Last updated on May 10, 2020
I believe in the open source movement—in giving the gift of learning and knowledge freely and openly to anyone with an internet connection. And the internet alone is a huge barrier for many, but once you have the internet and a computer, I believe we all should easily have ways to learn. This type of knowledge infrastructure was unfathomable even a few decades ago, but now that we have it, I believe this access is a right, not a privilege. And though I believe in the right for authors, teachers, and creators to make a living from their works (books, online courses, and the like), I don’t see these two ideas as mutually exclusive, and I love that our world is moving closer toward a free exchange of ideas and knowledge. My first access to this idea of open knowledge sharing was through the website Open Culture, which strives to do exactly that—collect all the free and open resources. From there, I found a movement of like-minded people learning for only the sake of learning, and sharing similarly—so all people can learn if they so choose.
Raising access to quality information will define our generation if we let it, and it will shape the next one. A core principle I wanted my niece Ana to understand while we homeschooled last year, is that beyond the memorization and formalized knowledge the school system pushes, life-long, self-motivated learning is the biggest gift she can give herself. We are in a rare time in history, where the barrier of entry to learning is lower than it has ever been—perfectly timed to match some major failures in our public school systems. But never before have knowledge and learning been so accessible.
And so, over the months Ana traveled with me, as much as anything else, I nurtured in her self-motivation and I taught her how to access this dense information we have; I wanted her to learn how to find the quality corners of the internet where she can pursue a dream and fulfill it. I also taught her formal “educational” information (and I plan to share the homeschooling system and tools we used next month), but forced schooling only lasts until you’re 18, and then it’s purely yourself that continues the process, and only for your personal joy of growing and learning.
In the spirit of life-long learning, I am sharing the resources I have collected over the past several years, particularly as I homeschooled Ana last year and found a lot of ways to act—for free—on a desire to learn nearly anything. Children model the adults around them, and with Ana in tow I realized I wasn’t always doing a good job embodying the learning I wanted her to possess. Below, broken down by courses, books, podcasts, and databases, are the major resources where you can: download free, legal books for your e-readers or computers; take a Ivy-league course merely for the sake of learning, watch video tutorials, listen to interesting lessons in history, and more. I share these so we can take control of our goals and pursue learning merely because we want it for ourselves and our next generation.
Free (and Legal) Places to Download Books
Purchasing a Kindle changed my life for the better. I love this device. I am an avid reader and my extensive collection of paperback books is one of the handful of things I never sold in my de-cluttering before my travels (it lives at my dad’s house). But the Kindle brought a convenience to reading that has allowed me to fill the device with books for every mood and I find this fact alone (and it’s portability) means I always feel like reading something. And so, I read a lot more.
Many of the sites on this list offer free e-versions of books in the public domain, and they are easiest to read on an e-reader like Kindles and Nooks. But, of note is that you can read any of these on your computer too if the book is offered as a PDF, or through Calibre software (available for PCs and Macs); Calibre renders any major e-book formats and allows you to read directly from your computer.
- Project Guttenberg e-books: This site essentially acts as a master database of all the public domain books (both audio and text)—that means works published before 1923 that are technically free. If you want a paperback version you have to pay, but with the rise in eReaders (Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc) this site is a treasure trove of classic literature you can access for free. And in a modern twist, many modern authors are even offering their fiction and non-fiction books here as a way to openly share and spread their works.
- Many Books: A similar concept to Project Guttenberg (and it in part shares the PG database), but it’s all a bit shinier and offers user reviews, and easy links to the book you want in different formats (if you can only find ePub and need mobi for example). They also do a good job of curating lists and offering ways to sort the books (most popular of 2012 is a good place to start, and if you enjoyed watching the movie version of Les Misérables over the holidays you can download the book for free!).
- Project Guttenberg audiobooks: This is the same site that houses all of the public domain books in e-forms and it offers a growing selection of human-read audio books (and computer-read books too, but I prefer the human ones)—these books are pulled from several other sites and added to the database.
