How to Learn Absolutely Anything Online

Credit: Nico De Pasquale Photography/Getty Images

WWant to learn something new? With the coronavirus spreading across the globe and forcing us into a state of self-isolation, now is as good a time as any. And there’s no shortage of low-cost or completely free resources you can access from the comfort of your couch: online courses, podcasts, videos, and e-books.

To inspire you on this journey of self-education, I’ve gathered all the best resources I know of. I’ve also made a list of some specific topics you might like to indulge in, and I included a few tips on the best ways to learn. Let’s dive in.

Where to learn

Here are some resources to get you started.

Courses

Image: edX
  • Coursera: Founded in 2012 by Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, Coursera has more than 47 million users and almost 4,000 courses. There’s no cost if you’re only after the content, but you can also earn a certificate for $49, or even go after a degree, with varying costs. (Due to Covid-19, Coursera is making 85 courses free, including certification.)
  • edX: Jointly created between Harvard and MIT in 2012, edX is quite similar to Coursera, offering courses from highly regarded universities over a broad range of topics. Access to the materials is free, with paid options for those after certificates or degrees.
  • FutureLearn: Another company founded in 2012 (what a year for online education!), with a vast array of massive open online courses (MOOCs) that can be taken for free, and it has various paid options and upgrades available.
  • Khan Academy: Created in 2008 by Salman Khan, Khan Academy is full of short videos about math, science, economics, and more. Classes are also available for kids all the way down to preschool age, and it’s all free.
  • Skillshare: Focused on creative fields like film, animation, design, and music. There are plenty of free classes, or you can subscribe for $99 for a year or $15 per month to get unlimited access to all courses.
  • Kadenze: Courses in creative technology, such as video production, generative art, and sound synthesis. You can learn at no cost, although there is a premium option for $20 a month.
  • Hubspot: Free courses on marketing-related topics, and certificates at no extra cost.
  • LinkedIn: In 2015, LinkedIn purchased the website Lynda.com and absorbed its offerings, which include courses in everything from marketing to writing and personal development. There’s a free trial for a month, then subscriptions are $20–30 per month.
  • Masterclass: Learn from high-profile teachers like Neil Gaiman, Steph Curry, Martin Scorsese, Gordon Ramsay, David Lynch, and more. Sign up for $15 a month.
  • Great Courses Plus: A great range of courses from well-known professors such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Robert Sapolsky. Plans are $10–20 per month.
  • World Science U: Free science courses from some of the world’s best scientists, including Carlo Rovelli on loop quantum gravity, Christoff Koch on the biology of consciousness, and Max Tegmark on the history and mysteries of the universe.
  • Marginal Revolution University: Focused on economics. Take some free courses from Tyler Cowen and others.
  • Udacity: With a focus on computer science, you can take many courses for free or go for a “nanodegree” for $399. (Due to Covid-19, Udacity is offering one month of free access to nanodegree programs.)
  • Iversity: Based in Berlin, Iversity offers courses for free, mostly in English or German.
  • Udemy: A wide variety of courses that you buy individually, anywhere from $11 to $200 each.
  • Blueprint: Focused on arts and crafts. Courses range from $20–70.
  • MIT Open Courseware: Here you will find lecture notes, study materials, readings, and assignments for a huge selection of courses at MIT.
  • Open University: Free courses on a variety of subjects, ranging from introductory to advanced levels.
  • Moz Academy: If you want to optimize your website or improve its search ranking, Moz Academy is a good place to look for help. The price of each course varies from $49 and up. (Due to Covid-19, Moz Academy is free until the end of May.)
  • HighBrow: If you want to get interesting and educational content in your email, HighBrow offers a bunch of courses that will arrive at regular intervals.
  • iTunes U: This app has podcasts and courses from many universities that you can download on your smartphone or iPad.
  • CreativeLive: Watch classes live for free, or purchase past classes with extra materials. Subjects include design, music, photography, crafts, and more.

