Guide to Free Online College Classes for High School Student

Open courseware is a simple idea: Take all of the material that goes into an online course, from a syllabus to lecture notes to media recordings to lab guides, and make it available to students and the general public for free. These courses cover a huge span of topics, from English literature to chemical engineering. For instance, MIT’s open courseware site contains hundreds of free online college classes, open to all who are interested. While these courses don’t transfer for credit, a free college-level course can give you a leg up not only because of the material you’ll learn, but also because you gain experience with college syllabi and learn what will be expected of you in your college courses. Take a look at the list of open courseware programs below and explore those that match your interests and educational goals.

Get Ahead with Introductory College Classes

In your first two years of college, you will need to take a wide range of courses in many topics. Even if you already know what you’d like to study, some colleges won’t let you choose a major until you have completed a semester or two of coursework. In many cases, you will also have to take placement tests. Open courseware can help prepare you for these tests, which can earn you credit for demonstrating advanced knowledge. Failing a placement test may mean you have to take remedial courses, particularly in mathematics.

A typical course of study requires you complete a math course, several English composition courses, two natural science courses, several history and government classes, some foreign language study, and several additional electives in art or social science. Studying the material in these courses can help you test out of many prerequisites, in addition to increasing your knowledge of the material in courses that you do take. Unlike traditional and online college classes for credit, open courseware costs nothing beyond your time and willingness to learn. Another advantage of open courseware is that it lets you try a particular course or topic at no cost, so if you find it doesn’t suit your interests or is likely to impact your grade-point average, you can pursue another topic. Explore the selection of open courses below, which cover a diverse array of topics likely to come up in your first two years of study.


Arts Open Courseware

Use these courses to prepare for your college arts classes.

Practice of Art

Presented By: John S. McNamara – University of California at Berkeley

Released on YouTube in 2013, this lecture series is organized to introduce you to the languages, processes, and media of visual art, including theoretical topics such as appropriation and recontextualization, as well as a study of specific methods. The material is available through YouTube; as such, you only need a browser and computer capable of playing YouTube videos to benefit from the material.

Introduction to Classical Music

Presented By: Kevin Korsyn – University of Michigan

This eight-week program started in 2013 and introduces you to the history of classical music of the 18th and 19th centuries as well as the musical theory that informed it. The materials are freely available, and periodically the instructor facilitates a free online study group through the Coursera system. The only requirements are a computer that can play multimedia files and some ability to read musical notation.

Understanding Theatre

Presented By: David Sidwell – Utah State University

From 2008, this course guides you through theatre’s history and visual language, as well as an introduction to principles of acting, direction, and playwriting. While the workshops are available in the form of a guided commentary from the instructor, you will need to locate the texts of plays (or live performances and recordings) yourself.

Musicianship II

Presented By: Don and Dave Megill – MiraCosta College

First developed in 2004, this course is uniquely focused on developing your ability to distinguish and understand musical tones and rhythms. While the authors strongly recommend taking an instrument class at the same time, the course is designed for musician and nonmusician alike. All of the exercises are browser-based, although you will need a fairly modern browser, as well as a MIDI-playing plug-in and Java, both of which are available for free.

An Introduction to Material Culture

Presented By: Peter Elmer and Rodney Harrison – The Open University

Published in 2012, this course focuses on the physical things that surround us, such as teapots, trash cans, and lampposts. The course discusses their “life cycles,” how these objects are designed and produced, and the history of material culture’s roots in the 19th century. There is no registration or special equipment needed for this course, although you will need to have access to a computer and network connection that can play video.


Business Open Courseware

Business courses can give you a leg up when you start your business program.

Introduction to Financial and Managerial Accounting

Presented By: Sugata Roychowdhury – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Originally presented in the spring of 2004, this course introduces you to accountancy concepts, particularly how to read, understand, and use fiscal reports. It is written for the benefit of nonaccountants, as well. The course includes sample exams and extensive lecture notes, although you will need to obtain a copy of a recommended textbook and free software to read PDF files.

Introduction to Economics

Presented By: Tyler Bowles – Utah State University

First taught in fall 2005, this course builds your understanding of economics, including the history of the field, private and public sectors in the U.S. economy, and the core concepts of economic thought, such as property rights, contracts, currency, and trade. The course’s lectures are delivered in MP3 format, which will require an audio player, whether portable or software-based on your computer.

