If this is the case, there are quite literally thousands of free courses that can meet your needs.
SmartHistory has put together contributions from over 200 professionals and scholars to create their amazing course.
It is a simple syllabus in document form that links out to videos and articles for each of the subjects. All you have to do is read and click on the links to follow the course. The course was so popular that the creators added two additional syllabi in the same style to cover more historic periods.
If you have ever wanted to see great works of art, but haven’t had the opportunity to travel, the internet is your passport.
Although this isn’t exactly a structured course, the Hermitage offers virtual tours of everything that falls under their purview, including their main museum complex and the Winter Palace of Peter I (among others).
You will need decent internet speed and a good mouse to click on all of the offerings, but navigation is very simple. Once you have picked your tour and the floor plan is loaded, you have two choices. You can click “Begin the Tour” and it will give you a panorama shot as if you were actually looking around there.
To proceed through the tour, you simply click the arrows at the top. There is also an information button at the top that gives a description of what you are seeing.
If you just want to view certain works of art or areas, you can click on each identified spot and it will take you to that part of the museum. As the camera pans, there are information dots that you can click on to get descriptions. It is very well done, and truly the next best thing to being there.
Sure, you like to listen to it, but have you ever wanted to learn more about your favorite music? There are courses for every style to fit your listening pleasure. (It goes without saying that you will need good audio and video capability for these courses). Have those headphones ready.
One of the most popular bands of all time gets its own 6 week course. Produced by the University of Rochester, the video lectures track the band from the beginning, while examining the impact they had on music in general.
Want a more general look at Rock and Roll? The University of Rochester offers this course, which is actually on its regular class schedule. This is a more structured 8-week long class with actual start dates, but still only requires an effort of 2-4 hours a week.
There are two parts to this particular sequence of courses. Part One covers the time before rock (pre-1955) to the end of the 1960s and explores the birth of the genre in great detail.
If you are a little more laid back, the University of Texas at Austin offers a class that is completely self-paced. It uses performances, examples, and lectures to tell the history of jazz music, and covers the greats like John Coltrane.
If you have ever wanted to dive into classical music, Yale has an excellent class. This one is similar to the History of Rock class mentioned above, in that it has actual start dates, and covers approximately 44 hours of instruction and information.
While that may sound like a lot, the site suggests 9 weeks at 2-3 hours per week to work through the materials, and everything is flexible – you set your own schedule and can change it as needed.
From ancient civilizations to modern politics, there are multiple courses to explore.
Yale offers this course consisting of 24 YouTube videos broken down into 30-40 increments. It covers Greek history from its initial development to the end of the classical period. The videos can be watched at any time.
The Open University has a course that uses archeology and literature to examine how ancient Greeks and Romans dealt with societal issues. It runs for 6 weeks and starts on specific dates.
Ever wanted to trace your family history? Take a look at this course from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Over 6 weeks, at roughly 4 hours a week, you will gain an understanding of basic genealogy techniques that will help you build your family tree.
As you have probably been able to tell, this article could go on for pages and pages listing all of the wonderful free online courses that are available for senior citizens.
We did mention some pages that serve as clearinghouses. They have gathered all courses for a topic and put them in one place.
Notice as you browse these sites that classes are offered from literally all over the world. Do not be overwhelmed with the amount of information that you find. Embrace the fact that we live in a time that we can have all of this information literally at our fingertips.
Go out, explore, and have fun learning new things!