Videos

Image: Crash Course
  • TED: You’re probably already familiar with TED Talks, but in case you aren’t, you can watch a wealth of talks from experts in any field you can think of. TED’s motto is “ideas worth spreading.”
  • 99U: These talks from Adobe are geared toward those in the creative industries.
  • Munk Debates: Watch two sides engage in a debate about a broad range of topics, like whether capitalism is broken and if the world is getting better or worse.
  • Crash Course: While this could probably go in courses, you don’t have to sign up for anything and there aren’t any tests, so I’m putting it in videos. You’ll find an excellent range of series on subjects like history, philosophy, astronomy, chemistry, literature, physics, and more.
  • Aeon: While Aeon publishes interesting articles, they also have a great range of short videos on science, philosophy, history, and more.
  • Wired: Another publication more known for their articles, Wired produces some fun and interesting videos too.

On YouTube

Image: The School of Life

Documentaries

  • Stream documentaries online: Check out Documentary Addict, Top Documentary Films, or Documentary Storm. Together, they offer a smorgasbord of options.
  • Netflix: Rather than binge-watching Friends or That ’70s Show again (guilty), there are plenty of great documentaries available on Netflix, including Blue Planet and Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War.
  • Original Reporting: The New York Times, Vice, and BBC release their own documentaries of varying lengths.
  • Open Culture: A curated list of 265 documentaries you can watch online.
  • The Documentaries subreddit: Let this community of documentary fans point you in the direction of something interesting.

Podcasts

Image: Hardcore History
  • Hardcore History: Dan Carlin dives deep into history. And by deep, I mean each podcast is over four hours long, but it will be time well spent.
  • Philosophize This!: Hosted by Stephen West, this podcast discusses the thinkers and ideas that shape the world. I recommend starting at episode one and making your way through.
  • StarTalk Radio Show: Learn from your personal astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, with the help of the comedian Chuck Nice.
  • Freakonomics: Stephen J. Dubner explores the hidden side of everything, generally with an economics or psychology perspective.
  • 99% Invisible: Making the invisible visible, Roman Mars examines the inner workings of design.
  • Rationally Speaking: Julia Galef explores the borderlands between reason and nonsense, likely and unlikely, and science and pseudoscience.
  • And loads more: The podcast world has exploded in recent years. The few I’ve listed here are ones I chose because I know them and they represent a range of topics. You’re bound to find something that interests you with a quick search, or you could check out some other lists, for instance, here, here, and here.

Books

Image: Guides
  • Project Gutenburg: Over 60,000 free books from notable and obscure writers alike throughout history, including Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Plato, Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, and Isaac Newton.
  • Open Culture: A curated list of over 800 free books (many from Project Gutenburg), available as e-books, audiobooks, or to read online.
  • Online textbooks: Ivy Panda has a list of over 1,000 free online textbooks that you can access on all sorts of subjects.
  • The Free Library: With books, newsletters, articles, and periodicals, there are millions of possible reads here waiting for you.
  • Einstein for Everyone: John D. Norton wrote and released this book exploring Einstein’s ideas and accomplishments. All 46 chapters are completely free and online.
  • The Life You Can Save: For the 10th anniversary of this book on global poverty, the moral philosopher Peter Singer released it for free, along with an audio version that includes readings from Stephen Fry, Kristen Bell, and Paul Simon.
  • Guides: Read in-depth guides on subjects such as habits, organic gardening, and the fundamentals of chess — or you can create your own guide on whatever subject you know best.

Reddit communities

  • Lectures: Lectures can be boring, but when you get a good teacher, that can all change. This Reddit community is on the hunt for great ones.
  • Obscure PDFs: Uncommonly good reads.
  • Data is Beautiful: Interesting data and information visualized.
  • Infographics: Similar to Data is Beautiful. Here you’ll find information in a more eye-pleasing format.
  • Change My View: Read or engage in attempts to change someone’s opinion.
  • Educational Gifs: Short animated gifs designed to teach you something.
  • ELi5 (Explain Like I’m Five): This Reddit community tries to explain different topics in plain English.
  • Today I Learned: Let other Redditors share their daily insights and surprises with you.

What to learn about

If you’re still not sure where to start, here’s a roundup of specific courses to try.

The mind

The body

  • Introduction to Biology (edX): Explore the secret of life through the basics of biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, recombinant DNA, genomics, and rational medicine.
  • Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body Is Telling Us (Coursera): Explore the anatomy and physiology underlying the vital signs so that you will develop a systematic, integrated understanding of how the body functions.
  • Human Behavioral Biology (YouTube): An excellent class from Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky.
  • Understanding the Brain (Coursera): Learn how the nervous system produces behavior, how we use our brain every day, and how neuroscience can explain the common problems afflicting people today.

