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OpenCourseWare: College education, without the student loans

Free, online lectures and course materials offer Ivy-League classes to everyone.

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The movement has grown to include its own YouTube channel, YouTube EDU, which hosts videos from more than 100 colleges and universities, as well as Academic Earth, which lists video lectures from six Ivy League institutions. (Academic Earth is run by Richard Ludlow, a Yale graduate who used MIT OpenCourseWare linear algebra materials to improve his grades in college.)

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Apple, too, has jumped on the bandwagon with iTunes U, allowing curious minds to download video and audio lectures to their iPods for learning on the go.

“People pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of learning.... I get it for free,” Mr. Shelton writes in an e-mail from his naval base in Pensacola, Fla. "And I would probably never get to experience it any other way."

Life learners

Another regular user is Nick Warren, a lead web developer at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, in Little Rock, Ark. He listens in on MIT lectures whenever he chooses. After work, he often picks a course and listens to professors discuss electrical engineering and biology, following along with books listed on the class syllabi. Though they’re not for credit, Mr. Warren does list them on his resume, showing, he says, that he’s serious about continuing to develop his electrical engineering skills.

"I wanted future employers to know that I’m really seeking the best possible education," he says in a phone interview. "I’m always trying to better my skill set."

He’s not alone.

At the air station, naval crewman Shelton learned the basics of microeconomics by listening to OpenCourseWare lectures on the topic and passed a college level examination program (CLEP) for credit. He says he listens to lectures whenever he can: working, cleaning, even doing yard work. Recently, he listened to lectures on impressionism and modern art before he visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

In Delhi, India, Deepak Kumar Gupta, a medical intern at the Lok Nayak Hospital, aspires to earn his PhD in biomedical engineering. Through OpenCourseWare, Dr. Gupta taught himself about new software and learned how to write computer programs by watching video lectures.

And right before bedtime or when she commutes to work, physicist Ms. Ermold, tunes her iPod into some OpenCourseWare lectures on physics, which she says helped her finally “understand some things I’d been confused about since taking quantum physics in high school."

For some, OpenCourseWare allows learning without the increasingly exorbitant costs of enrolling for college credit. For others, it’s a chance to “attend” prestigious schools. And for others, living in rural or remote locations, it is their only means to get a world-class education, says Mr. Ludlow, CEO and founder of Academic Earth.

“We’re talking about the most powerful brand names in the world: MIT, Stanford, Princeton," he says. "There are opportunities many people would like to have – not everyone has a chance to go to these schools."