Our favorite online freebies

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The Internet is the land of free stuff. Free search. Free videos. Free email. Free encyclopedia. While those things may have wowed us 15 years ago, these days, we're not so easily impressed. But there are gratis gems online that will still surprise you. A recent thread on social news site Reddit asked, "What free stuff on the internet should everyone be taking advantage of?," and the responses included several awesome sites that weren't on our radar. Here's a look at a few of those, as well as some of our other favorite freebies.

Free college courses on Coursera: If you cringe at the thought of taking on more student loans but want to extend your higher learning, top universities (the likes of Stanford, Duke, Vanderbilt, Columbia, John Hopkins) offer free courses online through this for-profit startup. Presently, there are more than 200 courses, with titles like Gamification, Computing for Data Analysis, Human-Computer Interaction, Software Definied Networking and many others that would be relevant to aspiring IT pros. Of course, there are plenty of non-IT-related courses too, including Equine (horse!) Nutrition, Songwriting and Sustainable Agriculture. In early January, Coursera introduced a new feature called "Verified Certificates," in which students can pay a fee to show verification of their course completion.

A lifetime of free reads: While not exactly a new perk of the web, the number of free online books continues to increase, and it still amazes us how many terrific reads we can download for free. Our favorite sources include Amazon and OpenLibrary.org, which also lends out up to five modern books at a time for two weeks to people who sign up for an account.

Free advice on, get this, FreeAdvice.com: If you're in a legal pickle or just curious about what to do if you fell off a chair at your company's holiday party, this site lets you pose questions to lawyers or insurance agents and get a direct response. It also offers news, advice by topic and other resources.

Virtual art museum: Google has digitized thousands of artworks from the world's leading museums, including The Art Institute of Chicago, Van Gogh Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Musee d'Orsay, Paris. The archives also include a brief history of the museums, a map of its location and a street-view-like look at the inside of museums, aptly named "museum view."

Fix anything on iFixit: In the Chicago area where TrainSignal is based, there's a VCR repair shop that remains in business today, which always has us thinking: a.) Who still owns a VCR or enough VHS tapes to necessitate fixing a broken one? And b.) There are shops that can exist solely for the purpose of fixing one thing? This is made even more surprising by sites like iFixit, a massive free online repair manual that offers tips on fixing everything from PCs to blenders.

Get inspired with Ted Talks: Where else would you be able to hear discussions on everything from "The rise of human-computing cooperation" to "The dance of the dung beetle," presented by some of the world's leading minds? It's a pretty spectacular database of lectures that you can filter based on several different categories, lengths or adjectives like "persuasive" and "jaw dropping."

Learn a language: Language courses from the Foreign Service Institute, the government entity that trains foreign diplomats and other foreign affairs officials, are available for free on fsi-language-courses.org because materials produced before 1989 are considered public domain. It covers 40-plus languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Korean, French and Spanish. Duolingo.com is another site that provides free language education while crowdsourcing translation of content on the web.

Learn to code with Codeacademy: This startup offers aspiring developers free lessons on coding in several languages, including JavaScript, Python, Ruby, jQuery and more, while experimenting with projects and getting feedback from the coding community. Its Code Year program is aimed as an introductory track for beginners that teaches programming over the course of a year.

Hiking maps, resources: TrainSignal founder and hiking buff Scott Skinger loves 14ers.com, which has Colorado trail maps, routes, GPS cooordinates/routes, weather conditions, trip reports, hiking checklists and a ton more. EveryTrail.com is another great resource with similar info and crowdsourced guides to trails all over the world, as well as kayaking, sailing, horse back riding and more outdoor excursions.

Get your life in order: There are so many useful sites to keep you organized and goal-oriented. Among our favorites: Mint.com to track your personal finances and budget. Evernote records your ideas, observations, agendas and more anytime and anywhere, synced across all your devices. Dropbox for storing all your files in one location accessible through the web. As far as online calendars, it's hard to beat Google's; the rest of its suite of home and office products have become invaluable time-savers too.

Plan your 5K on MapMyRun: The site uses GPS technology to allow you to map and share your running routes and monitor your activity. It easily lets you modify routes and track the mileage on jogging paths, meaning you don't have to stay on major roads to get accurate distance calculations, like traditional mapping software.

Learn to do just about anything: We probably don't have to tell you this, but  YouTube isn't just about cat videos. You can learn to real, tangible skills in a surprising variety of areas, like crocheting, playing Minecraft, cooking (with Coolio even!) and building your IT knowledge .

This is a topic we could go on about for days, and haven't even mentioned some of our old favorites like Pandora. What are some of your favorite sites that seem so valuable, you're surprised they're free? Tell us in the comments section below!

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Contributor

Dana Gagnon

is the Director of Branded Content at Pluralsight. After working for years in Chicago media, she joined the team in 2012 to continue bringing quality news, tips and more to Pluralsight's audience. Find her @ChicagoDana or on Google+.