How to Audit a Class Online – Learn from Free University Courses

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These days, there are thousands of publicly available college courses on the web. You can audit those courses even if you're not enrolled in a program.

In our video course, Sam Crombie and I explore what auditing is and why you should consider trying it.

We discuss how to choose a topic and a course to learn about that topic, and then how to make the most of your experience. By the end, you’ll be ready to audit courses on the web and succeed in them.

This condensed accompanying article will highlight key information from our video.

FreeCodeCamp Video

This article was also published on FreeCodeCamp!

Learning on the Internet

The internet, a recent addition to our educational arsenal, has revolutionized accessibility to content. It has led to the rise of auto-didacticism, or self-guided learning.

Whether you're using the internet to complement, substitute, or as a component of conventional education, you're in control. To be an autodidact is to determine the topic you study, the source you learn from, and when you learn it.

The ability to learn on your own using the internet is among the most valuable skills you can develop. There has never been a better time to pursue what you're interested in!

What does it Mean to Audit a Class?

Auditing a course means taking a course offered by an institution for no credit or grade. You might audit a course (instead of taking it for credit) because of time, financial constraints, or the difficulty of material.

Auditing usually gives you access to lecture videos, notes, projects, and/or assignments. But it lacks personalized interaction with professors, teaching assistants, lab instructors, or other students. Fortunately, online communities can act as a substitute for such traditional class support.

In other words, to 'audit' is to learn from a complete outline of a course without interaction or feedback.

Since the early days of the internet, people have been auditing university courses in many forms. One of the earliest institution-supported platforms for e-learning was MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW).

OCW has operated since 2002 and has posted hundreds of variations of their courses to audit. Other platforms have posted or compiled public learning materials, such as College Compendium.

With a structured curriculum, you always know what you’re supposed to do next. You can be confident that someone has taken the time to arrange the order of your learning in a beneficial way.

A customizable curriculum enables you to learn from several resources in any order. Everything is according to your personal needs and preferred learning style.

Auditing courses on the web provides a cost-conscious, low-risk format for academic exploration. You keep the benefits of a structured college curriculum while retaining customizability.

Auditing a course bridges the gap between self-guided and institution-based learning.

Auditing is only one component of an ecosystem of resources on the web that exist to help people learn. Many resources complement one another, utilized by platforms and courses interchangeably. Take advantage of them!

Why Audit Courses Online?

Auditing as an educational resource has many use-cases. You may benefit academically, intellectually, or professionally while learning from computer science courses. For example:

If you're a student applying to college:

Understanding an institution’s offerings in specific departments can be very valuable. Auditing allows you to explore the type of instruction and topics offered.

With more and more college students taking advantage of e-learning, you can likely find specific course material. Auditing classes at a university you're interested in attending may inform your decision.

If you're a student enrolled in college:

Auditing courses can supplement ongoing classes. It can also cover material on niche or advanced topics your school may not offer.

This also applies to courses you're looking to take in the future at your university. We recommend consulting with your department to ensure you aren’t breaking any rules.

For students in a bootcamp/certificate program, university courses can complement your curriculum. They can give you perspective into the organization and implementation of conventional academics.

If you're a professional looking to upskill or learn something new:

Auditing is a fantastic way to pick up new skills or refresh old knowledge. Learning from online courses can differentiate and keep you competitive within your profession.

If you have a technical career, learning new languages and frameworks is a necessity. Through auditing, you'll be able to stay up-to-date with changing technologies.

Even if your situation isn’t reflected in one of these examples, auditing is for everyone. The breadth of available content means that, regardless of your background, auditing has something for you.

How to Choose the Right Course to Audit

Before diving into a new topic, consider the following:

  1. What are you interested in?
  2. Why are you interested in that topic?
  3. What are you hoping to gain by learning about it?
  4. How excited are you about spending your free time learning your chosen topic?
  5. Did you choose the topic for independent study or is it a component of an ongoing curriculum?

Your answers will help you figure out what you want to learn and why.

If you can't find a topic you’re passionate about, consider actionable content. Your motivations should be reflected in the course you ultimately decide to audit:

Have you always wanted to learn how to build an app, a website, or a game? Are you trying to practice and improve your skills for coding interviews? Are you looking to expand your skills in a particular field such as data science? After identifying your interests, acknowledging your skill level is critical. Consider how much prior exposure you have to your topic of choice. A lot of courses are inherently sorted by proficiency.

Prerequisites often contain information within the scope of your selected topic. They can help you identify your competence and where it may make sense to begin. Recognizing your goals is also essential:

  1. Is there something specific you want to leave the course understanding?
  2. If the course is applied, what do you to build by the end, or have the capability to build?
  3. Are you aiming to build skills to pass an interview?

If you can identify what you’re working towards, you may be more focused and assign a higher value to your progress.

Assessing your interests, skill level, and goals will help you make this decision. Ultimately, choosing the right topic may mean a gut feeling of genuine excitement or strong motivation.

