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I know there are a lot of people out there, like myself, who are caught in transition; Either unable to find work in their field, or unable to continue working in their field. If you are like me, you may feel you have a lot of potential but your skills just aren't translating into new fields.

What if you could learn new skills or improve existing skills?

What if you could take classes from an ivy league university without ever leaving home?

What if you could do it for free?

As it happens, you can.

Most people are probably familiar with OpenCourseWare (OCW). It's an initiative started in the late 90s and early 00s to give anyone with a computer a chance to learn from the best colleges and universities in the world. The movement got a huge push when MIT began making course material openly available in 2002. Soon after, other colleges followed suit, including Yale, Harvard and many others. There are, in fact, dozens of schools that make their course materials available to the public.

One issue with OCW in the early days was finding the classes you needed. With dozens of schools offering course material for dozens of classes, there was a lot of information out there, but it wasn't necessarily easy to find. Each school had its own OCW site. If you wanted to know what classes they offered, you had to find that site for each school and search through it. If you were looking for a specific kind of class, it could take a long time to finally find the school that offered it.

It didn't take long for OCW aggregation to show up. Several websites began compiling lists of the available classes that could be easily searched or browsed. This made finding the classes easier, but it didn't solve all the problems.

Another problem with OCW is the lack of structure. Once the class is found, the student is on his or her own to create and stick to a schedule. It's easy to get distracted and forget about the class.

Perhaps the biggest problem with OCW is the lack of personal interaction. There are no instructors or fellow students to ask questions or get help from. It's easy to get stuck, get discouraged and give up.

The most recent innovations in free, online, public education, however, make tremendous effort in solving these problems. There are now a handful of sites that offer structured, instructor-lead and peer-driven OCW options, including dozens of classes from ivy league universities. All for free.

Coursera: Coursera (Pronounced: course-era) was developed in cooperation with Stanford University. It partners with 33 universities from around the world, including Stanford, Princeton, and Cal Tech, to offer a range of structured classes. Each class has a definitive start and end date. Once a class starts, each week new lectures, quizzes and assignments are made available. Some assignments are automatically graded and others are peer-assessed. Some classes offer a certification of mastery upon completion.

edX: edX is a partnership between Harvard University and MIT. It features classes from Harvard, MIT and Berkeley. Like Coursera, the classes are interactive instructor-lead classes with a start and end date. Whereas Coursera only offers certification for a select number of classes, edX offers it for all of the classes. Depending on the class, the certificate is issues by either HarvardX, MITX, or BerkeleyX. edX currently offers only a few classes.

Udacity: Udacity offers 14 classes focused on mathematics and technology. These classes are structured similarly to Coursera and edX, but they do not have set start and end dates. The advantage of this is that the student can work at his or her own pace. The disadvantage of this is that the lack of structure may make it difficult for the student to stay on track.

Khan Academy: Khan Academy offers a large number of lectures and interactive learning materials. The interactive quizzes are fun and engaging, but often feel they are more geared toward young learners. Khan Academy does not offer any type of course structure or instructor interaction.

Even if you are not transitioning and/or looking for new skills, it is good to always be learning new things. Keeping the mind active and engaged is a great way to help prevent dementia as we age.

Today I started a Coursera classes called "An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python" from Rice University. Sure, I could teach myself Python, but this is more fun. And, who knows, maybe this skill will be the magic skill to help me get a better job in the future?

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