Se7en + 1 Tips for Free Online Learning, What Works, What Doesn’t and Resources…

I have wanted to write this post for the longest time, but we kept finding new and wonderful things to learn about and so the post never gets written… but it is a topic so many of our friends ask us about: “What are your kids learning online?” I think when you are living a lifestyle of learning you constantly need to feed the “Quest for more Knowledge…” as some of our kids are getting older they are bombarded continuously by one and only one question: “What are you going to do when you are finished school?”


Now when you have never formally done school and when your idea of school is to read through piles of books and in the name of pursuing a topic that interests them… they do a little research, and sometimes that research is a whole lot more than a little, the idea of “What to do when you finish school?” becomes a bit of a puzzlement… Surely just more of the same? The line between school and life is, to say the least, vague. And the line between school and vocation just does not exist… When a lifestyle learner wants to learn something they are not going to wait until college. I needed to find them courses and topics so that they could pursue their interests…

The World Wide Web is seen as the font of enormous knowledge… and if you have access to the internet then you have access to an education and a lot of it is free and a lot of it is really good quality. This is true, up to a point… the question remains “But how?” I find myself constantly learning online, I read masses, I listen to heaps of podcasts… I like learning, it is a lifestyle. But what about learning with a purpose. The reality is higher learning is expensive, how do we navigate our way through all that is freely available. Firstly nothing beats word of mouth. Listen to what your friends are learning online and what their kids are learning.

My older kids have found a lot of what they want to learn online, some courses have turned out to be lemons, literally and others have given them wings. Just as when you take your child to a restaurant and train them to eat healthy food, so you teach them to take good quality books out of the library, so they need to learn to recognise the good, the bad and the ugly of what is available to them online. Keep in mind that while my kids are learning online, they have to have a few internet related life skills on board already, but that is a whole ‘nother post.

I Tried a MOOC

Towards the end of last year in an effort to learn about online learning I signed up for two online classes simultaneously… Ambitious, I know, and I totally over estimated my abilities. My experience was this: both courses were MOOCS – Massive Open Online Courses. These courses are literally massive, with thousands of students world wide. They both had free material available to the students, they both had weekly class meet-ups. The meet-ups were in the form of videos and they covered a topic a week… each topic ended with a series of questions – a tutorial really covering the work learnt in the topic.

I Passed and Failed

The tutorial was due the following week just before class. The one course didn’t require you to submit your work, they trusted the student to do the work. This course was more about reading the material and discovering the solutions in your own time – don’t slow your learning down if you haven’t completed the assignment. “Onwards and upwards” and all that… I always intended to go back and complete the questions. I still haven’t. I don’t have the course credit either. The other course required the student to submit their solutions before allowing access to the next class. And during “video-lectures” the questions were not entirely rhetorical, they required you to answer them from time to time in order to keep the lecture rolling. This was a good thing – it has been years since I sat in a class… and it prevented the inevitable wandering of the undisciplined mind!!!


Neither of the courses were trivial, both were touted as courses that didn’t require background studies… I have to say I found the work challenging and certainly not the walk in the park that I was expecting. What I learnt about studying online corresponded exactly to what I learnt about my studies at University. Exactly. Those courses that require you to attend and interact, with for instance a weekly tutorial, and hand in work throughout the semester appear to be so much more work on paper but are so much easier to pass than the courses that require some readings to be done at your own pace and an essay in the exam… somehow that essential exam preparation never gets done without consistent smaller deadlines along the way.

What Makes a Good Online Course?

Based on my experience this is what I would consider when looking at an online course:

