Free online education

The invention and widespread use of computers has had a massive impact on how things are done. I grew up with computers and it can be quite amusing to hear about the way my father used to do things and how much more difficult it was back then. For example, when I did a literature review, all I had to do was go online, search for some keywords and download the relevant papers. He spoke about books with lists of article titles that used to be mailed to universities. He had to find the relevant titles, order them and wait for the copies to be delivered before he could see if they really were relevant. When I did referencing I just put everything into a reference manager which then inserted, formatted and arranged the reference list as required. Before computers it all had to be done manually.

Seeing how much faster and easier computers have made life, it’s sometimes alarming when you come across those situations where they are not used and it might as well be 50 years ago. I got accepted to do my PhD in Vienna, Austria, but to the application for the residence permit needs to be done with hard-copy documents and in person. Despite the fact that I can email pdfs to Austria in less time than it takes to walk across the room I now have to wait for the original invitation letter and many South African documents. Why can’t it all be done online? Who knows. But, due a protracted strike in the postal services, the entire process has been delayed even further.

Luckily, the time spent waiting does not have to be wasted. Part of my PhD is going to be more bioinformatics focussed than I am used to and I was advised to familiarise myself with some of the principles of bioinformatics and a coding language. Thanks to the internet, there are now a number of different educational resources that offer free training and courses in a variety of topics. I’ve used three different sites and thought I would share my experiences.


I was first introduced to Memrise by a friend back when I was learning Japanese. It’s essentially a website for digital flashcards. It might display a word in Japanese and you will have to then type the English translation. This makes it unsuitable for certain types of learning and it’s mostly suited to memorisation, particularly vocabulary in foreign languages. There are courses for other subjects but nearly all the ones that I’ve done have been language courses and they are the most popular.

There are two big advantages to using Memrise, aside from not having to spend time cutting up pieces of card. The first one is that it uses spaced repetition. This just means that cards that you get right come up less frequently than the cards that you get wrong. This focuses your attention on the areas that you need to work on. The second big advantage is that it also allows you to create your own courses. So, if you have a test coming up, you can make your own course for those words and use that to study. I found it to be really helpful.

The major disadvantage is that there doesn’t seem to be any curation of the courses. Anyone can make courses and those can be made available to everyone. This means that there’s no minimum standard of quality and there’s no guarantee of the accuracy of the contents. If you really don’t trust the public courses then it’s still useful for making your own lists.




As you might have surmised from the name, this site is focused on coding. It offers courses on web design, using site APIs and several different programming languages. I am using it to learn Python. Like with Memrise, you can learn at your own pace but there are also frequent email reminders and congratulations for when you get badges for completing sections or coding for so many days in a row. This is also more reliable than Memrise as it’s all done by a team of professionals rather than anonymous strangers.




Coursera has partnered with various universities and institutions around the world to offer their courses. I am now using it to complete the most relevant courses that form part of the Data Science specialisation from Johns Hopkins University. There are hundreds of courses covering all sorts of disciplines from biology through languages to philosophy.

I can’t say how they are all run but I can give an idea of how the courses I’ve done have been run. The course content is presented in a series of short lecture videos. The work is then evaluated in different ways. There are weekly multiple choice quizzes on the material where one has three attempts and the highest score is used. There are also assignments, which are more varied. For one assignment, which was setting up various online accounts on services such as Github and showing that you could use it, we submitted screenshots of what we had done which were judged by our fellow students. For a more recent assignment on R programming we had to write functions in R which were then evaluated automatically by a script to make sure they returned the correct results. When there are issues you can go to course discussion forums and interact with the other students as well as lecturers and assistants.

Once you finish your course, you are issued a statement of accomplishment. It doesn’t count towards a degree, or even credit if you later join a course at the university, but it does at least demonstrate your interest in studying further in a specific field and have some idea of what you’re doing. It’s here where Coursera differs a bit from the previous sites. The courses can be completed for free and you will receive your statement of accomplishment, however you can also join the signature track for certain courses. That requires confirming your identity and paying a fee but the signature track certificate is endorsed by both Coursera and the university offering the course and can be seen by following a specific Coursera URL.

Final words

There are other sites that offer free courses or tools to help you learn but I haven’t used them. It is hard to find the motivation to study something completely new on your own, even when it’s just joining an online course, but I think it will probably be worth it. If you have free time, I would suggest taking a look at these sites or something similar. It’s free, you’re not likely to be worse off if you try it and, if you’re not enjoying it, you can stop any time you want.


1 thought on “Free online education

  1. Pingback: Quicklinks: Animals and religion | Evidence & Reason

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