Dear PropellerHeads: I've looked into my local university's continuing education program, but my schedule makes it difficult to attend classes at night.

Are there any good Internet-based alternatives?

Answer: We're afraid that online courses will never help you recapture the magic of Hazing Week at your old I Tappa Keg fraternity.

But if you're serious about "getting your learn on" this time, the Internet can be a great place to, uh, "matriculate."

If your idea of college courses includes face time with professors and students, there might not be a substitute for showing up to a classroom.

Before you give up on your local college, you might want to double-check to make sure the classes you want aren't available in online versions or hybrids.

But if you'll settle for online access to assignments and lectures from prestigious institutions like MIT and UC Berkeley, then you're in luck.

MIT announced an online initiative in 2001 called OpenCourseWare (ocw.mit.edu), to "advance knowledge and educate students [...] to best serve the world."

A dozen years and 2,150 courses later, anyone with an Internet connection can download syllabi, quizzes and video lectures for courses ranging from Aerospace Engineering to World Literature.

In fact, 125 million students from throughout the world already have.

The idea of getting educated without paying tuition proved popular, prompting other universities to follow suit.

There's now an OpenCourseWare Consortium (ocwconsortium.org) of schools from around the world, from Australia to Vietnam.

American participants include Notre Dame, MIT, Tufts University and Johns Hopkins, among others.

Other institutions provide similar resources. The University of California at Berkeley has a YouTube channel at youtube.com/ucberkeley, and is one of many schools that offer audio and video recordings of lectures online for free.

Apple's iTunes University (www.apple.com/apps/itunes-u) has more.

Free access to raw course materials is great, but Carnegie Mellon is exploring more interactive methods of teaching over the web. Its Open Learning Initiative (oli.cmu.edu) offers only about 24 courses, but employs "innovative online instructional components" like virtual laboratories and group experiments.

MIT and others are quick to stress that -- while great resources for "self-learners" -- these sites do not provide a college education.

In particular, no degrees, certificates or continuing education credits are awarded based on the use of OpenCourseWare materials.

Participation also does not include access to faculty, so don't expect a virtual Mr. Peabody as part of the deal. In addition, many instructors do not post all of their material online, leaving you to fill in some of the gaps.

But you really can't complain since it's free.

Looking for something more formal, like paying tuition and getting a degree?

Then you'll want to check out online universities. Some places to start include elearners.com, collegedegree.com and adultlearn.com, which allow you to browse a list of schools or search by subjects and degrees.

So people looking for a convenient, flexible, and inexpensive -- if not quite perfect -- way to continue their education need only a web browser and some free time.

Email questions to questions@askthepropellerheads.com or contact us at Data Directions Inc. 8510 Bell Creek Road, Mechanicsville, VA 23116. Visit www.askthepropellerheads.com.

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