International Trade

Presented By: Guido Lorenzoni – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This course builds on basic economics concepts with regards to the development of trade across the borders of nations. Originally written in 2006, the course offers several complex problem sets and a variety of practice exams in PDF format for you to test your own knowledge. You will need to get access to the textbook to follow along with some of the readings.

Principles of Microeconomics

Presented By: Jonathan Gruber – Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Prepared in 2012 with multimedia integration, this course will teach you the principles of supply and demand analysis, theory regarding competition in the marketplace, the influence of economics on individual behavior, and economic analysis of well-being. You will need a current Internet browser capable of viewing video and using the numerous online quizzes, reading assignments (including a free online textbook), and other tools to get the full benefit of this course.

Management Communication for Undergraduates

Presented By: Lori Breslow and Terence Heagney – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Updated in fall of 2012, this course helps you develop the strategic communication skills you need to work in a professional setting, including writing, speech, teamwork, and working across different cultures. The emphasis is on skills you will need in a management career. You will need regular Internet access and software to read PDF files for most of the course materials.

Introduction to Lean Six Sigma Methods

Presented By: Earll Murman, Hugh McManus, Annalisa Weigel, and Allen Haggerty – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Uploaded in 2008, this course takes the form of a series of video lectures introducing you to the Six Sigma method of management. This system of management focuses on creating value by eliminating waste, and the program has been designed to be approachable for any learning level. You will need to have a browser capable of playing Internet video in order to view the lectures, as well as a PDF reader.


English and Communication Open Courseware

Get ready for college-level literature, English, and communication courses with these free classes online.

Reading Poetry

Presented By: Kim Vaeth – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Taught first in 2009, this course provides you with a syllabus of exercises and readings to guide your understanding and appreciation of poetry from an artistic, rather than a historical, perspective. The readings and exercises require a PDF reader for viewing, and you will need to obtain copies of some works; however, most of them are widely published and should be available even in small libraries.

Guide to Grammar

Presented By: English Department – Capital Community College

Originally published in 1999 and maintained to the present day, this site is a huge collection of simple grammatical exercises, starting from the basic parts of speech and leading to writing argumentative essays and correctly using the MLA format. No curriculum or special equipment other than a web browser is needed, and you can explore systematically or save it as a grammar resource.

Foundations of World Culture: World Civilizations and Texts

Presented By: Ghenwa Hayek – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This 2011 course introduces you to the diversity of human culture from ancient history to the early 17th century, largely through the study of literature, religious texts, and philosophical works. You will need access to the classic texts studied and examined through the course’s sequence of exercises, although most of them are readily available in libraries or online.

Writing with Shakespeare

Presented By: Diana Henderson – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This course uses Shakespeare’s plays to introduce you to concepts of rhetoric, different styles of writing, and how to make use of observation to inform writing. Published in fall 2010, this course uses readings that are all derived directly from Shakespeare’s plays and other writing, although you will need a PDF reader to study the assignment prompts.

The American Novel

Presented By: Wyn Kelley – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Published in 2002, this course’s readings and exercises focus on American authors in the period after the Revolutionary War, as well as their critiques of the promises and outcomes of that revolution, particularly for groups such as slaves, women, and the poor. You will need access to a library or copies of several works of literature in order to follow the readings, but they are widely available.

English Composition I

Presented By: Tom Caswell – Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges

This free resource, last updated in April 2013, provides you with three practice units to build your skills in college-level essay writing, argumentation, and development of a thesis. Many of the exercises imply instructor involvement, but you can complete them on your own just as well, This course provides a valuable window to the typical freshman composition English course. You will need to download the course materials either as an Angel Export file or as an IMS Common Cartridge file.


Humanities and Social Sciences Open Courseware

Prepare for study in subjects like psychology, sociology, an history with the open courseware below.

U.S. History Survey Course

Presented By: William Paquette – California State University

These sixteen units, originally written in 2009, cover U.S. history from the pre-Columbian Native American civilizations to Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War. A survey course on this period is nearly universal in American college programs. The courses are presented in separate listings with references to other resources available through MERLOT or public libraries, allowing you to study the same texts and multimedia materials you would in the classroom.

Human Origins and Evolution

Presented By: Harry Merrick – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This 2006 anthropology survey course discusses the physical and behavioral traits of humanity and studies human ancestry and evolution. You will examine artifacts and discuss the development of tool use and how evidence of culture is gathered. You will need access to a library for some reference works and PDF-reading software in order to study the lecture notes.  