- Libravox: Offers volunteer-read books that are in the public domain. Libravox is now working in partnership with Project Guttenberg, so you can find a majority of these books in the previous listing, but not all!
Extra tip: if you’re keen to donate your time, you can volunteer to record audiobooks (in any language) and help expand the database.
- Read online articles later: My good friend Mike wrote a post on his travel site that details a few ways to specifically fill your Kindle with articles, blog posts, and the what-not you want to read but don’t have the time to process in front of the computer. (Bonus, his post also outlines a handful of these book sites too!).
- Travel Books by Country: I organized a list on this site that has really great books you should read before traveling to a new country. Many of these are paid, but whenever I found a book that is also free it’s linked on there so you can start reading great travel literature too!
Free Online Courses and Knowledge Databases (on a Huge Range of Subjects)
I sometimes lament the fact that my years of leisurely studying anything that strikes my fancy are long over now that I am nearly seven years out of University. I loved that the ability to take the most random of classes built was into the US university system, all in the guise of “figuring out what you wanted to do with your life.” Now that I supposedly know what I’m doing, the keen desire to learn the random hasn’t passed. In fact, the longer I travel the more I wish I could learn. In that spirit, these resources offer classes—some coursework actually from major, accredited Ivy-league US and international universities!
Online Courses (Some with Certificate)
Some of these classes have specific start days and structured lessons, others provide the syllabus and materials and allow you to self-pace through the course-work.
- Coursera: A leader in the movement toward free online learning, this site is easy to navigate and does a great job partnering up with leading international universities to list their open and free courses.
- EdX: Some overlap here with Coursera, but it’s good to have a wide selection and this is also a great interface and I love their tagline “The future of online education: for anyone, anywhere, anytime.”
- Open lecture and video-based classes with no time frames: This list on Open Culture is perhaps the most comprehensive list I have found of the various online courses you can access at your leisure and pace yourself through the courses (from literature, to advanced physics, to philosophy and even computer science courses—it’s all covered).
- Specific enrollment courses from top universities: Another wonderful list, and organized by starting date, many of the courses are pulled from Coursera, but there is a range. They classes run from a few weeks to several months and again, they cover a huge range of topics (Introduction to Genetics and Evolution from Duke University anyone?).
- iTunes University: I nearly forgot to add this very excellent resource, especially if you have an iPad and want to stick to easy, portable ways to learn information. The courses vary, some are in set time frames, and all are on great topics! It’s an app for your Apple devices, and once you download it (free) you can access the list of courses.
- Stanford University: A list of the classes from Stanford in particular. Many of the ivy leagues have joined this direction and offer online learning; the sites above make these classes searchable in one spot, but if you are keen for a certain university (like Harvard, Yale, Oxford, MIT, and others) check out their specific catalog of free online classes.
Learn a Foreign Language
Since this is a very common life-long goal, I’ve separated out the language-learning courses/podcasts from other more traditional courses. We all say we want to, but acting on that is the next step.
- Duolingo: I love this site and am half-way through boning up on my Spanish through it. It’s wonderful and totally free … and fun! If you share it with friends, then all add each other, you can compete to learn a language faster. My profile is here.
- My Daily Phrase: This site has both a free and paid component. The courses are paid, but they have some really wonderful “daily phrase” podcasts offered in various languages (Spanish or Italian perhaps?) that are easy enough to start tomorrow on your drive to work. ;-)
- Learn foreign languages: Open Culture has a wonderful and growing list (40+ languages) of all the podcasts and websites teaching specific languages.
- Mango: At the US Public libraries, this allows immersive and/or interactive movie watching and looks like a fantastic addition to self-led language learning.
- Lifeprint: Free, self-paced American Sign Language lessons with videos, lesson-plans, and quizzes.
- Memrise: This is community driven lessons for various languages, and it uses images & science to make learning easy and fun.
- NYT shares a few: This post highlights a few newer apps and programs in 2014.