  1. Word of Mouth is Your Friend: When looking for coursework, ask your friends what they are using, when a favourite website is using a resource and enjoying it then it is worth a try. When my kids have said, “I found this amazing course online” and it does not come from a recognisable source, or recommended by a friend, real or virtual… then we know it is probably not worth pursuing.
  2. Interesting Material: How many friends at university level dropped out because they didn’t have a passion for the topic. I took a course that wasn’t a topic I was wildly interested in and I battled… it was hard to focus and it was hard to fake an interest. I faded. the course I was much more interested in I was able to go the distance, it wasn’t easy and and I would have never made the distance if there hadn’t been a very clear interest.
  3. Deadlines: Without a deadline, in fact without regular smaller deadlines and the continuous pressure to learn as you go along… you will find it incredibly hard to finish. I agree some folk are extremely self-disciplined and can do this, and there was a time when I was that person… but right now I need all the help I can get to make me do the actual work. I need deadlines and consequences… “If your work isn’t submitted then you cannot proceed…” Silly I know, but that helped me.
  4. Interaction: Interaction helps, I was certainly not looking for friends and I didn’t make any. I don’t actually want to linger about discussing coursework with class mates from all over the world… but in order to get the work done it is important to interact with your course – it keeps you on track and accountable. Look for interaction: between students and their classmates, their tutor or even a machine – anything that gives feedback.
  5. Feedback: Feedback comes in many forms, in the classes my kids have done they have had tutors, and class mates… In a MOOC, you can expect to get an almost instant response… usually your work is handed in as a “true or false” questionnaire or multiple choice – the logistics of a large course make it so. The good thing about that is that you get your results back straight away and you can learn from them before you proceed.
  6. Look for Continuous Ongoing Assessment: There is more to interaction and feedback, you need to know how you are doing. The one course I did, I felt a bit like I was floundering in first year again… getting the work done and completing the tasks… only just. But I needed a weekly result, firstly to continue the course and to confirm that the work I was doing was actually vaguely “on the same page” as the rest of the course.
  7. Look for Pauses to Ponder: Look for courses that backtrack and review from time to time… a course that forges ahead continously is a scary thing… You need time for a topic to gel and settle in your mind, especially if all the ideas are new. It takes time to practice new skills and if there isn’t enough time incorporated into the course for practise and repetition you can be sure that the work is not going to stick in your mind. The nice thing is that many courses are repeated… if you don’t get it all perfectly the first time, then you can do it over.
  8. And the se7en + 1th feature…

  9. Use it or Lose it: This is true for almost everything you learn. If you don’t dive in and use your new found skill straight away you will, without doubt forget it. If not instantly, then shortly. I am testament to that… I cannot remember the name of the course I did not finish and the course I completed was a course in higher mathematics (yes I do like a challenge)… I had to really stretch my brain to complete it and a couple of months later I have no memory whatsoever of it!!! I think if I had done a more “useful in everyday” course I may have retained it better, but honestly if you aren’t using your new found knowledge you will forget it.

Online Courses That Work for us.


  1. School on Video at Kahn Academy: I warn you, you will get lost here… this may well be my happy place. Every time I stop by here I find new things to learn and find myself calling my kids over to take a peak at this and that… They literally have everything on here and your kids can watch videos and practice at their own pace. If they don’t understand something, they can watch it again until they do. Math topics, science topics and a whole lot more… from primary school all the way through to SATs.
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  3. Open University Courses at Coursera: This is where I found the courses that I did…. and here you are entering the world of MOOCS. It feels like there are hundreds and millions of topics available… in reality the choice of course is just a little narrower and closer to 600 courses. Click on the link and you will be strangely surprised to discover that all on-line classes are not just boring old academic courses, there is really something for everybody here. There are a lot of programming courses and courses on educating… but that’s not all. I have a child that would love a six week guitar course, or to spend a couple of weeks learning about a period of literature or archaeology. Honestly if you follow the link and don’t find a course you would like to take, I would be surprised!!!
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  5. Everything Under the Sun at Itunes University: History, Science, Geography, Literature… anything under the sun… brought to you under the one roof of the “free iTunesU app.” Literally hundreds of courses from leading universities open and online for the general public. These are complete courses online – videos, podcasts and so on. They are not interactive, you download and go, so you have to be self motivated… but the variety of interests and for the interest-led-learner it is a veritable goldmine, filled with treasure.
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  7. Online Skills at Impact Virtual: My two oldest boys have been working over here, for most of this year and loving it. If you do nothing else, sign you kids up for their Digital Learning Class… it’s free and packed with on-line life-skills and aimed at students in the middle to high school age-range. All the sorts of things that you say to your kids… and they look at you like you are just about mad… somethings they need to hear from somebody else. The course is essentially how to take all sorts of different media and present it in a useful way. They will create a website, they will learn about online safety, they will learn about how to include slideshows, videos and other resources into their website. They do not require special programming skills or a knowledge of anything really.

    One of my kids is really practical and tech savvy and the other one is a creative dreamy writer type… they both loved it. They learn how to review each other’s work… there is a peer review system in play. This is a course that will launch your kids and is really essential to any kind of work they ever do in the future. It requires a fair amount of time commitment… it is not easy breezy… there are a couple of assignments that are really quite challenging, but they do have a lot of worked examples to look at from past students, and then there are a couple of easy assignments all with very specific requirements and specific deadlines.

    There are other courses at this site… and it is expanding all the time. Right now our guys are doing the Money Matters Course and learning things they didn’t even know that they wanted to know… I never thought we would have fully fledged debates about the stock market at our breakfast table. The courses are pricey if you are not earning dollars but take the first free course and you will be surprised and astonished at how much your kids learn and how much fun they have while learning. My kids were gifted the Money Matters Course and they have loved every second of it so far. We highly recommend this resource.