Introduction to Political Thought

Presented By: Sarah Song – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This course from 2004 examines texts from political thinkers in Western Europe and the impact of their theories. You will read works from thinkers from Plato to Marx, and consider questions deriving from these works. You will need access to the texts, most of which are available online or in public libraries, as well as a PDF reader in order to access the lecture notes.

American Political Thought

Presented By: Sarah Song – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Published in 2004, this course focuses on the specific developments of American political thought from the colonial era through the present day, with readings from Thomas Jefferson, W.E.B. DuBois, and others. You will need access to PDF-reading software to view lecture notes and practice assignments, and a local library for some of the more recent books.

Fundamentals of Public Policy

Presented By: Steve Meyer and David Laws – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This 2004 political science course studies policy making as a political and problem-solving exercise, and examines where the two approaches complement with each other, You will also learn how something comes to be defined as a “public policy problem” in the first place. You will need a PDF reader to access the course lecture notes and readings, which cover topics from trade policy through environmental, health, and educational policy making.


Math Open Courseware

Don’t get left behind in your first college math class; prepare with the following courses.

Highlights of Calculus

Presented By: Gilbert Strang – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This video series introduces calculus concepts to independent learners and high school students. Five videos focus on broad concepts in calculus, with an additional twelve focusing in depth on topics in differentials. No enrollment or other software beyond a browser that can play the videos is needed, which are also available for download to your home computer or other device.

An Introduction to Complex Numbers

Presented By: Cathy Swift – The Open University

This simple introductory unit, published in 2011, will help you master the topic of complex numbers, including polynomials and finding nth roots. You’ll also explore inequalities in real-valued expressions that deal with complex numbers. The course materials will require you to have a PDF reader. An audio section is also available, though not essential to the material.

Rice Virtual Lab in Statistics

Presented By: David Lane – Rice University

Started in 2007 and still in development, this online resource provides an interactive, multimedia text for studying statistics, as well as case studies, Java-based simulations and demonstrations, and analysis tools for developing your skills in this common mathematics course. All materials can be viewed in a current web browser, and the simulations and their source code can be downloaded, as well.

Starting with Maths: Patterns and Formulas

Presented by: The Open University

Published in November of 2010, this course is an extract from the Open University’s former Starting with Maths course and helps you recognize patters and utilize word formulas for problem solving. You will also learn how to develop word formulas for use in spreadsheets and solve direct proportion problems. You will only need a current web browser to take advantage of this course, which includes sample problems with detailed explanations of how to arrive at the correct answer.


Science Open Courseware

Study up on a wide selection of science topics using these open courseware classes.

Physics I: Classical Mechanics

Presented By: Peter Dourmashkin – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Constantly updated, this course provides a comprehensive study of classical physics, with lecture notes, video lectures with transcripts, and assignments with solutions for checking your own work. The program assumes algebra or precalculus ability on your part. All you will need to benefit from the course is an Internet connection and software to play video files.

Introduction to Biology

Presented By: Claudette Gardel, Eric Lander, Robert Weinberg, and Andrew Chess – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This comprehensive introduction to biology builds on a course taught in 2004, and includes audio and video of all lectures, as well as reading notes, sample problems with answer keys, and an optional guide to forensic DNA analysis. You will need video and/or audio player software to get the full benefit of the lecture series.

Hands-on Astronomy: Observing Stars and Planets

Presented By: James Elliot – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Originally presented in 2002, this hands-on course guides you through the theory and practice of observing the stars and planets, and introduces you to astronomical theory. Astronomy is a commonly available natural science elective that enhances your observational skills. The lecture notes assume some math knowledge and access to a telescope or powerful binoculars.

Introduction to Oceanography

Presented By: Tom Caswell – Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges

Produced in 2011, this course discusses the geological, chemical, biological, and physical processes that occur in the ocean, as well as how we explore—and exploit—the biggest part of the world’s surface. The course is designed to be approachable by students with only basic knowledge, and no special software is needed to download and use the material.

Introduction to Astronomy

Presented By: Saul Rappaport – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This course from 2006 introduces the concepts of astronomy, including stars, planets, and exotic structures, such as black holes. Some physics and calculus knowledge is needed to get the full benefit of the course, and a textbook is recommended. However, the lecture notes are comprehensive and instructive, and a PDF reader is needed to display them.