How Do Massive Open
Online Courses Work?

For students who prefer online training, massive open online courses (MOOCs) are an excellent solution. MOOC platforms like Coursera and edX specialize in free online courses. Students can learn data analytics, project management, web development, and much more.

The learning experience of completing a MOOC differs from in-person teaching. Both methods teach real-world problems and solutions. Yet MOOC courses deliver their lessons through video lectures and web-based content.

Are MOOC Courses Worth It? An Overview

There are countless different MOOCs available to suit different student requirements. Most MOOCs are led by industry experts and offer flexible study options. If you go through a renowned MOOC platform, you can successfully learn the fundamentals of your chosen area.

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It’s vital to understand that MOOCs don’t compare to the top universities in terms of program depth and student services. However, completing a MOOC may equip you with college-level expertise to enroll in a four-year school should you want to.

Whether you’re looking for a way to change your career or attain career-specific skills, you should consider MOOCs. To help determine whether a MOOC is right for you, check out the following key facts about this popular learning option.

What Is a MOOC?

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are web-based courses that offer free distance-learning classes. Anybody can enroll in a MOOC, and these free online courses offer a flexible, economical method of study. Typically, MOOCs don’t require end-of-course assignments, and the number of students in the course can range from 1,000 to 1,000,000.

Some MOOC platforms offer paid courses and services exclusive to paid members. However, most MOOC platforms have a generous selection of free courses available. You can study topics like computer science, data science, and data analysis, among many more.

The four defining features of MOOCs are laid out below.

Open and Free

Open and free MOOCs are what the name suggests. These MOOCs are free, and anybody can enroll. This is ideal for students dealing with debt while in between jobs who can’t afford to study, and for students who don’t have academic qualifications.

MOOCs use open content, meaning that it is freely available to students, and students can modify and share the content as they like. This is different from closed learning, where the course materials are the property of the course provider. With closed learning, students can’t share or change the content as they wish, nor can they access this content freely.

Massive Attendance

As MOOCs are free online courses that anybody can enroll in, they have massive attendance. Millions of students around the world attend MOOCs. Many providers have no enrollment limit, but the courses aren’t always available all year round.

You might assume massive attendance means a lower quality of education. While this can be true, it solely depends on the MOOC platform and course instructor. Many MOOCs also try to ease this problem by using advanced, automated software to relay a personalized learning experience to their students.

Flexible Assessment

Students enrolled in a MOOC rarely have to complete an end-of-course assessment. Instead, students can complete weekly online pre-assessed assignments or quizzes to test their knowledge. These tests aren’t compulsory, but there are benefits to doing them. You can identify how much of the content you’ve learned, and where you need improvement.

MOOCs upload video lectures and other course materials straight onto the platform. You can access these course materials anytime you want.

Led by Experts in the Field

Some MOOCs have partnered up with top universities to curate high-quality online classes. Students learn from recognized professors who are renowned experts in their field.

A great example of this is edX. Aside from the many other university partners edX has, Harvard University has launched its own series of MOOCs on the platform. As a result, many of Harvard’s best professors lead edX courses.

MOOC Benefits

Besides the fact that MOOCs are free and students don’t need any academic qualifications or professional background to enroll, there are many other perks to this education track.

Let’s review a few of the key advantages of MOOCs.

Career Advancement

Perhaps you want to change careers, or you need to attain additional skills to land your dream job. You can gain these skills through MOOCs. In some MOOCs, you can learn soft skills like team building and communication, and in others, you can learn technical tools like CSS and HTML.

Having the desired skills you need for a job will make you stand apart from other professionals. Not to mention that a broader range of industry skills allow you to progress in your career.

Application Enhancement

To get into a university or win a scholarship, you need a competitive application. Completing a MOOC that grants a certificate of completion can help make you stand out. It’ll show whoever is reading your application you have intellectual curiosity and initiative. Learning institutions highly desire both these traits in students.

College Preparation

If you want to study at any of the top universities, you need an academic background to apply. Not all students have this, so they attend MOOCs to prepare them for college.

Completing a MOOC will help you develop and hone knowledge of your study area, meaning you’ll have higher chances of getting into a four-year school.

Relationship Building

On a MOOC platform, students can interact with one another. This allows students to cultivate relationships with peers from every corner of the world. If you know anything about networking, you’ll understand how valuable this is for career and academic opportunities.

