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MOOC Courses: A Comprehensive Guide to Online Learning

MOOC student

The online educational landscape has changed dramatically over the last several years. The number of providers of online courses has exploded. Massive Open Online Courses, MOOCs, are a popular way for people around the world to access quality education. Courses on any topic are available to anyone at any time with a click of a button.

In this article, we will discuss everything MOOC related. For instance, we will walk you through the steps of finding, registering, and taking an online course. We will also break down what to expect in terms of cost, time requirements, and the technology needed. The history of MOOCs will be explored, and much more. This is your go-to resource for all things online course and MOOC related.

What is a MOOC course?

A Massive Open Online Course or MOOC for short, delivers accessible education. The courses offer remote online learning opportunities to students all over the world. 

  • Massive because enrollment is unlimited and can run into the hundreds of thousands.
  • Open because anyone can enroll-there is no admission process.
  • Online because they are delivered via the internet.
  • Course because their goal is to teach a specific subject.

Primary Characteristics of MOOC Courses

There are no hard-and-fast rules regarding MOOCs, however there are some similarities. 

  • Available to anyone who has an internet connection. Thousands of people can take the same course at the same time. 
  • Offer education for free or at a fraction of the cost of traditional universities. Many only charge a small fee to receive a certificate of completion for a completed course. 
  • Self-paced. The student can learn at their own pace on their own time.

Where to take MOOCs

Most MOOCs can be found on host platforms. These platforms either create courses themselves or offer courses created by universities and industry professionals. On these platforms, MOOCs are organized by subject matter. It is common for a collection of courses to be grouped together to create a comprehensive learning path. MOOC platforms can also choose to specialize in certain types of online courses they offer. For instance, Treehouse is a platform that specializes in digital skills MOOCs. Future Learn, on the other hand, is a platform that offers MOOCs across many different subject areas from Business to Art History.

Who Makes MOOCs?

Some of the first and most active MOOC makers were universities such as Stanford and MIT. Now, companies like Google and Microsoft also make MOOCs. Google has its own MOOC platform. Whereas, Microsoft MOOC Course can be found on other platforms.

Then there are MOOC platforms like Treehouse and Duolingo that create their own MOOCs. Their courses are created using internal teams of experts. Still other MOOCs are made by industry experts. On the other hand, Masterclass capitalizes on this by having well known people teach their courses. For instance, Neil Gaiman teaches a course on the Art of Storytelling on Masterclass.

Who Benefits from MOOCs?

Students, teachers, working professionals, parents, business owners, lifelong learners, and hobbyists all benefit from MOOCs. Everyone can benefit from MOOCs! 


MOOCs make learning convenient for students with their almost limitless class size and self-paced learning options. A student can gain extra instruction on a class project or access self-tutoring materials for a difficult subject. Online courses can also offer students a chance to take a class without using up course limits or paying high tuition costs.

Lifelong Learners

Lifelong learners through MOOCs have access to a plethora of classes to choose from. They have the ability to learn only what they want to learn at a pace best suited to their learning style. 


Hobbyists also benefit from MOOCs. There are courses that can teach them the latest technologies or techniques that will advance their hobby. For example, a hobbyist might benefit from 3D printing. 3D printing technologies used to only be available to engineers, manufactures, or scientists. Now a hobbyist can take a MOOC to learn how to operate a 3D printer. 

Teachers & Parents

Teachers and parents also benefit from MOOCs. They can advance their own understanding of a subject. Therefore, they can better help their children. Educators can use MOOCs as supportive resources that provide additional information to classroom curriculum. Some MOOC platforms like the language learning platform, Duolingo, have created courses designed to support language learning in the classroom. Not to mention, MOOCs provide limitless access to an array of subject matter that the students are interested in but might not have access to in the traditional school setting. 

Business Owners & Working Professionals

Working professionals and business owners benefit from MOOCS as well. Business owners can keep up to speed with the most recent trends and developments. An employee can gain the skills and knowledge needed to make a career shift or move up the corporate ladder. MOOCs offer a flexible and affordable way for working professionals to stay informed and up-to-date. This is especially relevant in the technology sector and careers that require a high proficiency in digital skill sets. 

