With all of the free manuals, tutorials and courses available on the Internet, anyone with interest and discipline can obtain as much knowledge as any computer science graduate. Without paying a dime, you can learn enough from free online courses to rebuild your own website, create an iPhone app or launch a new career.
What You (Don't) Pay For
While a few unfold in real-time and feature live lectures, most free online courses are canned, consisting of a number of recorded lectures, prepackaged assignments, and a few computer-graded quizzes and tests along the way. You won't receive credit for the course, you receive no personal instruction from an instructor and no one checks if you did the homework or even if you showed up for the lecture. Regardless of the type of online course, you are pretty much on your own. This does not mean that you can't learn or make practical use of your learning, but if you need motivation or credit, you'll need to pay for your instruction.
Perhaps the best sources for online computer courses are university programs. Stanford's Engineering school, for example, is a pioneer for free online education courses, developing Stanford Engineering Everywhere. The online computer courses offered through SEE are nearly identical to the courses given to enrolled Stanford students but don't offer college credit or personal instruction. The courses are interactive; the lectures are available in several video formats and as written transcripts. Best of all, these courses, which cover introductory programming, robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and iPhone app development, are taught by world-renowned experts in the field. Several other Universities have followed SEE's example. EDX, for example, is a collaboration between MIT, Harvard and the University of California -- Berkeley, providing free access to many computer courses. Some free college classes are accessible through a section of iTunes called iTunes U.
Unaffiliated Educational Web Sites
You can also find free courses on websites that have nothing to do with college. Because computer literacy is a barrier to employment for many who have recently lost their jobs, Goodwill Community Foundation International offers free introductory computer courses that cover subjects like MS Office and blogging. For more advanced classes, you can visit the College of Computer Science on free-ed.net where you can access courses covering everything from computer repair to data mining to video game development. W3Schools focuses exclusively on Web development and organizes its content into straightforward, easy to understand tutorials with an emphasis on practice.
Strategies for Success
Online learning gives students more flexibility than traditional forms of learning. That flexibility, however, requires students to provide more of their own discipline. If the course is completely self-directed, set deadlines for yourself and commit to meeting them. If you need help understanding something, you probably won't be able to contact the instructor if you haven't paid for the course. You can, however, find help elsewhere online. Start by typing your question into a search engine such as Google. You will probably be directed to an archived forum discussion that addresses your problem. If you can't find help there or can't understand it, join one of the ongoing forum discussions, where you will meet people who are eager to help you.
Free and Offline
Computer classes, especially introductory ones, are often available at libraries and community centers. An offline course might be preferable if you thrive in an actual, rather than virtual, community.