Free Databases of Knowledge
- TED Talks: This site hosts videos of speeches and talks that have happened at TED events all over the world. TED’s catchphrase is “Ideas worth spreading” and it offers “riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world.” These are fascinating and cover a huge range of topics and from the most prominent researchers and change-makers in their fields. Most talks are under or around the 20 minute mark, making it a great way to entertain yourself during lunch or some such. I often used one of these to help answer some of the bizarre questions Ana would come up with, like when she asked about the how and why of bio-luminescence—where do they think up these questions?! The site let’s you search by topic, or you can Google search sites that list out the best talks on certain subjects.
- List of freely available programming books: This is going very niche, and I have never used the resources, but if you’re interested in learning programming, this list of free textbooks is huge and likely includes the whichever programming language you’re hoping to learn!
- Khan Academy: I wasn’t sure if this fell under a course or simply knowledge, but with the tagline “learn almost anything for free,” how could I not love this site. Often when I was teaching Ana math, there would be concepts I inherently understood in one particular fashion (the way of solving that made sense to me) but it was difficult for her to follow. For math related knowledge, I think all parents will find value here; the site offers videos of all the major math concepts, and then free and unlimited practice problems. The site offers explanations and tutorials in science, economics, humanities, history, and test preparation as well (help your child study for the SATs!).
- Archive.org: The master archive of all things. Okay, not all, but a huge portion of the quantifiable web and world is and will be contained here. This is an archive of texts, music, video, and screenshots of websites over the years (the Wayback Machine). This site differs from Project Guttenberg because many of the texts are scanned-in images, so you get to see the stained and faded pages of very old books. The video database has over a million free movies, film clips, and broadcast archives. Same goes with the music. There is more information here than is fathomable, so if you’re keen to research a topic and can’t get to a library, this may be an even better alternative.
- Academic Earth: Video based lectures and content on a huge range of subjects by the leading US universities. This site doesn’t have the practice aspect that makes Khan Academy so great, but it does have a broader range of subjects. (If you’re like me, you might have long harbored a random interest in thinky videos on philosophy).
- Google Scholar: Google may rule the world one day, and it just might be for good reason … this search engine of scholarly articles is a great place to start if you’re keen to find out specific research studies and factual information on a topic. Includes most major, credible research journals in the US and Europe.
- Phil Papers: A comprehensive directory of online philosophical articles and books by academic philosophers, including major journals and research papers.
- Google Art Project: Ever wondered about the art collections housed in some of the largest art museums in the world? Well, large and small, Google has created a beautiful image database of artwork, archaeology, and more. Very neat to look around for those who can’t quite make it to the Latvian National Museum of Art any time soon. :)
The Most Interesting and Educational Podcasts I’ve Found
For the auditory learners, there are a handful of audio-book downloads I listed in the books section, but otherwise I find that podcasts are my go-to for filling in gaps like driving, or particularly windy bus rides (when reading a book is guaranteed to make me ill). In fact, in the past week I can think of at least five incidences when I told someone “Oh, speaking of that, I listened to this fascinating podcast about [insert random fact here.]” So, I polled some friends, and pulled through my own iTunes list of podcasts, and here are my favorite interesting, thinky podcasts (linked to iTunes, but a quick Google search will also often yield mp3 downloads too).
- RadioLab: Hands down my favorite, I actually feel quite sad when I want a podcast and am all out of new episodes of this show. I have yet to listen to a show that didn’t fascinate with intriguing knowledge/story/focus I hadn’t yet known. My favorite podcast (and I made Ana listen to it when she made the mistake of asking why colors came out of a prism in light) is about the light spectrum, with a close second one about tracing the bloodline of Gengis Khan throughout Central Asia. All the shows are stream-able from RadioLab.com as well. The show integrates sound, science, philosophy, and human experience into each episode.