How do MOOC Courses work?

MOOCs are online courses students access through the internet. A typical course consists of class materials made accessible online. Class materials may include recorded video lectures, readings, problem sets, quizzes, interactive learning modules, and online student forums. 

Each MOOC has a course provider and a course platform. Sometimes these are the same entity like Duolingo and Treehouse. Other times, they are separate. For example, Columbia University might be the course provider (the creator of the course) and the course might be found on the course platform, Coursera. The course platform provides the technological infrastructure needed for the course modules and other learning resources.

Top Reasons to take a MOOC Course

MOOCs have proven they are not going anywhere despite early skepticism. And, they continue to grow in popularity. As their content and user experiences improve, their credibility improves. Therefore, there is no reason not to check out a MOOC for yourself.

Here are the top reasons why you should take a MOOC:

Join an online community of 10+ million students

The top three largest providers, Coursera, EdX, and Udacity, provide almost 700 online courses to over 8.5million students from all over the world. And that is just the top three! As the popularity of MOOCs grows, the community of learners grows as well. This community is composed of educated and driven students and professionals from all around the world. It truly is a global learning community. 

Supplemental and Lifelong Learning Opportunities

Upskilling, retraining, and specialization is the norm in today’s fast-paced world. MOOCs can help working professionals gain skills to make career shifts or advance their current careers. Students can benefit from expanding their knowledge base. People who don’t have access to formal education because of social-economic, geographic, or other extenuating circumstances can build skills to help them, their families, and communities drastically improve those very circumstances. 

 A Wide Range of Subjects

You can learn anything. As MOOCs have grown in popularity and credibility, more and more content has become available. An entrepreneur can learn how to set up a website for their business. A high school student can take guitar lessons. A CEO can learn how to paint. A refugee can learn to code and begin to build a better future for themselves. There is no limit to the subject matter covered by MOOCs.

Many MOOCs are free

Learning has traditionally cost both money and time. Many platforms offer courses for free or for a fraction of the cost of university tuition. Because the courses are created by universities and industry leaders, the quality of the course materials is very high.

Earn a recognized certificate

Many MOOCs offer certificates of completion. More and more institutions accept these as proof of education, continuing education, and academic credentials. It should be noted that to receive the certificate of completion it is common to be charged a small fee. However, it is important to check with an academic institution to see if a MOOC can be used for course credit.

The Benefits & Drawbacks of MOOCs

The Benefits

  • No physical location dependence 
  • Improved access to higher education
  • Affordability of higher education
  • Flexible learning schedule

The Drawbacks

  • Flexibility of course can be difficult to manage. 
  • Completion rates of MOOCs are lower than those of in-person courses that require tuition.
  • Instructors are less accountable.
  • Digital literacy is required for effective use, and access to reliable technology is required.
  • Students are less likely to form relationships with other students and their instructors.
  • There are less if any accommodations made for students with visual or auditory disabilities.
  • Due to the high volume of similar courses, it can be difficult to find the right course.

MOOC Course Enrollment

How to Enroll

Each platform that offers MOOCs has a different enrollment process. Sometimes, it is as easy as selecting a course from the course library. Other platforms require the learner to create an account with an email address and password. If the platform is subscription based, the learner might have to submit billing information when they create their account.

When to Enroll

MOOCs most frequently offer open enrollment. This means a student can enroll in a course at any time. Open enrollment means the course is available year-round or within a designated time frame. However, not all courses are offered all the time. The course page will let you know if the course is available, upcoming, self-paced, or if the course has no scheduled session. It is good to note that upcoming courses can sometimes be accessed before their start date. If a course has already begun, it is often still possible to join the course. The student would need to complete the missed coursework to catch up if the course was in-progress. Self-paced courses can be joined at any time.

Start to Completion of a MOOC Course

When do MOOCs Start?

