Always wanted an Ivy League education but were afraid that, a) you weren't smart enough, b) wouldn't be able to afford the fees, or c) both? Fret no more. Thousands of courses from institutions such as Stanford or the Massachusetts Institution of Technology (MIT) are available to anyone with internet access - and they are free.
Former civil servant Peter Ma King-man plugged into programmes at Yale to become a lay expert on evolutionary Darwinism and health care systems. Now, the retiree is also helping to share the knowledge as a volunteer translator, producing Chinese versions of some 20 courses for MyOOPS (http://www.myoops.org/main.php), a Taiwanese portal for free courses. His latest project: translating lectures on evolutionary principles by Professor Stephen Stearns at Yale.
Ma spent the first years of his retirement earning a master's in development studies at the University of Birmingham in Britain yet remained hungry for more learning. Now he has set up a site (http://www.self-learning-college.org/forum/) to share his translations of supplementary material such as a biography of Charles Darwin.
'One of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn't read much about popular science when I was young. Some concepts are so esoteric that even an avid reader of science books like me has difficulty. But I look up references online and, after digesting the ideas, present them in laymen terms in my site.'
Web advances and a more flexible US copyright system called Creative Commons have inspired various platforms for free courses. Most are college-based - MIT, for example, offers some 2,000 courses gratis through its open courseware portal. Others, such as Education For All (http://www.edforall.net), are set up as aggregators, one-stop centres that pull together courses and seminars from respected institutions, mostly in the US.
With lectures by renowned professors (streaming videos or downloads), exhaustive reference lists and course notes, the programmes allow anyone with an inquiring mind to tap into this cornucopia of knowledge.
Civil servant Michael Law Kwan-hei is a keen follower of Harvard professor Michael Sandel's pithy philosophy lecture series on 'Justice', a surprising viral hit on YouTube. 'He explains abstract concepts in a way that is interesting and easy to understand,' the 23-year-old economics graduate says. The Sandel talks have so piqued his interest, Law is now dipping into philosophy texts. Lucifer Chu Hsueh-heng, the Chinese translator of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, set up MyOOPS six years ago using HK$2 million he earned from the assignment. The portal has since registered 6,000 users and relies on about 2,700 volunteers to translate free English courses. But he still spends about NT$100,000 (HK$25,000) a month to maintain the site, most of which goes towards salaries for six full-time staff, including Web designers, editors and engineers. 'Editors are needed as not all volunteer translators are linguistic experts,' Chu says.
Courses on MyOOPS run the gamut from the abstruse (the acoustics of speech and the psychology of serial killers) to the practical (photography tips) to the quirky (how to achieve orgasm).
'Some people are put off by the more academic material, so videos on the site serve as appetisers which pique general readers' interest and prompt them to delve further into the subject,' Chu says.
For cat-lover Wendy Tso Wan-ting, what began six years ago as an attempt to learn about feline procreation has since developed into a business venture. The six-month online course on animal genetics through Cornell University inspired her to set up as a breeder of pedigree Persians and exotic shorthairs.
The concept has yet to take off among top British universities. Oxford has a set of video lectures (http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/), most of which are CC-licensed. Cambridge, though, has yet to develop an open online system, though individuals contribute video lectures (http://videolectures.net/).
It's perhaps not surprising that aggregate portals have been set up by people with a passion for learning, and they're keen to tap the power of the Web to give others that kind of enthusiasm.
'Learning should be self-motivated and magical,' says Chu. Study has become sheer drudgery for many students in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland, which is why they are overjoyed when summer holidays come round. 'It's like being released from jail for them,' he says.
By injecting fun and flexibility into learning, Chu hopes to change that.
Software developer Tan Wooi Tong, whose one-year-old portal Education for All now features 170 courses from seven leading institutions, sees it as an avenue to aid informal learning at the university level.
With speedy internet connections, he says, there is not much difference between viewing videos of lectures online and physically attending the classes. 'In a big lecture theatre for 200 people you have minimum interaction [with the teacher] anyway.'
Even so, Tan leans towards courses with lecture videos. 'I think to be able to view lectures recreates the classroom experience and helps students absorb the content even without live interaction.'
Where videos aren't available, he picks programmes with substantial lecture notes, assignments, reading lists and the like. The goal is to evolve into a free virtual university, with structured courses for various disciplines and seminars on special interest subjects. For now, Tan is finding it a challenge to sustain his one-man venture. The site doesn't benefit from existing ads, which are diverted through Google, so he will need to secure some advertisement or sponsorship, he says.
Openware courses can't replace conventional ones, not least because there are no tutorials where students can raise questions or discuss ideas. 'Students need physical interaction with the faculty,' says Tan, who holds engineering degrees from MIT. 'There is videoconferencing but it needs a lot of resources [to set up the infrastructure].'
You can't earn credits through openware courses, so they are not an avenue to certification or professional qualifications. For a degree, you still need to go to a university with accreditation mechanism.
It takes a determined self-starter to get the most out of online courses, paid or otherwise, especially if they are busy professionals who find it difficult to get to class.
Balancing a personal life, work demands and study is a struggle, but Tso's perseverance has paid off. She earns around HK$20,000 a month as a cat breeder. More than money, Tso says online learning has helped her realise a childhood dream.
'I have always been curious about the propagation of animals and bred my first school of [aquarium] fish in primary four. Now I have turned my interest into a job.'
Log on and learn
Hong Kong CyberU (Polytechnic University's online platform)
China Open Resources For Education (courses from Peking University and Tsinghua University)
University of Southern Queensland
University of California, Berkeley
Carnegie Mellon University (US)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (below)
YouTube Edu (courses from over 100 American universities including Harvard and Princeton)
OpenCourseWare Consortium (a platform with courses from universities around the world)