Looking to start a business, get a degree or learn Michael Jackson's "Thriller" dance? The Web has a class, video or tutorial to help you do it. Here's where to get started.
A tutorial or class for almost everything and anything is available online these days. Whether you're looking to beef up your résumé with some new skills, to get a degree while waiting for the job market to pick up, or simply to have a little fun learning something new, the Web has a wealth of educational resources -- many of them free.
To give you some ideas, we've put together a list of sites in several categories, from skills for budding entrepreneurs and learning foreign languages to gourmet cooking and the choreography for Michael Jackson's iconic "Thriller" dance.
You can always Google for anything you don't see here, but be careful as you click. In researching this story, I ran into many sites that either tried to sell me classes (with little or no real free instruction) or were infested with pop-ups and adware. Anti-malware software is amust. (See PC World'sfree downloads of anti-malware programs.)
Get a business up and running
So you have a business in mind? Start with a business plan that outlines the specifics of how you intend to make money -- essential for attracting investors and useful for your own reality checks.BPlans.com, run byPaloAlto Software(creators of Business Plan Pro software) offers dozens of articles, sample plans and templates to help you get going. This is one of the few sites that, while it does market a product (you need its software to edit a sample plan and use it for your own enterprise), delivers a slew of genuinely useful content for free. (And you can always simply re-create the sample plan using Word and Excel.)
Once you've launched your business, you'll have to keep financial records. But even if you use software such as Quickbooks, it's a good idea to understand how basic accounting works. Small-business consultant Dave Marshall'sBean Countersite features free tutorials on basic business accounting and bookkeeping.
Your business will need a Web site, too. You can pay someone a lot of money to create it, but if you would like to dig into the complexities of modern Web design,LearnWebDesignOnline.comis a good place to start, with links to tutorials, videos and books on all aspects of site creation. Another resource isSiteGround, a Web hosting company that provides an impressive tutorials page for learning about both Web hosting in general and a wide array of specific applications for content management and site creation (WordPress, Dreamweaver and the like).
If you're interested in putting together a news site,J-Learning.orgprovides guidance on everything from blogging tools and multimedia creation to search-engine optimization (SEO) and legal issues -- all for free.
To help bring visitors to your site, you'll need to learn the basics of SEO. Search consultantsSEOmoz's free Beginner's Guideis a good place to start.
Improve your tech skills
OK, time out for a little self-promotion. For general hardware upgrades, setup instruction and software tips, look no farther than PC World's ownHow-Topage. Organized by category, there's an amazing wealth of guidance (in print, video and slide shows) for everything fromswapping out a PC's processorto gettingMicrosoft Officeto work better.
However, for professional in-depth training in specific applications,Lynda.comhas established itself as the go-to place, with thousands of videos and tutorial files for hundreds of applications. It's not free, but if you're serious about learning a complicated application, its subscription-based fees are a good value. (Read PC World's recentreview of Lynda.com.)
Have you ever wanted to explore the mysteries of computer programming? You can find a slew of programming tutorials online, but I like British programmer Alan Gauld'sLearning to Program, an online version of a book he's written. It's not particularly slick, but he writes clearly and accessibly, and he uses Python, which experts tell me is a good programming language to start with.
The Internet has turned distance learning into a reality: Today, you can get all sorts of degrees and professional certificates through online courses. But not all online learning institutions are created equal. To avoid scams, start your search for Web-based higher education at The Sloan Consortium'sSloan-C Catalog. It's a list of degree and certificate programs offered by regionally accredited institutions that have become consortium members (either because they've received grant support from the respected Alfred P. Sloan Foundation or through a peer-review process). You can search by discipline, type of degree or certificate, state, or institution name.
If you or someone you know wants to earn a GED (General Educational Development) credential (the equivalent of a high-school diploma), learn about the process from the organization that administers the GDE program, TheAmerican Council on Education. You can't take the test online, but dozens of sites offer to prep you -- and many of them look pretty sleazy, so I'd stick with the council's links to practice tests and educational resources.
It's easy to find sites that sell foreign-language instruction online. But here are some neat ones that don't charge for instruction and also offer audio clips:
Chinese (Mandarin):Chinese-Tools.com, the English-language version of a site run by a native French speaker who has lived in China for six years, is a fantastic resource. It not only has audio clips (crucial since Chinese depends on tone and inflection as well as simple pronunciation), but also calligraphy instruction.
French:About.com's French Languagesite provides lessons for beginners as well as interesting extras including sections on idiomatic expressions and typical Gallic gestures.
Italian:Oggi e Domani(which means "today and tomorrow" in Italian) focuses on conversations in its lesson-based approach.
Russian: I found a couple of sites that seem to be duking it out for supremacy in free online Russian-language instruction:Russian Lessons.netandLearning Russian.net. Of the two, Learning Russian.net looks slicker, but Russian Lessons.net appears to have more resources.
Spanish:123TeachMeoffers Spanish lessons for beginners, advanced students and tourists (conversational Spanish).
EmilyPost.com, the Web home of the Emily Post Institute, does get a little heavy-handed on selling books by the late doyenne of good manners and her descendants, but there are lots of free articles that provide advice on specific etiquette dilemmas.
And if you're looking to make dinner with whatever's in your refrigerator, simply enter the ingredients into the search fields ofFoodNetwork.com,EpicuriousorRecipeSource(formerly SOAR, or the Searchable Online Archive of Recipes). For really great how-tos (not to mention recipes and juried product and equipment ratings), consider investing $35 a year (less if you subscribe in print, too) in the online version ofCook's Illustrated, the ad-free Consumer Reports of cooking.
Learn to play a game:ChessDryad.com's How to Play Chesspage will get you from learning the mechanics of the game to classic moves, with primers and flash animations. Veteran bridge author Richard Pavlicek has put hisBridge Basicstextbook online for people wishing to learn the popular card game. For neophyte poker players, Charles Bloom has put up aTexas Hold'em primer.
For sports (or anything else highly physical and visual), you can't beat YouTube: For example, I found dozens of skateboarding how-tos, but the one I actually thought I could learn from was thisunpolished but accessible effortcredited to one "Eswolowski" and posted by a user named tevens22.
However, not all sports stuff is on YouTube. Aspiring soccer moms and pops should check outHow to Play Soccer, which not only teaches the rules of the game, but offers tips for parents who serve as coaches or spectators.
Like to sing along in perfect harmony?ChoralWikimaintains a database of free choral sheet music. If your garage band needs help figuring out the guitar solo in Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing," head to911tabs, a very nifty search engine for tablatures (musical annotations showing fingerings for specific pop and rock songs). You can search by song and by instrument.
Created in hopes of setting a world record for the most people performing the dance simultaneously around the world (see Markeljevic's site,Thrill The World, for more on this), the video tutorials break the song into sections and then into steps with mnemonic aids to remind you of what you should be doing. I'm already up to section 3!