Because MOOCs have open enrollment, most courses begin after the student has enrolled in the course. However, some courses start at regular intervals-every few weeks or months. Some courses, on the other hand, are seldom offered. Courses can be discontinued by the platform or creator. This happens if the content needs to be updated, the platform feels the content is not attracting enough students, copyright issues, or other such reasons.

How to Track the Course Start Date

For MOOCs that have a specified course start date, the learner will receive a notification email from the platform reminding them of the start date. The platforms offering the course commonly send notifications for course start date and daily tasks.

Are there Completion Deadlines?

Most MOOCs are self-paced and have no definitive end date. The student progresses through the material as quickly or slowly as they want. Other courses have a set time frame. For example, some courses are available only for 5 weeks. Other platforms release the content of the course in segments thus forcing the student to pace themselves. Regardless of whether or not a course has a schedule, the student can complete the work whenever it works best for them-morning, noon, or the middle of the night.

How long does it take to complete a MOOC?

MOOC length varies greatly. Some courses can take as little as a couple of hours. Others can take months to complete. Most platforms provide an estimated weekly hour commitment and number of weeks to complete the course.

Are there Access Restrictions?

Some course providers require the students to be a minimum age to enroll in courses. Other possible restrictions are due to trade restrictions and government policies which may make the course content unavailable in certain countries.

The Cost of MOOC Courses

How much do MOOCs cost?

Many MOOCs are free. Each MOOC platform chooses how to structure their content and fees. If the platform chooses to charge a subscription fee, that fee typically includes unlimited access to their full course library, additional course content, course completion certification, and support. It is common to be able to get a completion certification for a small fee for free courses. 

Is Financial Aid Available?

Typically, there is no financial aid available. Some platforms offer discounts or special pricing or reduced pricing if you sign up for a whole year or during a certain window. A few platforms offer financial aid and/or scholarships. These platforms are typically subscription based and offer courses that can count towards college credit or degrees.

Credentials & MOOC-based Degrees

How are Learners Tested?

MOOCs can include two types of assessments: auto-graded quizzes and peer-feeback assignments. In both cases, the instructor does not grade learners’ work. Auto-graded quizzes are automatically graded upon submission. Peer-graded assignments are graded by other learners according to specific established criteria. 

Can I earn a Certificate of Completion?

A student can earn a certificate of completion for finishing a MOOC with a passing grade. Sometimes, certificates of completion are free. More often, the student will need to pay a fee to obtain the certificate.

Can I earn Academic Credit?

Some institutions will accept a MOOC course for credit. However, this usually requires paying for the certificate, completing the course(s), and then enrolling in a degree program from said institution. It is best practice to check with the institution to see if they will accept the MOOC as academic credit. 

What are Micro Credentials?

Micro credential programs consist of several online courses with a related theme. By combining multiple courses into one larger course, the experience becomes more comprehensive. It provides the student an opportunity to focus deeply on all the facets of a specific subject. Micro credentials are also known as MicroMasters, Specializations, and Nanodegrees. It is important to note, the student must earn a passing grade and pay for the course to earn the micro credential.

What are MOOC based degrees?

A number of universities now offer online degrees based on MOOCs. The universities leverage the content and structure of MOOCs to create comprehensive degree programs. These online degree programs do not offer open enrollment. Consequently, students must go through an admissions process and pay tuition.

What to consider before taking a MOOC Course

It is helpful to know why you want to take a MOOC before you enroll. 

Are you trying to:

  • Switch Careers?
  • Gain a Promotion?
  • Become better at your job?
  • Improve your job prospects? 
  • Or, simply for the joy of learning?

It is important to consider:

  • Do you want to take the full course or just part of it?
  • How much time can you dedicate to the course weekly?
  • Are you looking for an introductory, intermediate, or advanced course? 
  • Do you need to receive credit for the course?

The course description will include information about potential prerequisites, course content, difficulty, and expected time commitment. The description will help identify if the course will meet your learning goals. 

MOOCs vs. Online College Courses

A MOOC and an online college course have many similarities and differences.