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  9. Creative Writing with NaNoWrimo: This is not technically a course it is a month long writing adventure every November… there is the adult version of National Novel Writing Month… and there is the kids version. My oldest three kids have spent nearly the whole of November the last two years immersed in creative writing. There is a lot more to NaNoWrimo than churning out heaps of words day after day for thirty days… in order to create a vast story a lot of research and preparation and planning has to go into the project, not only that… they are busy on a site with heaps of tips for creative writing and tons of inspiration. I understand that this sort of Intensive Practice isn’t for everybody but it has worked for our kids, they have really enjoyed the whole event.
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  11. Baking with Yuppie Chef: And this just proves that you can learn absolutely anything online… Yuppie Chef launched a fabulous baking course last year, with the ever popular Sarah Graham on video… A couple of videos each week, printable recipes to follow along and try as well as notes and a quiz at the end of each level, just to check you learnt the essentials, before you can proceed to the next week’s courses. Hood #3 did this entirely on her own and we all enjoyed the results. Really it is a fabulous course and if you or your kids are looking to learn a lot more about baking, in a user friendly fashion then this is the way to go.
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  13. Photograph Editing with LightRoom and Julieanne Kost: And here’s another source of learning online for you… I really needed to upgrade my photography efforts on my blog… not to mention seriously improve my management of literally thousands of photographs. My computer choked about three months into blogging but not always the first to embrace something new, I waited literally years before I changed to LightRoom. It was very neatly done over the holiday season, the father person quietly removed my old system from machine and replaced it with lightroom… I entered the phase of “Steep Learning Curve-itiss.” Blog posts took three days to complete instead of the usual overnight. He didn’t just drop me in the deep end, well he did, but he did provide me with hours and hours of video tutorials. I had visions of a movie a night over the holiday season and he had visions of “Julieanne Kost.” Honestly, the video lessons are very good… and you will learn tons… even if you go away and try something and can’t quite remember – it goes a long way knowing that it can be done and you know where to go back and find what you are looking for. Needless to say I learnt masses… our photographs finally have a little watermark on them and I have been able store and shuffle photographs about better than ever before. Did I want to learn those, not so much, but again the online lessons were fabulous and I have come away with a good working knowledge of a programme I knew nothing about before.
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    And the Se7en + 1th

  15. Art and Journaling and Sketch booking, Creative Fun with Alisa Burke: Technically these courses are not free… but they are affordable and really worth saving for… she also has gift cards, if you have a friend that needs an online gift… this is a good one. I have done a couple of these courses… and I have even won a few… yes she does GiveAways!!! And her work is so stunning and her courses are brilliant and inspiring. You do not have to be an artist at all. Her materials are literally lying around the house, markers and watercolours and her inspiration is gathered on nature walks. You will learn to look at the world more carefully, you will be inspired to treat yourself to mini breaks and drawing sessions and because of those you will breathe easier… Honestly I can’t recommend these courses highly enough.

So that is our online learning experience so far… if you have done some online learning yourself or with your kids then feel free to leave a comment and tell us about it…

12 Replies to “Se7en + 1 Tips for Free Online Learning, What Works, What Doesn’t and Resources…”

  1. Thanks, we love Khan and I am an Alisa Burke wannabe…really want to do one of her courses! Do you think I coukd market this as a school expense to my school principal?

  2. Oh Tammy, I would definitely talk to your principal… I have so enjoyed Alisa Burke’s courses!!! They have provided me with hours of fun and inspiration… Otherwise, my big kids have discovered Kahn Academy… but the youngesters are about to launch!!! Its going to be fun!!! Hope you have a great weekend!!!

  3. We’re doing a great MOOC at the moment – My 5 yo and 9yo are both able to follow the really well made video tutorials (tho we’re not doing the homework). My experience with MOOCs is that they are hugely variable in quality of learning material produced, but yes there are some real gems out there.

  4. Wow Zoe, I am impressed… I don’t think my 5 yr old or my 9 yr old would survive a MOOC, but maybe I haven’t sought out one that would intrigue them!!! You are right, of course… different MOOCS have very different standards… just like in any university class, some lecturers were superb and you worked really hard for them and then… some weren’t and you didn’t!!! Hope you are all having a fabulous weekend!!!

  5. I was going through your tips, what you have written here that is absolutely right. Well designed online programs provide supplemental ways for kids to keep learning. Good courses must engage Kids and assist them to learn in ways that are not always achievable in a traditional classroom.

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