If you enjoy teaching yourself, you are in good company. With the growth of the internet, self-directed learning is easier than ever. But with so many resources on the web, finding the best sites for autodidacts can seem overwhelming.
The best websites for self-learners include free sites like Khan Academy and TED talks and freemium sites like Coursera and Udemy that offer free and paid courses. Your learning style and objectives will determine whether you use a site with structured courses or create your study plan.
The internet is like a never-ending buffet for self-learners—so many choices. Just like food on a buffet, a website might look promising but offer little of value. Our review of websites will give you an idea of what each site has to offer. You’ll get an overview of each site and what it has to offer so that you can decide if you want to add it to your plate or leave it for someone else.
Signs That You Are Ready to Take on a Self-Learning Project
When you start a trip, you make sure that you have everything you need for the journey. The same is true for the journey you are about to undertake. Before you get started, make sure you have what you need to be successful.
You Are Ready to Learn
You are ready to learn when you know what you want to learn and have some concrete steps to get started. Saying you want to learn to play the guitar does not mean you’re ready. You need to take some baby steps—go to guitar shops, check out sites that will help you teach yourself, and read articles like this one.
You Have Set Goals
Without concrete goals, you will have a difficult time staying motivated. Set yourself a series of smaller goals so that the entire project doesn’t seem overwhelming. Be careful about setting all-or-nothing goals. There’s a big difference between saying, “I’m going to finish a marathon this year” and “I’m going to run in one.”
If you need something to keep you accountable, check out sites such as Stickk. At Stickk, you set a goal and then back it up with hard cash, which you either keep if you accomplish the goal or gets donated to a charity if you don’t.
You Know How You Will Learn
Think of your mini-goals as action steps. One of your first goals could be to come up with a study plan. You have decided what you want to learn, and now it’s time to plan how you will learn. This article is a good starting point, but you will have to do the rest.
Check out sites like Goalscape that provide detailed planning guides. A free plan will let you create one project with 30 goals.
You Will Evaluate and Reward
Don’t forget these two. How will you know that you are successful? And how will you reward yourself for meeting your milestones?
Different Types of Online Learning Sites
The internet is full of tons of online learning sites, but most of them fall into one of these categories:
- Curated. Sites such as Academic Earth are clearinghouses for courses offered by other sites. Links in a curated site might lead to free or paid courses.
- Institutions. More brick and mortar schools are offering online courses. In almost all cases where you are taking a course for a degree or certification, they will charge tuition.
- Free. Most online learning sites started off providing free courses. Most of those have moved to a hybrid model where they offer some free content. A few sites, such as Khan Academy and Talks at Google, cost nothing.
- Freemium. Most online learning sites offer a limited number of free courses, but you will have to pay for their premium (i.e., most) courses. Prices vary greatly among those sites, with some like Udemy charging per class while other sites offer subscriptions for their entire catalog.
- Unstructured. Sites like YouTube have little to no structure. It’s up to you to come up with a learning plan.
Evaluating Online Learning Sites
Evaluating a site is difficult. Sites that want you to pay for courses make their sites look great. In evaluating sites, we examined them to see whether they were easy to navigate if individual courses had clear goals and objectives if the courses had a logical sequence, and what type of assessments the courses offered.
We also looked for whether there were opportunities for collaboration, which was, unfortunately, lacking in most online courses.
When Academic Earth launched in 2009, their goal was to offer a world-class education through free online courses. With the explosion of online offerings by colleges and universities, Academic Earth has evolved to offer free courses and access to online programs through institutions such as Southern New Hampshire University, Strayer, and Capella Universities.
There are numerous ways to locate courses—a search bar at the top of the page, an annoying dropdown menu, or categories further down the page. Scroll down and expand the subject’s listings to see what courses are available.
Once you get to a topic page, you not only get a list of courses available through Academic Earth but also an overview of the subject, lists of grants and scholarships, internships, journals, and links to student and professional organizations.
- No certification opportunities. If you are looking to get certification that you completed a course, Academic Earth won’t work for you.
- Academic focus. Most courses come from universities or colleges. If you are interested in something more esoteric or practical, you won’t find it here.
