Free Educational and Research Resources
This is a list of free educational resources that are frequently overlooked or somewhat obscure, but still contain a large trove of information. The selection covers software, lessons, research papers, and reference material. I will skip covering online things that I think most people know, like Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg, or Khan Academy. Where possible I will suggest tax-funded, public domain, or FOSS options. Some of these are easy to use while others, like Zotero, require more of a learning curve. Please reply if you have any suggestions to add to the list; I will add them if they meet those criteria.
Table of Contents
Library Card: Everyone should have one, or even multiple; at least have your local branch, and consider finding a way to get a card in a major city, which has more lending options. They’re very easy to get, and open up a lot of digital resources, like Libby, RBDigital, and Kanopy, listed below.
Community College Enrollment: Yes, even if you went to an Ivy League. The only reason not to is if you are currently affiliated with a larger college or university. Why? By taking even a single community college course a year you can get longterm access to a lot of student discounts on software and scholarly journals, not to mention museums and such. Not only are the classes cheap or free, but the curriculum quality and even the instructor quality is often comparable to lower-division courses at state universities and private colleges, possibly even better, if the equivalent courses would be taught by a seasoned instructor instead of an overworked grad student. You can fill in gaps in your academic education or satisfy a hobby by taking some sort of evening-class elective. Depending on your community college, maybe you can even qualify for these benefits simply by taking an online course.
Some software that you can get with any valid .edu:
All the Autodesk programs, including Maya and AutoCAD
Windows 10 and Microsoft Office, for most schools in the US and some elsewhere.
FreeStudentSoftware.com has a more complete list.
Don’t forget that a lot of people like to help students. If there’s something you want and you can’t get, try emailing the author or developer, asking if they would make something available to you. If you know anyone who can buy the thing for you, don’t be ashamed to ask them (make sure to repay your favors either in kind or in kindness).
MIT OCW: This is somewhat well-known but not in the top ranks. Frankly I don’t even see how Coursera et al can even make any money when MIT just makes an absurd amount of its courses available for free online. You can even ask for homework help.
Open Culture Free Online Courses: A list of about 1,500 courses as of May 2020, spread across various standalone websites and Massive Open Online Course providers such as Coursera. Covers many disciplines, including many humanities and practical subjects. Thanks to Noah Blaff for this recommendation.
Youtube: Okay, I said I’d skip obvious things. But are you aware of how much educational content is available on YouTube, and what kinds of things you can learn? Samo Burja’s essay The YouTube Revolution in Knowledge Transfer (1100 words) is worth a read. For example, I substantially improved my coding workflow by watching YouTube videos on the topic, something programming courses usually don’t cover. Here are some educational channels I like:
Surviving and Thriving in Higher Education, what it sounds like
3Blue1Brown has animated explanations of higher mathematics.
Every Frame a Painting, an accessible and self-contained course in film theory.
Podcasts: As with YouTube, so with podcasts. It’s quite fortunate that audio, due to lower hosting requirements, has so far managed to avoid becoming as centralized as YouTube while remaining just as discoverable. Unfortunately, most podcasts, even most that I consume, are edutainment or talk shows. While many can give you insight and expand your worldview, few provide actionable lessons or access to primary sources. If I started to enumerate the former I’d have to give an unending list. Two I know in the latter category:
Listen Money Matters provides strategies for managing personal finance.
Sam Altman’s How to Start a Startup is sort of a Silicon Valley entrepreneurship bible.
Internet Archive: It’s been compared to the Library of Alexandria, and certainly deserves that comparison: this is the single largest source of raw media you can find. Many people know it for the Wayback Machine, which archives websites and serves snapshots of URLs as they would have appeared on the date of archival. But it also contains historical newspapers, radio broadcasts, books, and much more. I’ve found it useful for accessing all manner of primary sources in the course of research.
RBDigital (for iOS, for Android): An online lending service for books, magazines, and multimedia. Carries all the usual magazines your public library would carry, like Vogue, The Economist, and Scientific American. I haven’t explored the other offerings too much.
