I tend to prefer courses to books. Although the best books definitely beat mediocre courses, there’s a few reasons why a great course can leave a lasting impression.
For starters, courses tend to teach foundational topics. Most books try to be original. But much of what’s worth knowing is actually fairly old.
Courses tend to be more balanced. A professor teaching a basic course will try to explain most of the major viewpoints. Yet a popular book written by the same professor might be completely one-sided, as they try to make the strongest case for their views. Polemical works can be useful, but they can be misleading if you mistake a contentious issue for an open-and-shut case.
I also just like watching courses. Reading is good. But so are listening and watching. If you do all three, you’ll probably learn more than if you just stick to text.
Here are my picks for the best free online courses to watch.
1. Justice – Michael Sandel (Harvard)
Honestly, this course is worth watching just to witness one of the best teachers of all time. Sandel teaches moral philosophy, not always known for being the most gripping topic. Yet the lectures are compelling, as students debate real-world examples that illustrate philosophical principles.
What impresses me most is Sandel’s ability to teach esoteric points through Socratic dialog with his students, using their own reactions to illustrate the philosophical principles he wants to teach. There’s a reason this class is one of Harvard’s most popular among incoming freshman. Now you don’t need to attend Harvard to take it.
2. Physics – Walter Lewin (MIT)
Walter Lewin’s physics lectures (both classical and electromagnetism) were the ones I followed during the MIT Challenge. They’re some of the finest classes I’ve ever taken online. Lewin manages to explain deep concepts about how the world works through exciting experiments. He’s also really good at drawing dotted lines.
Unfortunately there was a bit of a scandal on MIT’s open platform which resulted in MIT removing any affiliation with Lewin for the course. Thus the lectures are harder to find online than they used to be. But since nothing ever truly gets removed from the internet, I think they’re still worth watching if you want to learn physics.
3. Learning How to Learn – Terrence Sejnowski and Barbara Oakley (UCSD)
Coursera’s most popular course, this one also happens to be taught by my friend, Barbara Oakley. The course is engaging and easy to follow, using neuroscience and psychology to illustrate the principles for studying better.
I have to admit, when this course first came out, I was a little nervous since my income depends a lot on my own, paid learning course. But, I’ve since come to appreciate that learning better is a pretty broad subject, so there’s always going to be more to teach (and learn). Nonetheless, I recommend this course as a useful resource!
4. Machine Learning – Andrew Ng (Stanford)
This course started the MOOC explosion, with Ng leaving his Stanford teaching position to launch Coursera. This course has gone through multiple iterations, first as recorded lectures from an actual Stanford class, later as a simplified MOOC and now as a full-blown machine learning educational platform.
I’ve linked to the original Stanford class, as I prefer to embed YouTube. However, you may prefer the MOOC version here since it is more recent.
5. Quantum Mechanics – Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman is my all-time intellectual hero. He does a brilliant job here of explaining quantum mechanics—without using any math. I would have thought it was impossible, but somehow Feynman manages to pull it off. (And barefoot, no less!).
While I highly enjoyed Allan Adams MIT quantum physics class, the math requirements are fairly steep. The amount of people who both have the math and physics requirements, but somehow didn’t study quantum mechanics in their undergraduate education, might be fairly limiting so I didn’t include it here. (That said, the first lecture of the class is math-free and very well done, so I recommend it, even if you don’t know calculus.)
6. Medical Neuroscience – Leonard White (Duke)
This course is the best one I’ve found on neuroscience. White gives a detailed walkthough of how the brain works. He even shows actual human brain tissue on camera, along with copious diagrams and slides.
The course is tough, especially if you want to pass the exams. I even made flashcards for it while I was studying it to keep all the anatomy straight. That said, if you just wanted to audit the class I think you’d still learn a lot about how the brain works.
7. Organic Chemistry – Michael McBride (Yale)
This was a course I just finished watching recently, after a reader suggested it for my effort to learn more biology.
I found the course really engaging, especially the first semester. While organic chemistry is often one of those feared courses for memorization and complexity, McBride manages to convey the fundamental ideas through the lens of scientific discovery.
Considerable time is spent showing how certain ideas in chemistry were discovered, starting with Lavoisier, to Wöhler and Kekulé. I enjoy science classes that show how we managed to figure things out, rather than encouraging you to simply accept it as true just because the teacher told you so.
8. Immunology – Alma Novotny (Rice)
A four-part course series on the immune system, I coincidentally started taking this one shortly before the coronavirus pandemic began.
The immune system is much more interesting than I had realized, prior to taking this course. Just how can your body develop cells that can recognize and remove completely novel pathogens, without harming any of your own tissues? How do you defend against viruses that hijack your body’s cells or bacteria that replicate rapidly and evolve around your defenses? Why do we get allergies or suffer from autoimmune diseases?
This course builds a great foundation for these topics. The cute illustrations of various immune cells too are also a plus, as someone who likes to communicate ideas visually can appreciate.
9. World History – John Green (Crash Course)
Beautifully animated and tightly scripted, this is a course specifically developed for a YouTube audience. I enjoyed this course immensely when it first came out, giving a good overview of many different historical events.
Crash Course now has many courses on different topics, so they’re a great resource if you prefer this style to chalkboard or PowerPoint lectures.
10. Microeconomics – Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabbarock (MRU)
Economics is probably the subject I use most in my daily thinking. If you’re keen on learning mental models by which to see reality, economics is a really good place to start.
Cowen and Tabbarock write the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution and teach at George Mason University. Their foray into online education has produced some truly stellar video courses. Their micro and macro courses are quite good, and they manage to convey complicated ideas about the economy without veering into too much abstraction.
I realized, after creating this list, how many good courses I’ve taken that couldn’t fit. So here’s a short list of some honorable mentions:
- Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos by Steven Strogatz – The math behind the Butterfly Effect and why reality can be inherently unpredictable.
- Systems Biology by Uri Alon – Fascinating machinery of human cells, from gene regulation to why we get Type II diabetes.
- Programming Paradigms by Jerry Cain – One of my first-ever online courses. Part of the impetus to do the MIT Challenge.
- Intro Biology by Eric Lander – Great lectures on biology, especially those taught by Lander. The only annoyance is that this course is stitched together from multiple segments rather than complete lectures. Nonetheless, the sections on genetics are really well done.
- Poker Theory and Analytics by Kevin Desmond – Fun class on the math behind poker betting. I took this when working on a poker programming project.
- Being and Time by Hubert Dreyfus – Dreyfus has a ton of audio-only courses on Contintental philosophers. His one on Heidegger is the best.
What are your favorite online courses you’ve taken? Are there any greats that I’ve missed? Share your suggestions in the comments!