Live & Learn (Online!): How to Take Virtual Classes

Enrolling in continuing education classes online is easier than you think.
Jesse Lefkowitz

Getting my kids back in the swing of classroom life involved the usual whirlwind of buying supplies, troubleshooting wardrobes and updating computers or software. But this time I felt a pang of envy. My 14-year-old son opted for an ambitious schedule including Latin and honors history and science. Signing his course-approval form reminded me of a time in my own life when everything I did revolved around the pursuit of knowledge—and I missed it.

So despite a bunch of looming work deadlines, not to mention a ridiculous pile of laundry, I decided to look into virtual continuing ed options. I knew there were plenty of ways to pick up credits online, even earn an actual degree, but those cost money. I just wanted to learn, at my own pace, and without worrying about keeping up my GPA (or student loans).

Turns out many top-tier colleges and universities post lectures on the Web, viewable for free by anyone curious enough to log on. I could spend a year on a single class if that's what it took. Should I study Shakespeare at Harvard? Logic at Carnegie Mellon? Astrophysics at Yale? The more I dug around, the harder the decision became. In the end, I narrowed down my choices based mostly on whether the professor seemed engaging.

Surprisingly, I was drawn to a physics course at MIT taught by the legendary professor Walter Lewin, author of the recent book For the Love of Physics (Free Press). He was interesting and entertaining in his presentation, and since I didn't have to stress about how I would do on the final, I could just enjoy. Also on my agenda: the history of Science, Magic and Religion at UCLA and Spanish at

How do I find the time? Easy. I load digital versions of lectures on my MP3 player and listen while I work out or clean house, instantly elevating these otherwise boring activities. I even picked up a waterproof MP3 player for swimmers (SwiMP3.1G, $150, finisinc .com) and often end up doing many more laps than usual in order to keep listening. A couple of days a week, 20 minutes of my lunch break is dedicated to online interactive Spanish classes. And when my kids start yet another one of their arguments or decide to stream a movie of zero interest to me, the alternative is clear: I grab my laptop and headphones and watch a lecture. Smart.

Where to Enroll

A thoroughly indexed catalog of courses available from universities around the globe. Get info and follow links to courses that appeal.

A mix of schools and other educational institutions (such as museums) and a coming-soon social networking feature geared to meeting other students means you'll definitely want to browse this carefully curated collection.

iTunes U

Many of the classes offered through university open education initiatives, online schools and educators are available for free here. Just go to, install the basic software if you haven't already, then click on iTunes U to browse by subject and download lectures—or entire courses—to your MP3 player.

Learn one of 35(!) languages through interactive, well-paced multimedia lessons. Then practice with native speakers, all online, gratis.

Originally published in the October 1, 2011, issue of Family Circle magazine.

iTunes U