Books and Audiobooks
Calibre: Calibre is an open-source tool for managing a library of ebooks. The main benefit to me is that I can sync the 200-plus books that I have downloaded from Library Genesis to my Kindle, bypassing Amazon’s walled garden (and fee structure). It has a highly extensible plugin system and many integrations such as with Goodreads.
Open Library: a frontend maintained by Internet Archive specifically dedicated to borrowing ebooks. It serves files in a time-based encrypted format, accessible for that lending period. The system is unfortunately currently (2020) facing a lawsuit due to a recent questionable decision by the site maintainers to temporarily allow unlimited lending during the COVID crisis, without the prior consent of authors.
Faded Page: Provides digitized versions of books that are out of copyright in Canada, which has a shorter copyright duration than the average in Western countries. This makes it legal for them to host works like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, but somewhat dubious for non-Canadians to access them.
Library Genesis: This is the easiest way to steal books. Quite frankly, I’ve made an Abbie Hoffman-esque virtue out of pirating information, especially textbooks. It’s pretty easy to use, but you should click a mirror link rather than the title to get to the download faster. The stuff on it is mostly what techie-libertarian types like to read, though—I’ve had some trouble finding a lot of good 20th century non-SF fiction or social science writing.
Librivox: This is my single favorite thing on the list. A bunch of volunteers have recorded countless public domain works—including most of the Western Canon—as audiobooks, also in the public domain. I use the RSS feed url to load these into my podcast app and take them everywhere. Among other things I’ve listened to Thucydides, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, and William James this way in the past year.
Libby / Overdrive: It’s a neat wrapper for interlibrary digital lending services. They provide both ebooks and audiobooks; I mainly use it for the latter. The selection at my local library is atrocious, but it might be better at others. It’s where I can get audiobooks of more recent books, and the hold times and renewal policy are reasonable.
Sci-Hub (link changes occasionally): Provides Open Access to research literature. It uses donated accounts to pirate research papers from behind paywalls. Weirdly, its access to various catalogs seems to be uneven. It’s most oriented towards the hard or logical sciences, but social science and humanities can also be found on here. There’s a browser extension called Sci-Hub Now! (for Chrome, for Firefox) which can be used to immediately retrieve papers from behind paywalls.
Directory of Open Access Books and OAPEN: contains peer-reviewed academic books and articles whose publishers have decided to create open-source copies of. They possess a comparatively small selection of materials, but are a more legitimate source than Sci-Hub.
Zotero: An application to keep track of scholarly material for future reference, and make citations easy by downloading metadata. Remembering is as important as learning, so being able to offload some of that mental effort onto a program will save you a lot of research time in the long run. Has a bit of a learning curve. It is free and open-source.
Connected Papers: Visually links papers to those which it cites and those which cite it. A rapid way to navigate the literature on a given topic. Recommended by Romeo Stevens; I haven’t used it.
Kanopy: The economic value of older films that were never big hits is negligible, so Kanopy has figured out a way to provide these on-demand, no-loan to public library card holders. Most notably it contains much of the Criterion Collection, and many independent small-budget documentaries. My library gives me 10 titles a month, which is about enough for me. I also like that the service streams to Chromecast.
Film Grab: Stills from most live-action films you can name and many more besides, about 50-100 stills per film. Really good for visual reference. Unfortunately the site is not lightweight and takes longer to load than it really needs to.
Animation Screencaps: Same thing as Film Grab, but focused on animation instead. The collection images 10,000-20,000 shots per film, which is a confusing number: too many to be useful if you are seeking a synoptic view of the entire work, but too few to be useful if you are an animator trying to work out how to time an action. It doesn’t seem to capture keyframes, seems to be running on a timed script to capture N frames a second.
UBUweb: Archives a lot of modern, conceptual, and avant-garde art from the late 20th century. I like the clean design of the website, and the fact that this minimalist facade hides an enormous repository.
Smithsonian Digital Archive: This contains a lot of museum-worthy art, records, and artifacts. Especially notable is their recently-available Open Access service, which provides works which can be used and remixed with little or no restrictions.
This version of the post removes a piracy site whose typical use case is not educational or research oriented. This post also appeared at blog.rachelshu.com/freelearning.