- The Podcast History of Our World: Freaking amazing. I feel like my school education left me lacking any serious understanding of the simultaneous history of the world—what was going on at the same time in different regions (in the US we study regional history in year-long chunks). Their site also offers online listening and mp3 downloads. (And if you’re really keen on niche history, check out the history of Rome or Byzantine podcast series’).
- The History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps): A professor of Philosophy at King’s College London recorded these throughout 2010 and you can work your way through the 75 episodes that are roughly 15 minutes each.
- 60-Second Science and 60-Second Mind: True to their titles, they are short and snappy tidbits of information put together each week by Scientific American. Ana and I shared earphones on bus rides and listened to a handful of these at a time, then unplugged and discussed.
- Travel podcasts: Since you’re likely keen on travel if you read this site regularly this link curates the top travel podcasts.
- The Skeptics Guide to the Universe: A current podcast (some of the others were previously recorded and have since stopped), that a commenter suggested. They weekly discuss the latest news and topics from the world of the paranormal, fringe science, and controversial claims from a scientific point of view.
- Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot: A podcast on philosophy and religion—it features experts from all religions and worldviews, but focuses on the divide between Christianity and atheism. Suggested by Graham as a worthy listen.
- Rationally Speaking: A bi-weekly podcast from the New York City Skeptics that explores the borderlands between reason and nonsense, likely from unlikely, and science from pseudoscience. Recommended by Graham in the comments!
And to End, Websites That Will Make you Big in the Brain
To steal a phrase from my good friend Jodi—who has a huge thirst for knowledge—these sites below will make you “Big in the Brain” if you read them regularly. The sites above are portals of amazing information, and in many cases they share courses or books, but if you’re instead looking for information in a blog or article format, these are some of the neater sites out there; leave your favorites and I’ll add to this list. In short, these are the sites I find myself coming back to week after week!
- Brain Pickings: Maria Popova hand-curates the information on this site and posts fascinating book reviews and often esoteric or obscure information. She calls the site “a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness” —and it’s true, you’ll find heaps of interesting books to add to your e-reader if you subscribe to her site.
- National Geographic: You don’t have to subscribe to their magazine (though really, why wouldn’t you) to access tons of interesting articles each day on archaeology, travel, animals, and more. I “like” their Facebook page so that the most interesting of their posts show up in my newsfeed.
- Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD): Every time my dad fixes my computer, he sets the homepage to this site. And it’s pretty cool, each day a gorgeous high-resolution photo and explanation are featured on this NASA run site. Do this too and trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
- Longreads: Curates the best long-form writing on the internet.
- In Focus Photoessay: From The Atlantic, this regular feature offers up gorgeous photoessays on a range of topics, places, and people.
- Letters of Note: An odd concept, but the site works really well, they post fascinating correspondence (letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, and memos) from famous people in history, or about historical moments.
- Arts & Letters Daily: This site acts as a master curation tool for the internet—with links to fascinating articles within philosophy, aesthetics, literature, language, ideas, criticisms, culture, and more.
- Ways to Fight Boredom: My good friend Mike came up with a long list of very, very awesome sites that you can go-to for fun, interesting, and downright amusement.
- Less Wrong: A community blog devoted to defining the art of human rationality.
- 3 Quarks Daily: The site professes it is a one-stop intellectual surfing experience by culling good stuff from all over and putting it in one place, specifically within the fields of: science, design, literature, current affairs, and art.
This post has now become mammoth … and I kinda love that because I truly hope it helps you find something interesting to learn or do or read. I know my own goals every year include reading more books, or finally learning to play the fiddle, or taking a photography course. And as I preached my ideas with Ana during our time in Southeast Asia, I realized I had the ability to do all of these through the internet (maybe not the fiddle though), and it was time to act on them.
And so, I am now freshening up my Sign Language, I joined a travel book club on Goodreads (friend me on there if you’re keen!), and I am trying to embrace the freedom and knowledge the internet has given our generations, and I hope you do too.
If I’ve overlooked a great resource, please share in the comments. What learning/reading goal do you hope to fulfill this year?