Knowledge is Free: Learn Something For Nothing With Coursera [Stuff to Watch]

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A few weeks ago Stuff to Watch took a decidedly academic turn with the inclusion of YouTube’s rather fantastic Education section. This portion of the site brings together higher, middle and junior level learning materials which are offered as lectures, lessons and even whole courses for the casual learner.

Today we’ll be going all-out on the learning front with a few of the best video courses available on the web, courtesy of highly respectable educational institutions and Coursera. The service offers real courses that bring the online learning experience to life in a way that trumps just about every other service out there.

Coursera provides an opportunity to lean for free, wherever you like, in a productive learning environment.

How It Works

Unlike many online courses, which are simply a collection of videos that you can watch at your leisure, Coursera courses share more similarities with real university courses. Each course lasts for a pre-defined period of time usually measured in weeks, with most being “module” sized and spanning a month or two at most. In order to join, the courses require enrollment by a certain date.

This is because Coursera brings together the vast number of people interested in the same field as you, so everyone learns at the same time. It is also because much of the time you will be marking each other’s work. It is important to note that not every course will take the video route, but the overwhelming majority do – offering lectures and other video content to help you learn as if you were sitting in class.

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In addition to this you’ll also get perks like a certificate and accreditation from Coursera itself once you’ve completed the course. This is not to be confused with a certificate for a full degree or similar qualification, but it’s definitely ammo for your CV, and possibly even a precursor to further study. Rarely do the courses offer academic credit for the chosen institution, but many will bolster your application if you decide to undertake further study in the field.

After registering for Coursera you can browse for courses and enrol using the Sign Up button by the required date. If the course is not taking place at the moment, you can often sign up for the next session which is usually a few months down the line – so don’t despair!

Example Courses

Here are a few example courses all produced by respectable institutions. You can find the full list here.

Astrobiology and the search for Extraterrestrial Life

A proper, academic course all about the possibility of other beings, from a scientific angle, run by the University of Edinburgh. The course lasts for 5 with a workload of 3-4 hours of work per week and is currently being run by the institution’s Professor of Astrobiology, Charles Cocknell.

The course tackles interesting questions like what is the definition of life and how did life on earth originate on earth to help shine some light on the bigger conundrums involving intelligent life and searching the stars. This is one very interesting course, even to those who don’t intend to pursue a career in astrobiology or astronomy.

Introduction to Music Production

Ever wanted to make your own music? You’ve undoubtedly heard all about how much easier it is these days to lay down your own tracks at home but maybe lack the expertise to get started. Modern computers, software and a little creativity provide the building blocks for a career in music, and this course is designed to cater to that curiosity.

At 6 weeks like with a workload of 6-8 hours per week, the course will guide you through many of the basic tools and techniques you’ll need to get up to speed with a digital audio workstation (DAW), MIDI instruments and mixing your final project. It’s not going to make you a superstar, but this Berklee College of Music course might just push you towards finding your rhythm, so to speak.

English Composition I: Achieving Expertise

This language course from Duke University is valid as both a self-help course for budding writers, as well as providing the foundations you might need to get into higher-education writing courses. The program focuses on composing expert English, critical reading and how to effectively argue a point all in the quest of an intrinsic understanding of the writing process.

English Composition I is split into four sections and spans a total of 12 weeks with a number of assignments to practice your prose. The skills learned are transferrable to a number of different writing styles, giving the course broad appeal.

Women and the Civil Rights Movement

Another course that’s as interesting as it is useful (to those thinking about studying history, anyway), this detailed look at the U.S. civil rights movement pays close attention to the plight of women and their part in the struggle. The course is provided by the University of Marland’s resident expert Dr. Elsa Barkley Brown and spans a 12 week period.

With 8-10 hours of work per week and a number of assignments, this is definitely one of the more time-consuming but ultimately rewarding courses offered. Studying a time-frame from the 1890s to the 1990s in a year would be difficult, so the relatively short-by-comparisson 12-week timeframe means you’ll have to be eager and ready to go at quite a pace once you begin.


If you’re eagerly awaiting the next Sim City game then you’ll undoubtedly find this program fascinating, but then the course would also apply to many other academic fields as well. With 11-15 hours of work per week the course examines the way our cities are changing thanks to technology – and how they can be further improved in the future.

Taking place over a time-frame of 4 weeks, this is one program that teches a lot in a little time. Sustainability, urban planning and even architecture students might all find this interesting – as well as anyone who works or lives in a city, of course.


There are now more than 200 courses at the time of writing, with 33 universities currently on-board. Coursera can help demonstrate your love of a subject, pique your interest in a field you’re unsure of or simply expand your mind with some quality free learning. If you’ve enrolled or have completed any courses we’d love to hear about them, so stick a note in the comments below.

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