Dispatches from Home: Feeding your brain with free Ivy League classes

Looking to stay productive during COVID-19 isolation? Several prestigious universities are offering dozens of complimentary courses.

Sixteen months ago, my grandfather passed away. I’m 43 years old, so I can’t help but be grateful to have had the luxury of having grandparents in my life for as long as I did.

- Advertisement -

Edward O’Malley was a lot of things: a Navy veteran who served during World War II; a Philadelphia policeman; a superintendent of transportation at the Philadelphia Naval Base.

He was fortunate to retire not long after I was born, meaning he had decades to enjoy life with his wife, Kathleen, his kids, grandkids and great grandkids, too.

But from watching him do carpentry, electrical work, photography, painting, ham radio and computer work over the years — the latter as far back as the 1980s — the enduring lesson that my grandfather left was that you can never stop learning. Whether you’re reading a book or working your way through a new trade, you should continue to feed your brain.

Now is a pretty good time to live that motto, too. 

Whether it’s because we’ve gained a couple of hours by no longer having to commute to work during isolation time, or, unfortunately, find ourselves unemployed because of the coronavirus pandemic, we have extra hours to fill. Ivy League schools (and others, too) are here for you.

There are nearly 500 free — yes, free — Ivy League courses you can take, at no charge, through Coursera and edX. You can hop onto classcentral.com’s impressive Ivy League collection to see what looks appealing to you by reading through each syllabus; many even have video “trailers” to introduce you to what the course is all about.

I did some of the work for you the other day. Here are some to consider.

Classes for the here and now

Introduction to Family Engagement in Education, offered by Harvard University through edX, seems pretty timely, huh? This six-week course (roughly 2-4 hours per week) focuses on what moms and dads can do at home to help nourish a child’s learning and development. As the son of a teacher, I was fortunate. This feels like an important topic regardless of our current world, but seems to make a lot more sense now that parents are being forced to help their children with their schoolwork anyway. (A sidebar course to complement it: Child Nutrition and Cooking, a five-week course from Stanford University.)

Lessons from Ebola: Preventing the Next Pandemic. “Like no other event in recent history, the 2014 Ebola outbreak has made clear the fragility of existing health systems,” the course’s bio reads at Class Central. Welp. They probably will be changing the title of this course, too. But if you’re one of those people that can’t get enough of the current news cycle and wants to learn more about infectious diseases and global responses to them, from experts, this Harvard four-week course seems ideal.

Starting a Business 1: Vision and Opportunity. Eventually the world will return to normal and, perhaps, people out of jobs will be looking for new opportunities, maybe even opening their own business. So do the prepwork while you have time now in this two-week long course from the University of Leeds.

Classes that suit your interests

Math behind Moneyball. If you’re a baseball nut like me, you obviously have a void to fill this spring. Whether you’re an old school traditionalist or a new wave stat geek, you can’t deny that analytics have become a critical part of baseball in the last two decades. So feed that curiosity in an 11-week course from the University of Houston that teaches “how probability, math, and statistics can be used to help baseball, football and basketball teams improve, player and lineup selection as well as in game strategy.”

Hollywood: History, Industry, Art. The film classes I took both in high school and college still stand out as two of the more interesting and entertaining courses I went through during my own education. This four-week class from the University of Pennsylvania focuses on the growth and global reach of Hollywood over the last 100 years, from adjusting to new technologies to its place in American politics and culture. And, of course, the syllabus includes the opportunity to watch classic films.

“King Kong” is among the films on the syllabus of Hollywood: History, Industry Art, a free, four-week offered by the University of Pennsylvania.

Classes that feed the brain

Relativity and Astrophysics. While I’ve never been a fan of traditional sci-fi, I am intrigued at the idea of time travel and I regret never taking an astronomy course when I was in college. And who wouldn’t want to learn more, for free, about Einstein’s theory or get the chance to study both relativity and astronomy to “develop physical insight and quantitative skills … and regain a profound sense of wonder for the universe we call home” through this four-week course through Cornell University?

I could go on — there’s a Harvard/Smithsonian philosophy course that’s taught through examining superheroes — but there’s no reason to overwhelm you. 

I can’t imagine how thrilled my grandfather would be to discover some of these free courses you can take from the comfort of your home. Knowledge is power; take advantage. 


Dispatches from Home is a new weekly feature from Sun Newspapers. The smart and safe coronavirus epidemic isolations have surely left us all a little stir crazy. Each week, Ryan Lawrence will offer some ideas to keep you busy, entertained — or both.

Ryan is a veteran journalist of 20 years. He’s worked at the Courier-Post, Philadelphia Daily News, Delaware County Daily Times, primarily as a sportswriter, and is currently a sports editor at Newspaper Media Group and an adjunct journalism instructor at Rowan University.
- Advertisment -