- Easy to navigate. Not a lot of clutter. Ignore the search bar at the top and scroll down so you can search by subject or school.
Code Academy is a specialized learning site focused on teaching coding. By having a narrow focus, the organization can develop deep content. So if you are interested in learning to code, web development, designing games or mobile apps, then check out Code Academy.
Like Academic Earth, Code Academy was started in the early days of online learning. And like Academic Earth, Code Academy has moved away from being 100% free to a freemium model. You can try out the free courses, and if you like them, move on to one of the paid plans.
As we said, Code Academy has around a dozen subjects and 14 languages. You have the option for two paths—career and skill. The career paths are intensive courses that are structured for you, and most have you creating a portfolio that you can use to showcase your skills. Think of the skill path as a mini-course that is project-based.
- Not really free. Although there is a free option, the free version doesn’t have real-world practice, individual guidance, nor peer support. You can sign up for a pro account and try it out.
- Structure. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t like being told what to do in a specific order, then Code Academy is not for you. But the structure is a plus if you want to learn to build a phone app but don’t know where to start. Navigating the website is easy, which is always a plus.
- Feedback. Even autodidacts want feedback. You can find coding classes elsewhere, but you’ll be on your own for many of them. With Code Academy, you have instructors who will provide you some feedback.
- Final product. For many courses, you will create a portfolio. For those who are learning just to learn, this isn’t important. In many ways, a portfolio is even better than a certificate. Should you want to pursue a career either for a company or as a freelancer, having a portfolio lets potential employees or clients see what you can do.
Coursera has an extraordinary number of courses, 4,100 at the latest count. Started in 2011 by a pair of Stanford professors, Coursera has also evolved from a platform that offered free courses to one that has both free and paid.
The website is not easy to navigate, which is not surprising, given how much they offer. Let’s walk you through the basics.
Finding out whether courses are free is a challenge. Coursera offers several options, including individual courses, certificates, and degrees. Costs will depend on the course and what options you choose.
With over 4,000 courses, finding a course you want can be confusing. And most of the main page is devoted to a basic explanation and bragging about Coursera. You will want to hover over the Explore dropdown. Next, you will see a list of subjects. Hovering over a subject will get you a list of subtopics and degrees. You can also use the search feature.
- Academic focus. Many of their courses are offered in conjunction with major universities and are taught by professors. Some specialization courses are offered in collaboration with corporations such as Google and Amazon.
- Pricing is difficult to determine. This is annoying, especially for a self-learner. Prices should be clearer. You either have to create an account or find another website, such as this one, to get the lowdown on pricing. Completing a course and getting a certificate will start you around $50. Specializations are priced monthly. A new feature, Coursera Plus, lets you take as many courses you want for around $400 a year.
- Lots of choices. Coursera can be overwhelming. You might want to set aside an hour or two to explore the site.
Khan Academy is one of the best-known and most-used self-learning sites because the platform is one that educators in the K-12 setting often turn to. If you have kids who must do long-distance learning, then it’s likely their teachers have used Khan Academy.
Unlike some other learning platforms, Khan is not a freemium platform. No account is needed, although if you want to take advantage of additional features, such as tracking your progress, and the gamification features, you will need to sign up for a free account.
The site has a STEM and K-12 focus; however, that shouldn’t stop you from checking it out. As Khan Academy has begun to partner with groups such as NASA, the American Museum of Natural History, and MoMa, the content has become more adult-oriented.
Signing up is easy, picking through courses is straightforward, and you are ready to begin. Most “classes” consist of a series of videos followed up by quizzes. Missing questions on a quiz brings up suggestions for additional links or review videos. When you finish a quiz or watch videos, you gain “energy” points and eventually badges. It can be somewhat addictive.
- Free. The site makes request donations, sort of like Wikipedia does, but otherwise, everything is free. If you sign up, you won’t be bombarded with emails offering more courses.
- Limited offerings. As an absolutely free site, they have focused on courses that would appeal to K-14 learners. If you want to teach yourself something practical, like playing the piano, then Khan Academy isn’t for you. But if you want to learn something that you never understood in school, like Algebra, or want a refresher, this site is worth spending some time on.
