15 Free Online Harvard Courses to Learn Something New

When we spend so much time online, we are bound to learn something by clicking and scrolling. Discover something new with Mashable’s series I learned it on the internet.

While a year’s tuition at Harvard University will set you back nearly $50,000 (and that’s before room, board, and fees hit another $20,000), there is a much cheaper option that doesn’t involve braving Massachusetts winters or having to gain admission to the prestigious university at all. All you need is an internet connection to take some Harvard courses for free from the comfort of your own home, thanks to the university’s fabulous online learning portal.

You have options. There are free courses as well as free to audit courses, which means you can take the course for free, but there is a cost to upgrade for additional content and/or to receive a verified certificate from HarvardX.

We’ve handpicked a selection of some of the best free Harvard courses currently available, from the study of Shakespeare to a course that will help you better understand city life. Our varied selection is like a wish list of courses that we hope to find time to take in the near future.

Think about it: your Harvard learning journey could start today for absolutely nothing.

Attention true crime news fans: take a free course to learn more about justice.
Credit: Harvard University

We start our list with Justice, one of the most famous courses taught at Harvard, which includes the oldest continuously operating law school in the United States. This 12-week course taught by renowned professor Michael Sandel explores classical and contemporary theories of justice, including discussion of contemporary dilemmas and controversies and current applications.

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This free online Harvard course requires a time commitment, but what else are you doing right now?
Credit: Harvard University

This course invites you to “embark on a global journey to explore the past, present and future of world literature”. This 12-week course requires a time commitment of up to seven hours per week. During these hours you will study how great writers refract their world, looking at works by Goethe, Voltaire and Rushdie, among others.

image of a suffragette march

Important story to brush up on in this free online course.
Credit: Harvard University

This course, taught by two female professors, takes the interesting approach of investigating how American women created, confronted, and embraced change in the 20th century by considering “10 Iconic Objects” from the Harvard Schlesinger Library collection. This is a shorter six-week course that requires a commitment of approximately three hours per week.

image of lines of code on multiple computer screens

Even if you don’t know what TinyML is, this free course from Harvard will help you learn.
Credit: Harvard University

Tiny machine learning is one of the fastest growing areas of deep learning, and it is rapidly becoming more accessible to everyone. This free course provides you with a foundation to understand this emerging field and how it enables the creation of more affordable smartphones, for example. You will get the basics of machine learning, deep learning, and embedded devices and systems, such as smartphones and other small devices. It is taught by Vijay Janapa Reddi from Harvard and Laurence Moroney, Lead AI Advocate at Google.

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Take your weather discussion to the next level with this online course from Harvard.
Credit: Harvard University

The Harvard Backyard Weather Course makes the epic promise that by taking it, you’ll learn to predict the weather just by looking out the window. This course could also save your life, because there is a component that tells you how to avoid being struck by lightning. Other elements include cloud identification and how to estimate wind speed.

Related video: 5 racial justice documentaries to further your education

drawing/engraving by William Shakespeare

If you fell asleep learning about Shakespeare in high school, there’s still time to learn with this online course from Harvard.
Credit: Harvard University

If you want to learn more about the Bard, this short, crash course is the way to go. It is a four-week course that you will study for up to seven hours per week. During this time, you will learn about the cultural significance of Shakespeare’s plays and how to analyze them both on page and in performance. This course includes videos and readings filmed on location in Stratford-upon-Avon and London.

image of molecular gastronomy plate of food

Chemistry class has never been so delicious.
Credit: Harvard University

Anyone who dreams of studying mayonnaise should be in for a treat with this scientific look at food. This 16-week course will allow you to carry out experiments in your own kitchen, examine how cooking changes the texture of food, understand cooking phase changes, and make emulsions and mousses. If you like this type of physics-based study, you might want to continue your learning with the Science & Cooking course which focuses on chemistry.

artwork of famous buildings arranged in a skyline

For city dwellers who want to make an impression.
Credit: Harvard University

This course offers an expert look at the past, present and future of cities, with the aim of teaching you to better understand, appreciate and improve urban areas. As part of the course, you will examine case studies from around the world, such as London, Rio de Janeiro, New York, Shanghai and Mumbai. This 11-week course includes talks and insights from academics, policymakers, urban leaders and city dwellers.

zodiac sky drawing

We developed these belief systems for a reason. Learn why.
Credit: Harvard University

This mini-module is a good option for anyone who is reluctant to embark on a longer-term learning journey. This is an immersive week-long introductory level course that examines “pre-scientific” prediction systems that range from ancient Chinese bone burning to the Oracle of Delphi to astrology and modern tarot.

picture of Albert Einstein

Is there anything smarter than taking a Harvard course on Albert Einstein?
Credit: Harvard University

This course, through the life and work of Albert Einstein, will teach you all about the changing role of physics in the 20th and 21st centuries. No scientific knowledge is required for this history course, which considers Einstein’s involvement with relativity, quantum mechanics, Nazism, nuclear weapons, philosophy, arts and technology. This is a 17-lesson course that will require a commitment of up to three hours per week.

Paper cut representation of the family in a city park with a skyline in the background

This course is described as “not just an elegy for the planet, but a call to action”.
Credit: Harvard University

You know the impact of climate change on the environment, but what about its impact on your health? Created with support from the Harvard Global Health Institute, this seven-week course will explain the role of climate change in nutrition, infectious disease, and human migration. By studying research methods and recommendations from scientists in the field, you will learn what you can do to help the cause.

Microscopic image of a cell injected with something

For people who enjoy dissecting complex issues with no easy answers.
Credit: Harvard University

Rapid advances in biotechnology have made genetics and reproduction into murky ethical territory. This 10-week, self-paced course from Harvard Law School will examine these issues from a legal perspective. You will learn about reproductive and genetic technology industries, laws, cases, and legal/ethical dilemmas. No legal or medical knowledge is required to register.

Cartoon image of a man studying next to a large stack of books

Learn from ancient Chinese philosophers about happiness from the comfort of your home.
Credit: Harvard University

One of Harvard’s most popular courses has been adapted into a seven-week online course. Professor Michael Puett applies ancient Chinese philosophy to the challenges of modern society. Through lectures, discussions and “thinking journals”, you will study the ideologies of Confucius as well as Mozi, Mencius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Xunzi and Han Feizi.

Cartoon image of vote sticker or button

Understand the power of your vote and civic engagement.
Credit: Harvard University

If you want to understand the crucial 2016 US presidential election, this course is for you. Taught by the Harvard Kennedy School, this four-week course will teach you about the powerful but nebulous impact of public opinion. By studying the two-party system, campaigns, special interest groups, and the media, you will discover the complex workings of American politics.

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Learning how to win an argument is a powerful tool.
Credit: Harvard University

Learning to engage in civil discourse has never been more important. We live in a deeply polarizing time that evokes strong and passionate beliefs. This eight-week course teaches you how to form an argument and successfully communicate those beliefs. You will study the rhetoric of famous public speakers, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Margaret Chase Smith, Ronald Reagan, and more.

This article was originally published in January 2021 and was updated in January 2022.

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