NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Ask any parent what they think is most important to their children’s success in life, and chances are good that all of them will say the same thing: an education. And, most often, what they mean by “education” is “a college education.”

But with tuition costs rising astronomically and student loan defaults following suit, it seems like more young people than ever are being priced out of a quality education.

Thankfully, the Internet and the many minds connected to it have stepped up in some notable ways to provide alternatives to a bricks-and-mortar (and money) education. Leading universities increasingly make their courses available for free online – sometimes complete with video lectures and homework assignments – and other institutions have sprung up from scratch to give people more ways to educate themselves in digital classrooms.

That being said, this new world of education is still on its first legs. Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of online educational resources Fastweb.com and Finaid.org, has been following developments in the world of free online education for some time now.

“There’s a lot of potential here,” Kantrowitz says. “This is in its infancy and at some point people will start building things on top of it like interactive exams that test your weaknesses, but you can basically get an Ivy League education for free now.”

An important caveat though, he says, is that because such efforts don’t result in an actual diploma or another credential that certifies the knowledge you get from online outlets, the real-world benefits they provide can be limited to the cases where the knowledge is more important than the degree itself.

“The education is real, and in some cases you could potentially sit for a licensing exam after educating yourself with these free courses,” Kantrowitz says, but “what it eventually will evolve into will be multiple master teachers synthesizing their approach formally – maybe at some future date you won't need to go to college because you can do it remotely.”

That being said, only the most self-motivated of students will be able to truly get the knowledge they want out of such programs.

“If you’re the type of person who’s a self-starter and can motivate yourself to go through the lessons then it works,” Kantrowitz says. “But some people need supervision. Some people are just not good at doing independent study.”

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Discussion Groups

One important advantage of a traditional institute of higher learning is the fact that students who learn together in a classroom and collaborate with each other in discussion and study groups reinforce each other’s knowledge in ways that a student would have a hard time doing independently.

“Overall, think about self-learning as a book club,” Kantrowitz advises. “You can read a book but the real benefit comes from discussing it. You're more successful in learning the material through identifying friends to talk about that same material with.”

For this reason, anyone considering free online education as a substitute for classroom education should supplement their efforts with a proper discussion group with peers. Some of these can be found on Craigslist (in the Community > Groups section of any city’s page; here’s an example from Chicago), but Kantrowitz recommends the more sophisticated Yahoo Groups that address various school subjects, sometimes with a professor involved to lead the way.

“Some groups even are moderated by a faculty member,” he says. “That may not get you one-on-one attention but they will correct false information that is posted to the group.”

With these caveats in mind, here we run down some of the best options available to anyone with an Internet connection to learn a wide variety of basic and advanced subjects, and for students at all grade levels. There are classes you would find in an elementary school, and others that you would need to reach the graduate school level to learn, so where you fall on the spectrum, put on your thinking caps and get clicking.

Basic Math

By far one of the leading sources for self-directed online learning is the Khan Academy, a project started by Louisiana native Salman Khan to create basic math lessons for elementary school students. By breaking down the lessons into bite-sized pieces, Khan Academy lectures are like a Rosetta Stone for the language of mathematics.

The basic lessons on algebra, geometry and trigonometry are good for any young student, whether they are struggling with the material or not. Kantrowitz points to the benefit of such lessons as reinforcement for what goes on in the classroom.

“Sometimes current students may just use these online courses when they are taking a class to see them presented in a different way,” he says.

In that same vein, any parent who realizes that they don’t quite have the answers when the children ask for help on their homework, or who knows the concepts but has a hard time expressing them, can benefit from the lectures.

Perhaps most importantly, the Khan Academy has added layers of testing and monitoring of a learner’s progress to keep students on track, an offering that Kantrowitz believes is the next big innovation in online learning.

Advanced Math

While the Khan Academy does work its way up to more advanced mathematical concepts like differential equations as well, the most sophisticated mathematical lessons out there are at your fingertips thanks to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare catalog.

