By Scott Baughman

As the dog days of summer give way to the first glimpses of fall, you might find yourself seeing a few sales at local merchants that focus on that one message all school kids dread this time of year — the “back to school” sales are likely heating up!

For most of us adults, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We love our kids and we love spending time with them of course, but making sure they get a good education is important. Yep, that’s it, making sure they get a good education. It certainly is NOT that we’re happy to see them headed off back to school so we can get a little alone time.

But if your kids are of the more adult variety and you are living more of that retired and empty nest lifestyle, August likely has no specific school-related impact for you. Fear not, dear reader, I’ve got some information that might make “back to school” have a whole different meaning for you thanks to — the Internet, naturally.

We are all well aware of the concept of “online college” that has become all the rage and increasingly popular since the turn of the century, but did you know that you can take advantage of these virtual classes completely free of charge?

No, you won’t be able to earn a degree for free – they do still charge full price even for virtual classes if you want the document to certify your education – but you can get the knowledge and it’s a great way to try college for free. In essence, you can take a “survey” version of almost any course offered by some of the world’s most prestigious institutions all without ever leaving your couch or changing out of your PJs! Now, if these colleges are still anything like they were when I was in school some 20 years ago, plenty of students show up to their actual, physical classes in their PJs – but I digress. Here are the top 5 colleges known throughout the world that are offering free online classes:

  1. University of Cambridge – Don’t feel like hopping the ocean to visit this stalwart British college? No worries, just fire up your laptop, tablet, phone or even Apple Watch and you can observe the professor lecturing away just like you would if you were hanging out on the back row of his classroom. There are 16 academic categories offering free access from Cambridge including the Darwin College Lecture Series and the Cambridge Judge Business School collection.
  2. Carnegie Mellon University – CMU does a lot of their free online content through YouTube’s college series channels. There are lectures on arts, business, technology and science concepts and innovations including The Global Learning Council, Robotics and Drones and Digital Security.
  3. Columbia University – Columbia also does a lot of content on YouTube and groups videos from each of the school’s academic departments into individual playlists on the popular video site. And they include a selection of on-campus lectures, with the keynote speakers from their latest conferences. The top of their list ranked by popularity includes New York Stores, Climate Research and Neuroscience.
  4. Cornell University – Cornell is so invested in the virtual classroom concept that they have their own online repository of digital content at eCommons@Cornell. This site has over 730 videos and 426 audio files. The classes are further enhanced by digital downloads of dissertations, research data, image and much more. The topics leading the download race include “Developing effective standard operating procedures,” “Water resources systems planning and management” and — “Antigone” !
  5. Duke University – Hey now, here’s a familiar name for all of us North Carolinians! The Blue Devils are making their presence known online as well as on the court. Both YouTube and iTunes host a variety of free lectures and panels from Duke. The school’s Divinity section and Graduate School have their own sections with individual channels and playlists. Popular subjects include: Gene Therapy research at Duke School of Medicine, the Hayek Lecture Series and the University’s Weekly worship service.

So there you have it, a list of some great things you can learn online without having to deal with that pesky tuition bill! And now you have no excuse to let your brain turn to mush over the summer break. Until next time…download complete!