Making Cents: Plenty of free online courses to fire imagination

From junior infants in their spanking new uniforms to third-level students returning after a summer of travel, there is no getting away from the back-to-school feeling in the air.

If the autumn air is prompting you to think about learning something new, the good news is there have never been more opportunities to do so, and options to suit even the tightest budget.

A first port of call for adults looking to learn a new skill should be your library or council office. 

They will have information on any courses starting soon in your area and courses on everything from furniture-making to keep fit, beginners bridge to embroidery are available in almost every county.

Many schools and colleges make use of their premises with short courses in the evenings, usually at very reasonable prices. 

An eight or 10-week course will fill the shorter winter evenings and learning (and practising) a new skill or hobby is a low-cost pastime, allowing your budget to recover after the ravages of the summer holidays and back-to-school spending.

The internet has also opened up a world of learning, much of it available at no cost at all. 

I have written before about the wonderful world of Massive Open Online Courses and the range continues to grow. 

These courses first started appearing in the 2000s and have since developed into an enormous online resource of classes on almost every subject under the sun.

One of the earliest and most popular providers is Irish website Alison. Founded in Galway in 2007, it is now one of the world’s largest free learning platforms. 

Its mission statement is to make it possible for “anyone, to study anything, anywhere, at any time, for free online, at any subject level”.

It has more than 1000 courses in categories that include health, humanities, languages, maths, IT, lifestyle and business.

Students can choose from short certificate courses that only take 2-3 hours to complete and longer diploma courses, which are designed to give a more extensive understanding of a subject area. 

For people who want to master a subject there are also learning paths, a combination of niche courses chosen by experts.

Alison courses are self-paced, so you can proceed at your own speed, which is a comfort if it is your first time studying in a while.

Alison is just one provider, there are many others, often backed by prestigious colleges with global reputations. 

Stanford graduates established Coursera, which has gone on to educate millions for free, while Futurelearn, whose courses I have completed in the past, is an offshoot of the Open University

Other websites worth checking out include Udacity, EdX and Open Learn.

These do not just offer academic subjects, they offer many courses to allow you to learn more about a particular area of interest. 

For example, right now on Future Learn, the University of Strathclyde is offering a free course for anyone interested in the increasingly popular area of genealogy. 

The six-week course, which asks you to commit to four hours of study per week, aims to help develop an understanding of basic genealogy techniques and how to communicate a family history. 

Other courses on offer allow you to delve subjects as diverse as how to write your first song and the art of forensic facial reconstruction.

If you would like to focus on courses to help you in the world of work, it is worth looking into the range on offer from Springboard+

The Government-backed initiative offers free courses at certificate, degree and masters level leading to qualifications in areas where there are employment opportunities in the economy. 

It was once aimed solely at jobseekers or those returning to work after a break but now courses are also available to those currently in work. 

If you are employed you will have to make a contribution but it is only 10% of the course fee. 

Springboard has a whole host of courses just getting underway but there are still some accepting applications for later in the autumn or in January.

Deal of the week 

If a new study area is needed at home head to Woodies to take advantage of its sale.

The Irish-owned DIY retailer is running back-to-school specials on a host of office furniture.

They have four desks on offer, all at half their original price.

Depending on your needs you can get a simple oak desk for €40 or a tempered glass tabletop desk for €70.

Pick of the range is the Zoe 3 Drawer Desk with oak finish for €65, down from €129.99.

It has stools to accompany the desks from €9.99 or folding chairs from €16.99.

Also included in the sale are a range of shelving units from €17.50, rising to €32.50.

If your room needs a lick of paint in preparation for the new furniture, Woodies also have Dulux paints on offer at the moment, selling two 2.5 litres tubs in a range of colours for €40.

All special offers are available online and in the company’s 35 stores.

If there are any consumer issues that you’d like Gráinne to address or if you have problems that Gráinne could help with, she can be contacted at

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