Self-directed online education

Would you like to expand your education without having to sit in an expensive college classroom?

If you feel motivated to pursue self-directed education and you don’t need official college documentation for your efforts, then this article is for you.

This article describes how you can use free online resources to enrich your education in almost any subject.

Types of media

The modern world has plenty of online source material for your self-education. For certain topics, you might want to pay money to get the very highest quality educational materials. But the internet is awash in all the free resources you need to learn almost any subject.

Why not just pay for an online course? By paying for educational materials, you may feel motivated to stick with the program to get your money’s worth. If you lack self-discipline, then you might find value in buying some motivation. On the other hand, if you pay for educational material, then you may feel obligated to stick with that curriculum even if it turns out to be the wrong education level for you. When using free resources, you may feel more free to abandon an unproductive course of study and redirect your efforts to something more enjoyable and productive.

If you’re a visual learner, start with YouTube. Over 500 hours of video gets uploaded to YouTube every minute, some of which is produced by reputable colleges and universities. There are thousands of graduate students around the world who derive their own personal benefits from sharing what they know with you, and some who actually make their living at it.

If you’re an audio learner, you can find podcasts on any subject. Sometimes you can use a YouTube educational video like a podcast. If the video is nothing more than one or more experts sitting around a table discussing a topic, then you can set your video viewer’s bit rate to something very low to conserve bandwidth and just listen to the audio.

If you learn by reading, you can find textbooks, journal articles, and blogs on any topic. Much educational material is in PDF format, so find a document reader that is easy to use for PDF files and get familiar with it. Learn how to download PDF files for offline reading. Learn how to organize your PDF files in a folder structure so you can find what you’ve downloaded.


It’s hard to be serious about learning when you’re using a tiny mobile device. Use a laptop or desktop computer with a real keyboard and plenty of screen real estate. You need enough screen space for your documents, videos, notes, and web searcher. Attach a second monitor if you can.

There is no need to turn off all social media while studying at home. Just choose what social media to enable while studying. With a bit of research, you can find fellow students to connect with. Or start your own social media channel to engage with other students studying the same topics.

Get very acquainted with your web searcher

A web searcher is your friend. Choose one and learn its features. At the time of this writing, Google is the most popular web search engine in the Western world and it works well for exploring educational resources.

Search for your topic of interest. If the results are overwhelming, use the web search filters to limit your search to a recent time frame, such as the past year.

You can also limit your search to specific web domains. For example, if you’re interested in learning about space exploration, you can add the filter “” to your search to limit your search to NASA’s web domain.

You can also limit your search to specific types of media. If you’re a visual person, you can filter your search to see only videos. Or you can add a filter such as “” to limit your search to a specific video host platform. If you prefer to read PDF documents in a reader, you can add “filetype:pdf” to find PDF files or use the searcher’s “Advanced” search interface to specify a file type.

When your search produces many irrelevant results and it seems that your searcher is ignoring your search terms, put your search terms inside quotation marks.

Start anywhere

When you’re in a college classroom surrounded by students and teachers, it makes sense to stay with the curriculum to the final exam. But when self-educating with no guide to hold your hand, you will have to forge your own path through the forest. When you encounter obstacles, you’ll need to be flexible enough to find a detour or a whole new path. But no matter what may happen, the first step on the journey is the first step.

Start anywhere. Select a book, article, video, or podcast and consume it. Take it in — as much as feels comfortable — and let it digest for a while.

Note taking and self exams

There are several ways to help your brain retain the information it learns. One way is to repeat what you’ve learned by taking notes. Don’t just transcribe what you read using the same words. Write a description of what you learned as if it you were explaining it to someone else in your own words.

You can retain information by discussing it with others. Tell your friends, family members, or pets all about the things you learned.

Notes can be recorded in any form you feel comfortable with. If you keep notes on your computer in a text file or in a note-taking app, you can search them for words and phrases. You can create your own study aids with flash card apps. If you’re feeling nerdy, find a mind mapping app and create artful pages of what you’ve learned.

One of the most powerful ways to retain information in the long term is to try to recall things you have learned but partially forgotten. As you are taking notes along the way, put some of your notes in the form of questions. Then later, review your notes and see if you can answer your own questions. Optimal learning happens when your brain has to struggle a little bit to recall the full answer.


At the very moment you encounter something confusing — stop. If unchecked, confusion can grow like a tumbling snowball. When the material no longer makes sense, learning is no longer fun. The moment you feel confused, find some way to proceed without the confusion. You will continue to learn as long as it’s fun.

Often this means simply opening a web search window and searching for definitions or discussions about a word or phrase. Other times it means putting aside the material you were studying in order to learn about an underlying concept and take a substantial detour through a different part of the forest.

Every topic worth learning is built on underlying knowledge that you may or may not already have. The optimal education level for you is where some of the material is new to you, some of it you already know, and a bit of it assumes you know something you don’t already know but you can look it up and learn it along the way.

If your material assumes too much about your background knowledge and you feel discouraged, then set it aside. Find a different line of inquiry and different learning material that will give you the background you need. Perhaps in a month or a year you can revisit that material that you once found discouraging and find that it’s easier to understand.

Have fun

It feels good to exercise your brain and to learn about the amazing world we live in. Pursue subjects that you find meaningful and satisfying. Learn from your fellow learners, and if you’re so inclined, share with others what you have learned.


2 responses to “Self-directed online education”

  1. This is a great overview — do you mind if I link to it?

    1. Thanks, and feel free to link to it.