4 of the Best MOOC Platforms for Online Learning and Getting a Degree

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, have become massively popular since they started taking off in 2012. The explosion in the number of courses, platforms, certificates, and degrees is great for people who love to learn, but they can get a bit overwhelming. They’re mostly free to audit with options to upgrade to some kind of certification, but each platform varies in its format, focus, and pricing, so it can be helpful to get an idea of what each one has to offer.

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There are a few key things that tend to be true about all MOOCs:

  • Most are free, with various options to upgrade to more or less valuable credentials.
  • Many platforms have partnered with universities to offer real credit and real degrees, though many of them also have their own versions of credentials, like MicroMasters or Nanodegrees.
  • You’ll have the most options if you’re looking at a technical field, but you can learn just about anything if you find the right platform.
  • There is no admissions process for most MOOCs unless you’re applying to a program that is run in conjunction with a university.

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Even though it’s a relatively young field, MOOC platforms have grown like wildfire, spreading across universities, fields, languages, and industries. This article will mostly focus on the main English-language MOOCs, which are the furthest ahead in terms of course offerings and degree paths, but plenty of startups worldwide are beginning to offer similar options.

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Coursera comes in first because it has the most of everything: students, courses, university partners – all the ingredients of a good MOOC.

Course diversity: Excellent. You can study everything from historical fiction to particle physics.

Course cost: Some are free, some require you to pay a one-time fee, and some are available via a monthly subscription. Coursera’s pricing structure seems to change fairly often.

Degree path:

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The second-largest MOOC platform certainly doesn’t come in second for innovation and usability. It was founded as a non-profit run by Harvard and MIT and therefore offers a broad selection of courses from those universities and many others.

Course diversity: Very high – you could spend hours looking through all the categories.

Course cost: As of 2018, edX follows a fairly simple model: you can audit any course, with most or all of the content available, for free, or you can pay an upgrade fee for a certificate. Larger programs will cost more than individual courses.

Degree Path:

  • Formal: edX offers undergraduate credit (but not degrees, yet) as well as several master’s degrees in partnership with several different universities. You can also get a “MicroMasters” credential that can be counted as credit towards one of these master’s degrees upon admission to the program.
  • Informal: You can get individual course certificates, or you can opt to get a certificate from an “XSeries” or “Professional Certificate” series of courses put together by a university or a company like Microsoft or IBM.

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This is essentially Silicon Valley’s MOOC, so it’s all about tech. It’s been changing its offerings and pricing models on a regular basis, but course quality is generally high.

Course diversity: Medium overall, high for technical fields.

Course cost: Udacity offers many of its courses for free, which means you can try before you buy, but some content and all certifications will cost money.

Degree path:

  • Formal: As of 2018, the only formal degree is a master’s of computer science.
  • Informal: Most of Udacity’s degrees come in the form of “Nanodegree” certificates, which are mostly skill-based certifications that present hiring and portfolio-building opportunities.

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Futurelearn is based in the UK and owned by The Open University, a UK-based distance learning university.

Course diversity: High. You can find anything from “A History of Royal Fashion” to “Blockchain in the Energy Sector.”

Course cost: You can audit most courses for free or you can pay for an upgrade to a certificate or a degree.

Degree path:

  • Formal: Most degrees offered through Futurelearn are technical master’s degrees, though one or two undergraduate options are also available.
  • Like most MOOCs, you can buy course certificates. Unlike most MOOCs, they’ll mail you a physical copy.

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While they might appear to have a lot in common with MOOCs, there are some online course repositories that don’t follow quite the same model. In general, any online education platform without university partners, a credentialing system, and/or free course auditing doesn’t fit into the traditional MOOC mold. Khan Academy, Udemy, Lynda, Codecademy, and other sites are certainly educational but don’t offer many of the advantages that the more traditional university-based MOOCs do.

If you’d prefer a non-English language MOOC, your options will be mostly limited to what’s available. If you can learn in English, you have a whole world open to you. For big-name academic options and constantly-upgraded delivery technology, Coursera and edX are hard to beat, though Futurelearn is coming up behind them. Udacity seems to have the market cornered on technical skills, and if you’re more artistic, you might consider Kadenze. There’s really no need to lock yourself into one platform, though – they’re free to try, so there’s nothing wrong with maximizing your options and trying them all.

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