- Learning for Learning’s Sake. You won’t earn certificates, badges, or degrees here. You will learn, though. Those of you who want to dabble in some topics and learn just for the fun of it, you will like Khan Academy.
Since online learning is online, it makes sense that many of the earlier proponents of self-learning websites feature courses geared toward computers, programming, and web design. The offerings at Skillshare lean toward teaching creative skills. Anything from memoir writing to learning HTML5 is available.
Skillshare has two pricing options for self-learners. As with other freemium sites, you can find some free courses. With free courses, you gain access to the videos and related resources, including workbooks and discussions. You won’t be able to download videos, and the ads are frustrating and distracting.
Premium membership costs around $100 a year. For that, you get access to all courses on the platform, the ability to download them, and discounts from affiliates. And you can say goodbye to the ads.
Skillshare groups their classes into three categories—create, build, and thrive. Build courses are focused on business, thrive on lifestyle, and create is, well, creative. This seems somewhat artificial, so searching by topic will help you find courses more easily. Should you be looking for free courses, you can filter them once you have clicked on a category.
- Creative Focus. For those with a creative bent, Skillshare has more offerings than other self-learning sites.
- Simple pricing. You either stay with free prices or pay a monthly or annual fee, unlike a site such as Udemy, where pricing varies from one course to the next, and the real price is seldom the price you’ll pay.
- Practical, not theoretical. Most of the courses are focused on practical skills. You won’t get a lot of deep discussions. Want to learn the guitar—there are plenty of classes. Want to learn music theory—you should look elsewhere.
Chances are that you’ve watched at least a part of one TED talk, considering that its videos receive one billion views by now. The TED organization began the world wide web was born. The first conference in 1984 was billed as a Technology, Entertainment, and Design conference.
The TED talks are 18 minutes or less and are given by experts in the field. The talks at the main conferences are planned out over months. Since many invitees are not public speakers, they go through a months-long process where they write and rehearse their talks.
So what do you get from TED? First, talks that are highly polished and focus on key ideas. Second, an A-Z range of topics. Depending on the topic, you might get a few videos (homelessness has one) or enough that you could start to build your own curriculum.
For example, the Garden page currently has 24 talks. There’s a video about pollination and another about the disappearing bees. If you’re interested in Urban Gardening, there are four videos to get you started.
What you don’t get is a sustained curriculum. Instead, the videos are a start. Since the presenter is an expert in the field, Google it and see where that leads you—other videos, websites, and possible books written by the expert.
- High-quality content. Unlike platforms such as Udemy and Skillshare, the speakers are selected for their expertise. Their ideas can be up for debate, but the talks are thoughtful. If you are planning to create your curriculum, consider starting with a Ted talk before you head over to YouTube.
- Free. Anything available online is free. Enough said.
- No curriculum. Whether this is a pro or con depends on you. Some learners want to focus on learning specific content. Others want to create a course of study and make the planning part of the learning process.
Udemy is a platform that hosts close to 100,000 self-paced courses in over a dozen categories, including business, finance, office productivity, photography, and music. Instructors are typically experts in their fields, and course information is clearly laid out for you.
When you are looking through courses, you’ll see a description, the price, and what the course includes. In addition, the instructor’s biography and reviews from students are also available, including how many people have paid for the course and how many students have rated it.
The offerings are quite diverse on Udemy. Type in a topic and see what comes up. Palm Reading, dog training, stained glass, and even rock painting—there’s at least one course on each of those topics. Use filters to help you narrow your search.
Most courses are centered around videos, and these are typically around 10 minutes each. This format forces the instructor to structure the course and break up the content into smaller segments. The shorter lessons also benefit the learner. Taking a break is easy, and replaying a short video is an excellent option if you need to review a key point.
Interaction with others is limited. Some instructors interact more actively with the platform than others. There is a Q&A feature, and students and instructors can respond, but there’s no guarantee that you will get a response to your questions.
- Non-academic focus. Although you can find advanced classes in academic subjects (check out the advanced physics results), most of the platform’s courses are geared towards business or personal development.
- Pricing is clear. Sort of. When you click on a course, in most cases, there will be two prices—the “normal” price and the “sale” price. If you think of Udemy as a marketplace, the pricing makes more sense—it’s a little like haggling. Even courses that usually cost $90 can be had for half-price or less.