In addition to providing armchair overachievers with a guided study of Multivariable Calculus or Mathematical Methods for Engineers, for example, the MIT offerings will put you in the actual classroom through videos and course syllabi used by tuition-paying students. Some classes even contain exams with answer keys to give you precisely the same experience that MIT students did in those classes, though with two important exceptions: you can’t go up to the professor to ask questions after the lecture, and there are no discussion groups.

And that’s not an insignificant caveat.

“With free online classes you get a syllabus, maybe videos of lectures, but you won't have someone grading your exams,” Kantrowitz says, “and you won't have fellow classmates to discuss the material with either. A lot of learning in college classrooms isn't sitting in class; you learn from your peers, in study groups. There's a lot more to a college education than textbooks.”

Still, if you have the learning background and the self-motivation, an MIT-quality education for a total savings of $53,210 (MIT’s quoted cost for one academic year of tuition, room and board and materials) is significant even if it’s limited to one or two specific subjects.

Finance

Math is important, yes, but the kind of math that most of us wrestle with on a regular basis is the math that keeps us from falling into debt and gets us the best interest rates on our loans and savings. Thankfully, there are some free online courses in personal finance to help you out.

Through the same OpenCourseWare initiative that MIT supports, the University of California at Irvine provides one of the most popular personal finance courses on the Web. The program covers budgeting, taxes, investing and retirement and education planning in what it estimates to be 25-30 hours of effort.

One drawback of the course, though, is that it is less visual than some learners might prefer. For them, some supplemental videos from the Khan Academy can be a good addition to a DIY personal finance curriculum, though the videos can get pretty deep into some esoteric concepts like “Futures Margin Mechanics” that most people will never deal with in their financial lives.

Still, the Khan Academy’s offerings are particularly notable for their inclusion of finance news in their instruction, providing full series explaining the Geithner Plan and the Paulson Bailout to save the banking industry at the beginning of the financial crisis.

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Literature

For home learners who are more interested in liberal arts than numbers, there are plenty of free online courses to suit their needs as well. The fact that understanding literature is less reliant on visuals than math and science means that it is a subject perfectly suited to Apple’s iTunes U service, which collects audio podcasts from major universities like Stanford and Yale around various subjects.

Among the notable literature courses are Stanford’s “3 Books” series of lectures and the 50-episode “Book Salon”, which features lessons on classics and contemporary literature as well. Other notable work-specific courses include Yale’s iTunes U video podcasts of Dante and the New Testament, as well as a whole world of lectures on the works of William Shakespeare.

While reading a book is of course a prerequisite for any literature lesson, most students will need such lessons by experts to enable them to read between the lines.

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History

Along the same lines as literature, history is another subject that can be consumed passively – that is to say, without problem sets and formulas to write down and such. And while iTunes U contains plenty of content related to all sorts of history lessons, these types of lessons, which encompass broad topics across large periods of time may be better suited to semester-long programs rather than individual podcasts.

For the basics, Yale University’s Open Yale Courses on history are a great resource to learn the topics from some of the best professors there are, curated by one of the country’s most highly regarded liberal arts universities. With survey courses on early American and European History, Yale’s multimedia course packages will provide a guided tour of certain larger topics that can then be supplemented with specific offerings from iTunes U.

For subjects like this, Kantrowitz explains, it’s best to complete a self-contained program from one professor to get the best experience.

“Generally speaking, if you’re taking classes in a focused field, it’s best to do all the classes from the same institution or professor,” Kantrowitz says. “Getting your learning from all different sources will create gaps and repetition, so it’s not ideal.”

Physics

The sciences are another category of learning, like math, that require good visuals to learn. With math it’s about solving problems step-by-step, but with physics, for example, diagrams are very important to learn about forces and mechanics and how things actually work. That means any free online courses in these areas should be heavy on visuals, and taught in the most simple and straightforward manner.