MOOC Drawbacks

MOOC Drawbacks

Like anything else, while MOOCs have many advantages, there are also disadvantages. Not all students can benefit from MOOCs, so you need to carefully consider the potential drawbacks too.

We’ve compiled the main disadvantages of MOOCs below.

Lack of One-on-One Attention

As convenient as online learning is, many students prefer in-person teaching. In-person classes allow instructors to provide students with one-on-one help. This makes it easier for students to overcome challenges they have with the coursework, as they can ask for assistance.

MOOCs don’t provide the same amount of one-on-one attention for students. Students can reach out to instructors for help, but the efficacy of this help relies on the instructor and how committed they are to their students.

Low Retention Rates

Since students don’t have to pay for MOOCs, they often don’t commit to them either. As mentioned earlier, the completion rate for MOOCs is less than seven percent. The primary cause for this low retention rate isn’t clear. Still, it’s a worrying fact, which could indicate low education quality, or low instructor interest for some MOOCs.

Lack of Motivation

With no in-person instructor to supervise students and keep them on track with their coursework, students may lose motivation. Many students who’ve never done online learning don’t realize it doesn’t work for them until they’ve attended a few MOOC classes.

It’s important for students to feel motivated, as this will fuel their studies. Unmotivated students pose a higher risk of dropping out. This factor could also be a contributing factor to the low completion rates for MOOCs.

Types of MOOCs

There are two primary types of MOOCs: cMOOCs and xMOOCs. These two types of MOOCs are aimed at distinct groups of students and use different study methods.

Let’s discuss each of these options.


The “c” in “cMOOC” means connectivity. Instead of being run by a single professor, these MOOCs have groups of students with a shared interest in learning together. In this case, all participants are both students and teachers, and everyone teaches and learns from everyone else.

Instead of traditional course materials, students learn together through peer interaction on discussion boards, social media, and blog posts.

An example of a cMOOC is the Hybrid Pedagogy community.


Like traditional teaching, an xMOOC involves students learning around one teacher. The “x” stands for “extended”. Most MOOCs are xMOOCs, and this is ideal for students who need training from an experienced professor.

Unlike cMOOCs, where students should have broad experience to help other students, xMOOC students don’t have to be industry professionals or have any experience.

An example of an xMOOC is Coursera’s Python for Everybody Specialization.

How Long Does It Take to Complete a MOOC?

How long a MOOC takes depends on your study pace and the type of course. However, you can expect to complete a MOOC in anywhere between one and 16 weeks.

To find out the exact amount of time a MOOC should take to complete, check the MOOC platform’s website or contact customer support.

Will I Get a Certificate?

Nowadays, an increasing number of MOOCs grant certificates of completion. However, depending on the MOOC platform, you’ll most likely have to pay a fee for the certificate. This isn’t as great of an expense when the coursework is totally free.

Having a certificate of completion from a MOOC tremendously benefits your academic and professional career. These certificates verify your skills in a subject area, so employers can have more trust in your expertise.

Although you can’t use a completion certificate instead of work experience or a degree program, it can open up more career prospects. Whether you want a career switch or want to break into a new industry, having a completion certificate makes the transition easier.

Choosing the Right MOOC

Choosing the Right MOOC

When evaluating your options for a MOOC, you need to be picky. There are so many MOOCs available that choosing one won’t be straightforward. Consider the type of student you are, who the instructors are, and the course schedule.

Below are our best tips for choosing the right MOOC.

Know What Type of Student You Are

When looking at the difference between cMOOCs and xMOOCs, you’ll instantly know which one suits you better. You also need to evaluate whether the different aspects of the MOOCs that interest you suit your learning style.

The teaching style varies from MOOC to MOOC. Look at the course description to find out if its teaching method, course format, course syllabus, and study length suit you and your learning objectives.

Pay Attention to Who the MOOC Instructors Are

The quality of MOOCs is inconsistent, as it primarily depends on the instructors. It’s crucial to check who the instructors are. MOOCs usually include a short bio or description of the professors for each course. This information is worth taking a look at. Even though the course is often free, you want professional teaching.

If you want to attend an xMOOC, apply this same notion to the community. Ideally, you want recognized professionals in the community you join. This makes it more likely that you’ll learn expert knowledge and skills.

Review the Course Schedule

Some MOOCs are self-paced, and others are scheduled. Scheduled MOOCs might not work for students employed full time or bound to other responsibilities. Self-paced courses will suit these students better.

