Why you can trust ZDNet
ZDNet independently tests and researches products to bring you our best recommendations and advice. When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission.Our process
'ZDNet Recommends': What exactly does it mean?
ZDNet's recommendations are based on many hours of testing, research, and comparison shopping. We gather data from the best available sources, including vendor and retailer listings as well as other relevant and independent reviews sites. And we pore over customer reviews to find out what matters to real people who already own and use the products and services we’re assessing.
When you click through from our site to a retailer and buy a product or service, we may earn affiliate commissions. This helps support our work, but does not affect what we cover or how, and it does not affect the price you pay. Neither ZDNet nor the author are compensated for these independent reviews. Indeed, we follow strict guidelines that ensure our editorial content is never influenced by advertisers.
ZDNet's editorial team writes on behalf of you, our reader. Our goal is to deliver the most accurate information and the most knowledgeable advice possible in order to help you make smarter buying decisions on tech gear and a wide array of products and services. Our editors thoroughly review and fact-check every article to ensure that our content meets the highest standards. If we have made an error or published misleading information, we will correct or clarify the article. If you see inaccuracies in our content, please report the mistake via this form.
Learning new skills, exploring new subjects, and tackling new material brings many rewards, including increased self-confidence, new career opportunities, and a sense of satisfaction.
During the height of the pandemic in 2020, many adults took advantage of their newfound free time to learn something new. With traditional classrooms closed, more and more turned to free online classes from providers like online learning company Coursera, which reported a 65% growth in registered users in 2020, serving more than 77 million students.
Free online courses allow you to learn something new, sharpen your skills, or try out a new field with a small investment of time. These online courses can lead to new hobbies, new language skills, or a new career, particularly in tech fields where programmers often need to learn new skills quickly.
Why take an online course?
Online courses offer an efficient and economical way to learn new things –– and providers offer classes in just about everything you can imagine. Instructors can show you how to take better iPhone photos or create unique clothing with your sewing machine. You can find classes on the science of happiness and wellbeing. Or you can brush up on career and job search skills like business writing or interviewing.
Online learning also offers opportunities for unemployed students to prepare for new jobs. Free online classes also allow you to try out a new subject before committing to a longer and more expensive training opportunity. Or, you may wish to refresh your math or language skills before starting a bachelor's or master's degree.
Some fields, like technology, change quickly. Online learning helps tech workers learn new skills in emerging technologies. Much of the workforce needs to learn new skills for today's enterprises. Free learning courses help bridge those skill gaps.
Benefits of online courses
Flexibility: You can access online classes almost everywhere you have an internet connection, allowing you to incorporate learning into your schedule. Many platforms support mobile apps. Classes often do not have set meeting times. Many platforms offer instant access to course materials so that you can begin learning as soon as you register.
Convenience: Choose courses that require a few hours to a few weeks of study. Instructors may include professionals in the field who focus on key skills or knowledge, providing more efficient use of your time. Many courses support a self-paced model, allowing you to move to the next topic when you are ready.
Cost: Free online learning courses often include videos and collected reading materials. You also save on commuting costs. Many providers also offer paid memberships, with a more extensive course catalog and more class and instructor interaction, often at significant savings of more traditional learning options.
Online course providers you should know
Coursera offers college-level courses from more than 200 universities and corporate partners serving more than 82 million learners. The company launched in 2012 to transform learning for students around the world. Today, the platform features more than 3,000 courses. You can find more than 1,700 free courses on Coursera. The company also offers certificates and degrees through their partnering educational institutions.
What it includes: Videos, articles, practice quizzes
Cost: Free to $399 per year
Certificate: Yes, with paid membership
Level: Beginner to advanced
Harvard and MIT created edX after the two schools launched massive open online courses in 2012. The platform hosts more than 3,500 online classes from universities and organizations. Most courses offer free access to videos and learning exercises, with optional paid certificates and graded assignments. Many classes feature a self-paced curriculum.
What it includes: Videos, learning exercises, articles, reading materials
Cost: Free to $300
Certificate: Yes, with fee
Level: Beginner to Advanced
Skillshare features courses in creative endeavors such as photography, music, and web design and development. Course offerings also include business skills, freelancing, and lifestyle topics. Free classes include online videos. A paid membership provides access to a project-based curriculum and collaborative learning environment. The platform also welcomes instructors eager to share their talents with students.
FutureLearn offers fully online classes through partnerships with universities and industry experts. It serves 15 million students from more than 190 countries with a catalog of more than 3,000 courses. It offers short courses, micro-credential programs, and degrees through accredited programs. Courses encompass topics in healthcare, business, computer science, and teaching. The ExpertTrack option features online skills in a specific area. FutureLearn offers per course, monthly, and yearly paid membership options.
What it includes: Online videos, quizzes, articles, and peer reviews
Cost: Free to $279.99 per year
Level: Beginner to advanced
Udemy connects learners with instructors who want to share their knowledge in technology, business, marketing, and personal growth. The online platform offers more than 155,000 classes primarily through online video sessions. More than 40 million learners use the courses for skills training and lifelong learning. Several hundred courses require no fee. Paid courses feature a per-course payment. Programs range from a half hour to several hours of video lectures.
Kadenze specializes in creative education, with courses in design, illustration, music, and art. The company's university partners include the Berklee College of Music and Columbia University, with instructors in art and engineering. A free membership provides access to many of the courses. The platform also offers a premium membership that allows learners to submit assignments and earn certificates. Micro-courses offer short takes on in-demand topics while programs feature a series of courses in a specific subject. Some programs offer college credit.
What it includes: Videos and transcripts, access to forum discussion, online portfolio
Cost: Free to $20 per month
Certificate: With paid membership
Level: Beginner to advanced
Coding bootcamp provider General Assembly offers free courses in coding, data science, design, and digital marketing. They also include career development courses in topics like public speaking. The free online classes allow learners to explore new subjects before committing to one of the online or on-campus bootcamps General Assembly offers. The courses take place online in a live stream session with instructor interaction.
Online learning providers offer thousands of free online courses. Classes range from academic topics, like English or history, to technology training or creative instruction. You can easily find online classes that pique your interest or align with your career goals.
What is the quickest certificate to get from an online course?
Many online classes support a self-paced instructional model. You can watch the videos, complete the readings, and take any required tests sometimes in a matter of hours. Other programs may require several weeks or even months to complete. Check with the provider as many offer verified certificates only for students with paid memberships.
Can I get my diploma online for free?
Several accredited programs offer online high school diplomas. Thanks to partnerships with state and local governments, many students can qualify for free online classes leading to a high school diploma. Check with your local school system or state adult education department to learn more.