That takes us back again to the Khan Academy, whose simple videos on all manner of basic physics and astronomy concepts are second to none. Moving up the ladder of complexity brings us back to MIT, with an incredible repertoire of free and video-focused physics and nuclear science and engineering courses online.

Before jumping into other science subjects, though, keep in mind that one of the main limitations of online courses, for Kantrowitz, is the conspicuous absence of guided lab work. After all, most of us don’t have physics labs in our apartments.

“Advanced sciences and even basic chemistry have lab sections when they are taught in a university, so you will miss out on that when you are learning online,” Kantrowitz says.

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Medicine/Pre-Med

Doctors are some of the most educated professionals there are, since the human body is probably the most complex mechanism that exists in our world, but the huge amount of required knowledge makes it tough for any latecomers to make a career in medicine if they didn’t start preparing for it in kindergarten.

But anyone, current medical students or not, can benefit from some targeted study to score the highest possible score on the MCAT, the main admissions test for medical schools in the U.S. It makes sense, then, that Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore would be one of the leading sources of pre-med and public health instruction online.

The school itself is well known for its degrees in health and medicine, and its online repository of lessons and lectures on epidemiology, genetics, infectious disease and all sorts of related subjects are the best in the business according to Kantrowitz, and provide an integrated course of study that simply isn’t available anywhere else.

That being said, an equally important component of any health and medicine-related education is hands-on practice, so while there are compelling reasons to beef up your knowledge of the fundamentals of medicine and public health through free online offerings, this is one subject where online education should act as a complement rather than a supplement to more traditional educational experiences.

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Languages

One of the best and worst examples for online learning has to do with learning a foreign language.

It’s one of the best examples because the utility is clear: learn a language and you can talk to the cabbie while on vacation in Bangladesh, or read the local newspaper to see why people are protesting in Peru. No degree or fancy college courses necessary.

It’s one of the worst examples, though, because so much about learning a language has to do with pronunciation and live conversation. Sure, Rosetta Stone software put top-notch language learning at anyone’s fingertips, but Rosetta Stone software can cost hundreds of dollars a lesson.

That being said, an online course is certainly more beneficial than a phrasebook in your pocket, and some institutions have embraced that fact with online language classes of their own. The options are still limited, but they are a good place to start if you don’t have the cash on hand to benefit from the Rosetta Stone model.

MIT’s OpenCourseWare offers language classes online for Chinese, French, German, Japanese and Spanish, but they are relatively light on multimedia content, so pronunciation lessons may be more difficult to learn there. The other sites like Yale’s Open Courses and the Khan Academy stay away from language classes entirely, but iTunes U has plenty of language-learning content that will at least provide some audio to aid pronunciation, in podcast format.

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Civics

To close out this rundown of what you can learn online, let’s turn to a subject that should be a prerequisite for any student in the U.S., no matter what field of study they are in or planning to pursue: civics. The government is a rat’s nest of laws and regulations proposed, amended and repealed by hundreds of elected representatives over and over during the past 200 years.

And the federal government seems aware of this fact as well, along with the need to make it easier for Americans to bone up on the underlying materials that define our democracy. In September, the National Archives announced that it would make historical documents, archival videos and public records available on iTunes U. The offerings provide firsthand source information for anyone studying the history of U.S. policy and government initiatives, and act as a sort of time capsule that isn’t filtered through any institution or professor.

For people who want a bit more of a guided civics lesson, the Khan Academy offers seven videos explaining basic government concepts, from budgets to public programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Considering all of the tools available for free online instruction we have outlined, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how the digital classroom will surely do nothing but grow in the coming years. As students and parents struggle to deal with tuition costs and institutions themselves try to deal with high rents and limited physical space, the classroom of the future may very well be your home computer.

Kantrowitz summarizes the central benefit with one simple example:

“Some schools in California are so over-subscribed that they are standing-room-only. Online there's no standing-room-only.”