At some point or another, many of us find ourselves facing a new kind of technology, a new type of operating system, or a new look to the way we normally interface with our tech-driven world. As software is revised and updated and made old-fashioned, something new takes it place, and we have to learn that too. Most of the time, it’s simple, and the people who create new tech usually try to keep it that way. Sometimes it requires training to understand and to use.

Even if we’re not being kept from using software we wanted because we don’t understand an upgrade, we might be held back because we were never taught that system at all. Maybe, you’re just like me, and you want to know everything you can whether you can use it right now or not. (And even if I can’t use it out in the real world, I can find a use for it in a story.) But who can afford to take a class whenever they like?

Enter, the Internet. There are exciting new options available in free computer and technology education. They range from basic to “college class at MIT” level (and no, I’m not joking). You may not have to pay for the course but you’ll need to commit the right amount of time to get the most out of it. Also, be sure the check the prerequisites: just because a class lets you in doesn’t mean that you’re ready to take it.

Coursera offers classes via Princeton, Stanford, U Michigan, and Upenn. I’m signed up for a number of courses through them, on things like computer science, finance, fiction, music, and so on. (I like learning new things.) Unlike Stanford’s other online classes, which I’ll talk about below, Coursera offers an interactive online class-setting, complete with student forums, that is only offered at certain times of the year.

You get weekly assignments and lose points for not turning them in on time. Their computer science section teaches a lot of fundamental and theoretical concepts, letting you go from CompSci 101 to Game Theory to Cryptography, Compilers, and much more. The list of classes doesn’t say what the requirements are – you’ll need to check each individual course, and like a typical college, you need to make sure you’re signed up in the right order. If preliminary class t isn’t starting until September, there’s no point in signing up for an advanced section in August; you won’t be able to keep up.

Bonus: When you complete a class via Coursera, you get a certificate stating you did so. Some employers might take that into consideration during annual reviews.

Standford Engineering Everywhere is for people who are able to make sure they stay on target themselves. Unlike Coursera, which has definite start and stop dates, but also sends weekly reminders, SEE offers everything online at once. You start the class, you work through it, you take the tests, you’re done. What can you take?

“SEE programming includes one of Stanford’s most popular sequences: the three-course Introduction to Computer Science taken by the majority of Stanford’s undergraduates and seven more advanced courses in artificial intelligence and electrical engineering.”

While it doesn’t confer a degree, these classes are purported to be modeled after actual Stanford class – including lecture video, handouts, assignments, and more.

I’d suggest that someone who doesn’t have a computer or engineering background start with one of the other educational programs first, and work your way up to SEE, but there’s no reason you can’t get there in time. People who have experience taking self-directed online classes and who have a bit of a background in these areas shouldn’t have any trouble.

MIT’s Open Courseware program offers free classes online too. Like Coursera, they offer a huge variety of classes, and  like SEE, those classes are self-directed. (Note: the class listings have semester information next to them; that’s not when you can take the class, it’s which real-time class the online version is modeled after.) However, not all of the classes have exams you can take. There’s a icon key at the top to tell you if the course book is available online, if the tests are, and so on. A few only have lecture notes.

The class listing for Electrical Engineering and Computer Science is available HERE.

I’d recommend Coursera to people who don’t have experience taking online classes, and to people looking for the occasional class but are in no rush. People wanting to brush up in a hurry, before a new job interview or before enrolling in college courses in person, can start there but will probably get what they want out of SEE or OC faster. No matter which path you choose to take, it’s nice to live in a future where these classes are available to anyone with an Internet connection and a desire to learn.

Which is exactly why they are.

* Check each class for the software requirements. For example, the SEE courses require either a Mac or a Windows-based operating system to run Java-based software. Not all classes have requirements.

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