  • MOOCs are free, or cost less than tuition
  • MOOCs have unlimited class size
  • Anyone can enroll in a MOOC, even if they are not “qualified” to do so
  • Students can start and stop the course without any formal consequence


  • Both are offered online
  • The course content can be the similar if not the same
  • They can be “taught” by the same instructor
  • They can be created by the same educational institution 

How to find a MOOC

The simplest way to find a MOOC is to use a search engine and search for “online course” and the subject you would like to take. If you want to take courses from a specific university like Harvard or from an organization like Google, you can search for “free online courses at ___.” You can also look at GetEducated’s comprehensive chart of popular MOOC platforms. The chart is located at the bottom of this article. Or you can use a MOOC search engine like Class Central. It is important when searching for a course that it aligns with your goals.

MOOC Course Structure

Using the Course Syllabus

There are no hard and fast rules on how MOOCs are structured. That being said, there are a fair number of commonalities. The course syllabus is a great place to look for more information about the structure of the course as well as what will be covered and in what order.

Video Lectures

Most courses consist of a series of video lectures that are intended to instruct the student on the course material. The course material may also include webinars and pre recorded videos. MOOCs do not have in person lectures. The student can access the course content when it suits them best.


Quizzes often occur after some or all of the lectures. These quizzes are there to ensure the course material is being learned and understood. Depending on the course, passing the quiz may be a requirement for advancing onto the next set of lectures. These quizzes are auto-graded. 


Some MOOCs may also require homework assignments. These homework assignments may include additional reading, completing problems, or other “typical” homework tasks. The course may ask students to grade each other’s homework using a pre-prescribed rubric. A message board may also be utilized to help the students connect with each other. 

Instructor Engagement

It is important to note that interaction between the instructors and learners is minimal or non-existent in MOOCs. Many courses have mentores monitoring the course forums and message boards. Learners are encouraged to help each other by answering questions, suggesting useful resources, and offering help to those struggling with the course material. It is not allowed to post quiz or homework answers on these community forums. 

Final Exam

MOOCs can have a final exam at the end of the course. If the student passes the exam, they are eligible to obtain a certificate of completion (if available). Most free MOOCs offer the certificate of completion for a fee. Subscription based MOOCs often include the course completion certificate with the subscription package.

Steps to Taking a MOOC

  1. Figure out why you are interested in taking a MOOC. If you need to obtain credit or certification from the course, you will need to determine if the course is adequate. 
  2. Are prerequisites required? Although MOOCs are open to anyone, some course material is advanced. Therefore, it is helpful to have a base level understanding of the material before taking an advanced course in the subject area.
  3. Ensure you meet the technical requirements. MOOCs are online. It is important to have a stable internet connection. Some courses have large data requirements like videos or an online textbook. Other course materials may be PDFs that require access to special software. Older technologies or operating systems may not be compatible with the course materials.  
  4. Register with the MOOC provider. Registration normally consists of setting up an account using an email and creating a password. If the provider is subscription based and does not offer free courses, you will need to enter payment information.
  5. Apply to the relevant academic institution. If you are taking the course to earn academic credit at a university, you will need to apply to that university and follow their protocols regarding taking a MOOC for credit.
  6. Select your course.
  7. Start learning!

The History of MOOCs

MOOC was first coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier for an online course offered by the University of Manitoba. In that course, there were 25 tuition-paying students from the university and 2,300 non-paying students from the general public who took the course online. 

In 2011, MIT OpenCourseWare became the first large collection of MOOC resources made available by a university. MIT and Harvard spearheaded the EdX initiative for the promotion of MOOCs. 

The Oxford Dictionaries Online added “mooc” in August 2013. The acronym is pronounced with a long oo sound, to rhyme with kook rather than book.

MOOCs have grown in popularity as technology jobs have grown in demand and people look for a way to gain technical skills. 

The coronavirus global pandemic pushed the popularity and demand for MOOCs further. All levels of learning benefited from having accessible affordable online courses. People used online courses during the pandemic to learn new skills, make career changes, to satiate their hunger for knowledge, and to simply pass the time. 

