Free Learning

Sunday, February 17, 2008
Andrew Greene

An enthusiastic examination of education today exposes two extremes. One, higher education has become, for many, prohibitively expensive. The second is the reality that much of this costly instruction can nowadays be found online and accessed totally free of charge.

Since the middle of December I have spent much of my spare time engrossed in lectures from the University of California Berkeley and Stanford University. And though not a huge fan of reading things on a monitor, I have likewise been thrilled by the number of books freely available online. All of this complimentary schooling makes me as tail-waggingly happy as a puppy at supper time.

MIT, Yale, Berkeley, UCLA and many other universities have committed to posting their lectures online. Most, if not all, of these schools organize their courses and posted lectures in easy to browse lists sorted by course, date and topic.

Getting started is simple. First of all, you have got to make sure you have the appropriate software on your machine. Berkeley’s webcasts are in rm. format, which is not supported by Window’s Media Player so you will need to download the free program Media Player Classic in order to watch the lectures. To merely listen to the lectures, all you have got to do is save the mp3 files.

I have found that some of the webcasted lectures are missing from their mother sites. When that happens, all you have to is search for the lecture’s title on youtube and watch it there. Thus far, I have been able to find every missing lecture there.

Youtube is in fact such an instrumental player in the democratization of tertiary education that Berkeley and Pitzer College have their own dedicated youtube webpages. In addition to these two schools, the lectures of numerous other schools are stored on the site.

A second major contributor to free education is Apple. Its free iTunes program opens the window to thousands of courses and lectures. You do not need to own an ipod or a Mac to use iTunes. Once you have downloaded and installed the program from the Apple website, you need to search for “university” in the search box at the top right of the page.

The results page displays portals for artists, albums, audio books, podcasts and iTunes U. These last two options are where you want to wander. They contain the knowledge we are seeking. Clicking on the “Podcasts See All” arrow opens a series of pages listing hundreds of universities.

Well-known, if not overtly familiar, institutions like Princeton, John Hopkins and Oxford Universities reside here. As do the yet to be discovered such as Trump University and a thing called Real Estate Toolbox University.

Many of the podcasts to which I have listened do not seem to be recordings of actual classroom lectures. For those, youtube and the actual university portals have been for me the most fruitful. The university sites are also effective since their lectures are laid out in structured ways that make it easy for the learner to digest them in the order in which they would normally be in. This is not as easy to do on youtube, which has the habit of presenting lectures as a mishmashed potluck selection.

Here are three links to get you started: University of California Berkeley webcasts at, Stanford University at and the Media Player Classic download at

On Words’ next column will explore deeper these offerings along with sites from where you can find free books and scholarly articles.

Andrew Greene’s personal blog can be found at

Free Learning: Part two and goodbye

 Features – February 24, 2008Andrew Greene

As promised in the last OnWords column, today we will find exactly where we can access lectures, free books and scholarly articles.

Some of my favorite online talks are by British ethologist and best-selling science author Richard Dawkins. Many of his lectures and speeches are freely found on youtube. I recommend in particular his speech titled Queerer Than We Suppose: The strangeness of science and his readings from his own book The God Delusion.

MIT Physics Professor Walter H. G. Lewin is another lecturer finding online fame. He uses his chin and a metal wrecking ball in a terrifc lecture on pendulums. He leans against a wall, the wrecking ball pulled up to his chin, and releases the ball. The ball swings across the stage to smash into a pane of glass before returning to his chin, stopping just a fraction short of smashing it too. He says to the class, “Physics works! I’m still alive!”

One recent lecture viewer left the message, “He is an amazing professor. The lessons come alive with his enthusiasm and humor. I wish the teachers in my schools had been more like this.” I completely agree, watching his lectures makes me want to go back to school.

A great site with a complete collection of learning materials and lectures is the BBC Learning site at You can learn anything from Art and Design to Food and Catering to Math and Science with the BBC.

There too are plenty of books waiting for you. Michael Hart started Project Gutenberg in 1971. With advances in electronics and computer technology its mission has become,”to encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks.” The three main library categories on the site are light literature, heavy literature and references. The first contains texts such as Peter Pan and Aesop Fables. The second holds Shakespeare,the Bible and so forth. The last is home to the dictionaries, almanacs and encyclopedias.

In addition to these three main areas, the site has offline catalogs, audio books (both computer generated and human read), digitized sheet music and CD and DVD downloads.

According to the project’s main page at, “There are over 20,000 free books in the Project Gutenberg Online Book Catalog” and “A grand total of over 100,000 titles” available over all.

Wikibooks is another place to go for free books. Began in 2003, the site now contains nearly 30,000 pages created by a sea of volunteers. The pages are categorized as Art, English, History, How to, Languages, Math, People and Science.

Related to Wikipedia is Scholarpedia. However, the later is different than the first in that not everyone can edit entries. The rules for Scholarpedia are that each article can only be written by an expert who has been invited or elected by the public, each article is anonymously peer reviewed to ensure accuracy, each article has a curator — usually its author — who is responsible for the article’s content, and any editing or other modification to an article must be approved by the curator before the change makes its way into the final copy.

According to the Scholarpedia home page, this latest rule is what separates the library from traditional print media. The site states, “Scholarpedia articles are not frozen and outdated, but dynamic, subject to an ongoing process of improvement moderated by their curators. This allows Scholarpedia to be up-to-date, yet maintain the highest quality of content.”

With such a selection of lectures, speeches, demonstrations and readings online, interesting and worthwhile topics are just a mouse click or two away.

With this, OnWords final column, I would like to wish everyone good luck in all of your academic dreams and thank you to those who have taken the time to write me.

Andrew Greene

Andrew Greene is director of Academic Colleges Group English Jakarta (ACG).

His personal blog can be found at http://