Society

History

  • World History (Khan Academy): Learn the basics, starting with the origin of humans and early human societies and continuing through to the modern day.
  • The Ancient Greeks (Coursera): This is a survey of ancient Greek history from the Bronze Age to the death of Socrates in 399 B.C.
  • Introduction to Human Evolution (edX): Explore human evolutionary history through human fossil, archaeological, and genetic records.
  • Introduction to Ancient Egypt and Its Civilization (Coursera): Colossal pyramids, imposing temples, golden treasures, enigmatic hieroglyphs, powerful pharaohs, strange gods, and mysterious mummies are features of Ancient Egyptian culture that have fascinated people over the millennia.

The world

Image: Learn About the Weather via Future Learn
  • Mountains 101 (Coursera): A broad and integrated overview of the mountain world.
  • Global Warming Science (edX): Learn about the physics, chemistry, biology, and geology of the earth’s climate system.
  • Introduction to Environmental Science (edX): A scientific study of the natural world and how it is influenced by people. Major topics include food, energy, human population, biodiversity, and global change.
  • Learn About Weather (Future Learn): Explore all things weather — from storms to climate — with this course that looks at the basic processes behind the weather.

The universe

Some new skills

Image: Fat Chance: Probability from the Ground Up via EdX

How to learn

Build your second brain

Watching and reading interesting stuff is a great start. But have you ever tried to explain or talk to someone about what you’ve learned, and found yourself struggling to remember important details or explain it with much coherence?

Good notes will help. By jotting down simple notes as you explore the material, you’ll have a basic structure of the important ideas, which can help jog your memory at a later time.

There are lots of places to find tips for note-taking — here’s a good example from Forte Labs. Or you might consider reading How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.

There are also many digital tools available: Evernote is popular, and even the basic Notes app that comes with Apple devices does a decent job. I’ve recently become a big fan of Notion, which I used to put this article together.

Tiago Forte, who runs Forte Labs, refers to all the notes that you collect and organize as your second brain. When well constructed, this second brain should make information easy to find and give you the ability to connect ideas into larger concepts.

It’s a great idea and a great metaphor. But I also want to stress that as helpful as another brain can be, it’s never going to be as easily accessible or as fast as your first brain. So while taking and organizing notes is an immensely valuable activity, ideally you want to store the important stuff between your ears.

Transfer to your first brain

The best way to tell if you remember something is to actively try to recall it. Recalling doesn’t mean looking back over your notes — rather, it means looking back into your memory and seeing if what you want is in there.

While many of us have lingering test anxiety from our high-school days, tests really are beneficial learning tools. The funny thing is, testing ourselves doesn’t just reveal what we do and don’t remember — it actively strengthens the memories. When you fail to remember something, and then follow up by finding the answer in your notes or online, that act of trying means you are more likely to remember the right answer in the future. Psychologists have called this the testing effect.

A simple way to apply the testing effect is with flashcards. Transfer your notes to an app such as Anki or Quizlet, and test yourself every so often. If you leave some time between when you first learn something and when you study it, you’ll find you’ve forgotten parts of it. Don’t worry — a little forgetting is actually a good thing. It means you’ll put more effort into your attempted recall, enhancing the testing effect.

Spread your knowledge to other brains

You may have heard that one of the best ways to learn is to teach. Teaching means putting some skin in the game: The feeling of concern that someone might criticize your ideas forces you to more thoroughly evaluate them.

Not only do you have to remember, organize, and express these ideas in your own words, but you expose yourself to feedback and questions, which can open up new avenues for further learning and refining. Simply having a conversation with someone will do, but if you want to get creative, you can try writing an article, recording a video, or designing an infographic.

There’s a lot of information out there, and even if you’re not saying anything entirely new, there’s always that possibility that your interpretation, your creation will be the first time someone else encounters that idea. That could make a big difference to that person. You might inspire them to learn more, to talk about it with others, and help spread it even further. The world is awash in information, but good ideas are always worth passing on.

If you’d like a PDF version of this story, you can download one here.

An emergent property of billions of chaotically firing neurons. Currently thinking about thinking. http://sambrinson.com/

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