MOOC Technology Requirements

Course materials are delivered in multiple formats. These formats are all delivered electronically via the internet. It is important to ensure that the student has the hardware and software to successfully review the materials. A typical laptop that can open PDFs and run online videos should be sufficient. Individuals with only a smartphone for internet access may struggle with some of the course material. Additionally, those without a broadband internet connection may experience slow loading of videos and downloading of course materials.

4 Types of MOOC Courses


MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. They typically include a collection of many of the following learning objects: video lectures, online readings, problem sets, quizzes, and student interaction. The goal of MOOCs is to reach a much larger audience than traditional courses can accommodate and to foster interaction between people with similar interests across the world.


SPOC stands for Small Private Online Course. In contrast to MOOCs, SPOCs represent a blended teaching approach that utilizes the power of online platforms in more intimate, traditional course settings. 


xMOOC stands for eXtended Massive Open Online Course. These MOOCs are based on traditional university courses. The advantage of xMOOCs: They significantly broaden the number of students who can be exposed to university-level courses. The disadvantage of xMOOCS: Critics argue that xMOOCs are inferior to the university courses they mimic because they eliminate teacher-student interactions and involve limited student-student interactions.


The ‘c’ in cMOOC stands for connectivist, which represents the nature of cMOOCs. Stephen Downes, co-founder of one of the first MOOCs, coined this term to create a distinction from the ‘xMOOCs’. Rather than being delivered by an individual instructor, as in traditional university courses, cMOOCs involve groups of people learning together. In this environment, participants are all considered teachers and learners, which stands in contrast to the structure of xMOOCs, where each individual is either a student or a teacher.

NameYear LaunchedFreeFree TrialPricingAccessCourse TopicsDigital SkillsIvy League CoursesDegree/


Academic Earth2009Yesn/aFreeUnlimitedGeneral StudiesYesYesNo
Alison2007Yesn/aFreeUnlimitedGeneral StudiesYesNoAvailable for Purchase
Codecademy2011Yes-Limited7 days$39.99/moFree-LimitedDigital SkillsYesNoAvailable with Subscription
Coursera2012Yes-Limited7 days$59/moFree-LimitedGeneral StudiesYesYesAvailable with Subscription
edX2012Yesn/aFreeUnlimitedGeneral StudiesYesYesAvailable for Purchase
Future Learn2012Yes-Limited7 days$279.99/yrFree-LimitedGeneral StudiesYesNoAvailable with Subscription
General Assembly2011NoNoVaries per CourseLimited to paid courseDigital SkillsYesNoAvailable with Subscription
Kadenze2013Yes-Limited30 days$20/moFree-LimitedGeneral StudiesYesYesAvailable with Subscription
LinkedIn Learning2015No30 daysStarting at $29.99/moUnlimited with SubscriptionGeneral StudiesYesNoAvailable with Subscription
Masterclass2015NoNo$15/moUnlimited with SubscriptionGeneral StudiesNoNoNo
Pluralsight2004No10 days or 200 minutesStarting at $24.94/moDepends on Subscription LevelDigital SkillsYesNoNo
Shaw Academy2013No4 weeks$69.99/moUnlimited with SubscriptionGeneral StudiesYesNoAvailable with Subscription
Simplilearn2010No7 daysVaries per CourseLimitedDigital SkillsYesNoAvailable with Subscription
SkillShare2010Yes-Limited14 days$19/moFree-LimitedGeneral StudiesYesNoNo
Team Treehouse2011No7 days$25/moUnlimited with SubscriptionDigital SkillsYesNoAvailable with Subscription
Udacity2011NoNoVaries per CourseLimited to CourseDigital SkillsYesNoAvailable with Subscription
Udemy2010Yes-Limited7 days$19.99/moFree-LimitedGeneral StudiesYesNoAvailable with Subscription


MOOC courses have grown in popularity each year. They offer an affordable way to expand the learner’s knowledge base, gain skills, and learn something new for the pure joy of learning. The subjects available to learn are limitless. What will you learn next?