Education is getting a boost from a world of mobility and anytime, anyplace broadband communications.
Several up-and-coming companies -- including Udemy, Udacity, Khan Academy, 2U and Coursera -- are offering ways for people to educate themselves online, with many courses geared toward practical knowledge and skills for a fast-changing and often forbidding economic landscape.
"This is all part of lifelong learning," said Dennis Yang, president of San Francisco-based Udemy. "People feel they must train endlessly just to stay in the game."
Courses at the online schools include basic algebra, computer science and physics, along with skills training for Web development and launching a startup company. Also available are courses on artificial intelligence and how to build a computer language.
"Online learning is not new, but what is new is what is possible now with the technology that is available to us," said Clarissa Shen, a vice president with Mountain View-based Udacity. "There is a huge amount of scale and the experience is very rich."
Students typically go to the websites and poke around until they find courses that interest them.
That's what San Francisco resident Tyler Dylan Brown did when he connected with Udemy. While on a mission as a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger, Brown broke is ankle -- and then re-broke his leg in 2012 when he fell down a hill. His forced convalescence enabled him to explore the Internet, and he came across Udemy.
"Udemy gives you the information in a no-nonsense manner," Brown said. "You can rapidly learn the skills, apply those skills, then train others in those skills."
The online classes mirror a great strength of the Internet: While the Web has a vast reach, much like a broadcast, it also enables people to access information on a very narrow topic.
"Udemy is for applied skills, it's not just to go learn something new," Brown said. "It's very practical. You are learning something so you can do something."
Brown has taken about 50 courses at Udemy and is working on five or six others. The great majority of those, he said, are about business and startups. He's also taken some design classes.
"I'm working with a fellow veteran, and we are working with a doctor to develop wellness programs for veterans," Brown said.
At Udemy, about 75 percent of the courses are free. Others are available for a fee ranging from $10 to $500.
For $500, for example, students can take a course on management the "Welch Way," a reference to former General Electric top boss Jack Welch. A fee of $499 gets you a class on developing iPad and iPhone apps in one hour. For $19, you can take a course on raising money for startups or learn about social media marketing for startups. In between those prices, you can pay $99 for a Microsoft PowerPoint tutorial or $199 to become a certified Web developer.
Brown says he often looks for online coupons to help slash the costs of the courses. A Web search for Udemy coupons brings up several sites including RetailMeNot, ProCouponCode and CouponsPower.
Instructors who offer online courses enjoy being able to provide an eclectic menu of items.
"My courses are very consumer oriented," said Chet Davis, a Udemy instructor. Learning to use your iPhone, using your camera phone, basics on electronic cables and connectors, are among the consumer-oriented courses.
The courses also are offered in small chunks, Davis said, with each section lasting 10 to 15 minutes.
"You can learn a little bit at a time," he said. "People with busy schedules want to learn something specific, but not necessarily spend a whole lot of time on it in a session."
The wide availability of broadband networks makes it possible for instructors to use video and stream their courses. Basic courses such as Excel and PowerPoint training, as well as more complex courses such as the management class, use streaming video for the classes.
"Video is a very engaging way to connect with the content," Yang said. Udacity estimates that about 1.3 million students are enrolled in its online courses. The student base at Udemy is 500,000.
Increasingly, online schools are offering courses that are accredited and count as college units. Udacity has launched a partnership with San Jose State University to offer some online courses. The classes cost $150 each and include Introduction to Programming, Introduction to Psychology, Elementary Statistics and College Algebra.
"Technology has made this very accessible," Davis, the instructor said. "You could be at home, or on the bus, or on the train, on BART, and you could be learning something."
Contact George Avalos at 408-373-3556 or 925-977-8477. Follow him at Twitter.com/george_avalos.
Udemy: The San Francisco-based site offers range of courses, including ones on computer programming, computer languages, Excel, how to create a startup and how to raise capital for new companies. About 75 percent of its courses are free. The online education service had about 500,000 students at the end of 2012. Fees range from $10 to as much as $500 for a course.
Udacity: The Mountain View-based site offers courses in computer sciences, algebra, physics, building startups, artificial intelligence and other topics. It offers some classes for free, although it charges a fee for courses that provide college credit through an affiliation it has with San Jose State University. Udacity has about 1.3 million students.
Khan Academy: The Mountain View-based site's offerings include courses in math, science, history, art and computer sciences. All courses are free. It has about 6 million unique users each month.