Recently, we've seen an explosion of online education platforms bringing together educators and learners worldwide—and most of them are free. 

These range from university-sponsored archives of course materials to interactive lesson plans, complete with graded assignments and tests. Schools are now publishing their syllabi and handouts on a number of commercially-available organizing tools, allowing teachers to reach out to those students who can't keep a paper notebook intact for more than a couple weeks but know how to navigate the online world better than their parents.

As tutors, we often use several online resources to generate lesson plans and practice material, or to assign as homework between sessions. In a similar way, individuals looking to learn on their own can use these free resources to build a curriculum, and those currently enrolled in a class can use them to enhance their coursework.

Instead of letting you drift through the web only to lose track of your initial search terms, we’ve put together some recommendations on how to use free online tutorials effectively, depending on what and how you want to learn.

First, determine what kind of skill you’d like to learn and to what extent you’d like to master it. This will signal to you what kind of online tutorial will help you best, whether it’s an extended course with regular, sequential lessons, or a collection of instructional videos from which to pick and choose.

The gold standard of organized lesson sequences has to be Khan Academy, where 10-minute narrated electronic chalkboard sessions cover concepts and examples in a way that is incredibly effective. Lessons are divided into discrete topics to give the user complete control of breadth and depth. Because Khan Academy sequences its lessons in order to build upon one another, a student can use this kind of online tutorial to review prerequisite skills that are necessary to learning something new, whether in class or with a tutor.

When you want to add a new skill to your resume, online tutorials can be a great option. 

However, because they are free, easily accessed, and just as easily abandoned, it can be difficult to follow through. Whether you’re enrolled in a class on CourseraUdacity, or Skillshare, working independently from MIT OpenCourseWare or edX, learning to program on Codecademy, or adding a language on the game-layered Duolingo, without some structure, you’ll spend hours on the first encounter, minutes on the second, and lose momentum well before achieving your goal.

What is so effective about school? Well, you have to be there in predetermined blocks of time, with set milestones for evaluation and well-defined endpoints. This scaffold is surprisingly difficult to self-impose. In order to teach yourself something new, we recommend that you consciously compose and sign a contract of the form "I am going to commit [x hours per day] over [y weeks or months] to learning about [subject z],” and then immediately copy the course syllabus into your personal calendar.

If, on the other hand, you just want a casual-but-detailed introduction to a concept about which you’ve always been curious, ed.TED.com and the CrashCourse series on Youtube have some beautifully crafted presentations. These ever-expanding collections of videos offer entertaining looks at topics across all disciplines—some could be components of lesson plans while others stand alone as one-off sources of enlightenment and entertainment alike.

Of course, online tutorials speak to an anonymous audience. You can’t ask for clarification or get confirmation of your understanding from the instructor. 

Have you ever used an online tutorial with success? What were the challenges you encountered?