It’s still valid to consider a self-paced course even if you don’t have any other obligations. Self-paced courses allow slow learners more time to understand the content. Fast learners will also benefit as they can complete the course in record time.

Top MOOC Platforms

Picking a MOOC can be a hassle. You don’t want to mistake a Khan Academy course for a proper MOOC. To help you, we’ve rounded up the best MOOC platforms in 2021.


Coursera is the top MOOC platform today and has collaborated with over 200 world-class companies and respected universities. Coursera’s partners include Google, IBM, University of Michigan, and Imperial College London, to name a few. You even can take degree programs on the platform.

You can use Coursera to learn JavaScript, machine learning, programming, and much more. Coursera offers over 5,000 courses, over 40 certificates, and over 25 degrees.


Over 70 million students use Coursera, proving its credibility and the high quality of its learning experience. Over 2,000 businesses have used Coursera to train their employees, owing to the efficacy of their courses. The course certificates are also accredited. With so many renowned partners, a certificate from Coursera holds weight.


Some courses require prior experience, meaning they’re not all beginner-friendly. They follow a peer grading system for assignments which isn’t as effective as it should be. It means peers can score the other students bad grades for malicious reasons. Instructors don’t always give students feedback on assignments either.

Popular MOOCs

Six Sigma: Define and Measure – Technical University of Munich

Nutrition and Health: Human Microbiome – Wageningen University

The Science of Happiness – University of California, Berkeley


As another MOOC platform accredited by countless universities and companies, FutureLearn provides impressive course and instructor quality. You can study short courses, degree programs, expert tracks, and micro-credentials programs.

A few of the schools that have partnerships with FutureLearn are The Open University, British Council, and Johns Hopkins University.


FutureLearn has an outstanding course catalog and an interactive community. Many reputable organizations have accredited the courses, and every course comes with a certificate of completion. You’ll also find that the website is easy to navigate.


There is no mobile app available for FutureLearn, and there are a limited number of courses from US institutions. The software and marketing courses could also be improved.

Popular MOOCs

Business Fundamentals: Effective Communication – The Open University

Archaeology: From Dig to Lab and Beyond – University of Reading

The Digital Economy: Selling Through Customer Insight – The Open University


Udacity not only has a wide selection of courses, but this MOOC platform offers useful student resources too. This includes career services, career resources, discussions, scholarships, and more.

You’ll find seven major categories of Udacity courses, and each category has several scheduled courses. Udacity has partnered with many brands like Amazon, BMW, Google, and Facebook.


High-quality course materials are available at Udacity, and they have partnered with multiple renowned companies. The courses by Google are particularly well structured. The platform offers more than just online training, as students have access to ample resources, guides, and career help.


The courses are only available in English, and there is no mobile app for Udacity. You can only receive a certificate of completion for paid courses, and none of the courses are affiliated with universities.

Popular MOOCs

Intro to Programming Nanodegree Program

Intel Edge AI Scholarship Foundation Course

Android Kotlin Developer


Udemy offers a vast range of self-paced courses. Udemy claims to have the world’s largest selection of courses, and over 30 million students use Udemy. You can choose to study business, photography, marketing, design, development, music, personal development, and so on.

Many companies like Mercedes-Benz, Adidas, and Eventbrite trust Udemy’s courses. There are over 150,000 online videos on Udemy’s platform.


Students have lifetime access to Udemy courses, and there are thousands of different courses available. You can access Udemy on mobile, and the course content is more career-specific than most MOOCs. There is a 30-day refund policy on courses that you buy, which is much longer than other MOOCs.


The courses aren’t officially accredited, and you can only receive a certificate of completion for paid courses. The instructors create the course content, which affects the quality of some courses.

Popular MOOCs

2021 Complete Python Bootcamp from Zero to Hero in Python

Machine Learning A-Z: Hands-On Python & R in Data Science

Microsoft Excel – Excel from Beginner to Advanced

Are MOOCs Worth It?

If you’re looking for an economical, high-quality solution to studying, MOOCs are definitely worth considering. There is so much flexibility in how you can complete a MOOC and how much time you have. It’s a quick and inexpensive method to gain career-specific skills if you expand your expertise or attain basic skills.

Many MOOCs offer degree programs and student resources to make finding a job and progressing your skills easier. MOOCs are the ideal choice for online training while costing a fraction of what it takes to pay for university education.

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