The Most Helpful Free Education Resources

Aug 10, 2011 recently ran a survey asking readers to detail their familiarity and experiences with OpenCourseWare (OCW), free college course material available online to any interested learners. We wanted respondents to tell us how they use OCW, what OCW types they find most relevant to their studies and more. Here are the results.

By Eric Garneau


Among our questions on OCW usage, asked its readers to tell us what types of OCW they found most helpful to their continuing education. Were transcribed lecture notes a crowd favorite, or did people prefer watching classroom videos? Maybe course outlines or reading lists were all they required. As it turns out, the results didn't really indicate a clear winner; the three most favored types of OCW were clustered closely together percentage-wise, as were the next two. What might that mean, and how did our readers prefer their OCW presented?

Interactive Online Classrooms

Edging out the top spot by 0.2 percentage points, 20.4% of our readers responding to the survey indicated that their preferred type of OCW takes the form of interactive online classrooms. In other words, these folks like to use OCW to replicate a typical college experience in a wholly digital way. They have a (virtual) teacher, (online) classwork to complete and maybe even fellow students, but they never have to leave their home to access the learning process.

Video Lectures

Sliding up right behind interactive online classrooms, OCW video lectures nabbed the number two spot in our survey, securing 20.2% of our readers' votes. This isn't especially surprising; one might imagine that many OCW users also take advantage of Internet sites like YouTube and Hulu, where digital video is the norm. Plenty of OCW initiatives, such as Yale's popular Principles of Evolution series, offer streaming or downloadable lectures. Some are even hosted on the massive digital marketplace iTunes.

Most Helpful Types of OCW

Course Outlines

One might assume those learners who make use of OCW are quite self-sufficient. That could account for why class outlines scored third in our survey, culling 18% of our users' votes. OCW course outlines can provide valuable structure for people diving into a subject for the first time. If they see an example of an accredited class taught in a certain field, they can in theory direct themselves to replicate that class by following along with syllabi posted online. Ideally, if the outline refers to reading material that isn't available in a published textbook (for instance, a teacher's own supplemental notes), that material should be available online as well.

Assessments and Quizzes

Although OCW doesn't yet offer any truly concrete methods of evaluating or accrediting its users, online course material can include quizzes and tests used by that course's instructor to evaluate his or her traditional classroom students. For OCW users looking to seriously test their knowledge of a given subject, these can be a tremendous help - it's a free peek at college exams! In total, 11.8% of our users found this the most beneficial way to use OCW.

Lecture Notes

Perhaps it's surprising that this falls so far down on our list, but only 11% of our survey respondents found the best use of OCW to be cribbing lecture notes from various classes. However, that could also indicate that many OCW purveyors just aren't as interested in text-based notes as they are in multimedia learning presentations. In fact, Blake Haggerty, Assistant Director for Instructional Design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, told that 'digitally-based learning becomes more engaging to the student when appropriately infused with multimedia.'

Reading Lists

A type of more vague course outline, OCW course reading lists brought up the bottom of our survey; only 4.3% of our respondents named it the most useful type of OCW. It's probable that, since sites like and many blogs offer endless reading lists to familiarize people with any topic imaginable, not many people turn to OCW to fill that need. However, those who do can take solace in the fact that, rather than being assembled by a random Internet persona (probably with some ridiculous username like 'KoolDude43'), these reading lists have been proven effective in college classrooms across the country. If you want an authoritative source on key texts in the world of microbiology, for example, OCW might have what you need.

How does the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) compile its massive OCW database?

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Popular Schools

The schools in the listing below are not free but are popular choices among our users. Tuition and costs will vary across programs and locations. Be sure to always request tuition information before starting a program.

Popular Schools

The schools in the listing below are not free but are popular choices among our users. Tuition and costs will vary across programs and locations. Be sure to always request tuition information before starting a program.