Selecting a course to learn from the thousands available can be overwhelming. Contemplate your preferred learning style and available timeframe to find a starting point.

When reviewing potential courses, evaluate:

  1. How much time can you commit to this course?
  2. What might alter your schedule, and how would that impact your goals?
  3. What teaching styles have you enjoyed in the past? Do you prefer lecture-heavy or project-based courses?
  4. What forms of content do you enjoy consuming? Written notes? Powerpoint slides? Audio/podcast? Video lecture with slides? Video lecture without slides? Reading documentation and experimenting?
  5. Do you enjoy fast-paced “drink from a firehose” courses or deeper discussions?
  6. Is there a particular source you’d prefer to learn from?

We encourage you to experiment before committing. Read the course description, syllabus, prerequisites, and other information covering course structure and delivery.

If you feel comfortable with proceeding, advance to the first lesson. Work through the lecture and relevant assignments as if you were a student taking the class.

Take note of how the content was delivered. Check your comprehension of any corresponding supplemental material.

Do you feel prepared to proceed with subsequent lessons? If you’re confident and excited, you’ve found the right course!

How to Make the Most of Your Audit

Let’s get the most out of your audit. Thinking about scheduling, accountability, and available resources will help you succeed.

The most difficult part of taking an online course often isn’t getting started. Rather, it's pushing forward when the work becomes more time-consuming or demanding.

Return to the earlier reasons that led you to choose a specific topic and course. What are you hoping to get out of this experience, and what schedule enables you to make the most of your learning?

If there is a time-sensitive nature to learning any material, think about the potential impact of going through the material more quickly. It may make sense to prioritize some parts of a course over others.

Educators and content creators often put a lot of thought into the organization of their courses. But that does not always mean that structure will be the perfect fit for you.

Everyone has different levels of dedication. Learning often and on a regular basis is generally a good method for success.

Auditing can be a long process. Breaking down your course into short-term goals can make your path feel less intimidating and more rewarding.

It’s impossible to “fail” a free online course with no grades, so if you’re struggling with something, take your time. Review the material and chat with other people learning online for help.

Engaging with other people learning online is one of the best ways to stay motivated. While you’re likely driven to be reading this article, everyone can do with some peer support from time to time.

Finding someone to hold you accountable is a great way to ensure you put in continuous effort. Enlist a friend to audit the class with you, or regularly inquire about your progress.

Common challenges of auditing a course

There are several common pitfalls that auditors often experience. They usually all lead to the same thing – not completing your course.

Throughout your audit, pay attention to see if you're mismanaging your time. Identify potential distractions and avoid speeding through material you’re unfamiliar with.

You can also enrich your learning through complementary resources. Educators often link to relevant material for you to peruse.

You can expand far beyond the resources provided in the course you’re currently auditing. There may be relevant public textbooks, YouTube series, and freeCodeCamp courses and articles. You can even dive into academic papers.

There are a lot of actions you can take to improve your auditing experience and make the most of your time. Use them!

Next Steps After Completing a Course

At this point, you’ve completed your hypothetical course. Before moving on, ensure you’ve fully reviewed the material.

There’s little point to auditing a course if you walk away without a strong understanding of the content. Now assess:

Have you reached your goals, or made progress on them? Do you have all the skills you’ll need for that project you wanted to build? For an internship or position you’ve been aiming for? Are you academically prepared to move on to another course building on this subject? Regardless of your answers, congratulations! A successful audit demonstrates strong motivation and effort.

But there’s always more to learn. Your online education is never finished, the question is simply how to proceed in the short term.

If you’re looking to learn a specific skill-set, such as machine learning, chances are one course won’t be enough. Sequencing courses to effectively audit an unofficial “degree” can be incredibly useful.

There are many, many resources on the web where people have compiled courses. Such repositories often create pathways for becoming highly skilled through successive auditing.

In other words, you'll be following a trajectory similar to a real curriculum. Start with foundations of a topic and build on them, gradually becoming more specific.

Another aspect of auditing is the ability to mix and match courses from various sources.

You can learn one topic from MIT OCW and then the next from public Berkeley YouTube lectures. This ability to interchange your learning allows you to pick the classes that appeal the most to you.

Successive auditing from several sources can create an even more valuable learning experience.

Auditing Courses Gives You Freedom

Freedom is the central theme of online self-guided learning.

Choose your own content, based on your interests. Choose your learning format, your teacher, and the source of your class. Choose your own schedule. Choose what you learn next. It’s all up to you.

You’re now informed to make these decisions and achieve your goals through auditing.

Thank you for reading! We hope that you come away feeling prepared and excited to learn by auditing courses on the web!

If you’re unsure where to start, try searching for your interest on collegecompendium.org. We’ve curated hundreds of courses for you on all manner of popular programming areas.

For a deeper dive into everything discussed in this article and more, check out our video course here:

This article was co-authored by Samuel Crombie. Thank you to Computer Vectors by Vecteezy for the cover image.

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