- Certificates of learning. When you finish a course, which means watching the videos and successfully passing any quizzes or tests, you’ll receive a certificate emailed to you. A certificate can be a motivator for you. Although it doesn’t carry academic weight, you can use them to show others that you are always learning.
Other Online Lecture Sources
If you want to create your course of study, then online lectures and talks will be essential. Let’s look at some of the options.
This site is similar to TED, except there is a $50 a year subscription price. There’s a 7-day free trial, and you have access to over 200 video lessons, with new ones added every week. The course catalog lists topics. Investigate the topics to see if anything lines up with what you want to learn about.
Reddit is more than upvotes and downvotes. A lot of learning happens on Reddit, the social media site that focuses on ideas. Unlike other sites, such as Facebook and Instagram, users are anonymous, for the most part. They are following the subreddits because they are interested in what others have to say about the topic.
The site has received some bad press about inappropriate content, but Reddit has shut down many hateful subreddits. Reddit users are rather good about policing their subreddits as well.
If you are designing your curriculum, sign up for subreddits related to your topic.
Think British TED and Talks at Google—that’s what you will find at the site. The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacture, and Commerce) hosts talks by leaders on topics of importance. RSA provides an interesting twist on the talks with the Shorts series, where talks get distilled into the big ideas and then animated.
Think longer TED talks that aren’t as polished, and you have Talks at Google. Like TED talks, there’s no charge for watching, and most of the talks are in a lecture format. Also, as with other online lecture sites, there’s no guarantee that you will find talks related to what you want to study.
However, you might be surprised by what you can find. For example, the baseball category includes a talk by Cal Ripken Jr., an introduction to baseball analytics, and six more. Most of the talks are longer. Click on a talk, and you’ll get an overview of the course and the length of the video.
Half of YouTube users have used the site to learn how to do something. So why not you? There’s so much content on the site. Every minute 300 hours of video are uploaded on YouTube, and almost 5 billion videos are watched every day.
But with so much content, how do you even start? A good place would be building your own curriculum. You need to be successful, so designing a curriculum is an excellent start.
If you don’t know how to design a curriculum, then YouTube has videos, such as this one, that can teach you how:
Create a channel. That way, you can keep track of the videos you want to watch. You might even want to consider making playlists to help you organize the videos.
Then look for channels that have curated content. Channels such as Crash Course provide tons of lectures and playlists. Or type in your topic and course, such as a biology course. Don’t forget to look at the comments section. Sometimes the comments will be helpful, or other links will be provided.
This biology lecture links to the original course from Yale:
Strategies for Successful Self Learning
Deciding what you want to study and starting is essential. However, your goal is not only to start but to be successful. Here are some suggestions to help you achieve your goal:
- One topic. It’s easy to set yourself up for failure by focusing on too many goals at once.
- Be specific. Don’t set out to master web development. Start with creating a website.
- Due dates. This doesn’t have to be an end date, but at least set smaller deadlines.
- Tackle difficult tasks early. Starting with some easy to accomplish goals is a good idea. Sooner or later, you will have to tackle difficult tasks. You can only avoid them for so long.
- Evaluate. Evaluate frequently. Are you learning what you want? Is the timeline too easy or too long? Am I rewarding myself for the little wins?
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” —Alvin Toffler
Teaching yourself a skill is a challenge that can be rewarding or a disaster. Decide on what and how you want to learn and then check out the sites. Pick an approach that fits your learning style and personality. And have fun—whether you are learning a skill to advance a career or learning for learning’s sake.
- Medium: Self-Learning—Why it’s Essential for You in the 21st Century
- MIT News: Online Classes Really Do Work
- NovoEd: Self-Directed Learning Benefits: Does Limitless Access Give Us Limitless Potential?
- NCBI: Self- directed learning barriers in a virtual environment: a qualitative study
- NAE at Carnegie Mellon University: Self-directed Learning
- University of Waterloo: Self-Directed Learning
- The Education Magazine: Learn How Online Learning can Trump Classrooms
- The Verge: YouTube Viewers Use It to Learn How To Do Things
- MerchDope: 37 Mind-Blowing YouTube Stats