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What Are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – Comparisons

When you’re interested in a topic but don’t have the time or money to take a college course, it’s time to consider MOOCs – massive open online courses. MOOCs are available to the general public regardless of geographic location, education level, or previous schooling. The result is a meeting of the minds with serious benefits, including everything from college credit to an enhanced resume.

While it’s true that online education has come a long way in recent years, it still has a way to go before it’s considered a viable replacement for traditional college. As of now, there are no MOOC programs that provide a full online degree; rather, accredited MOOCs – those affiliated with a brick-and-mortar university – can help you gather some of the credits required toward a formal degree.

How MOOCs Work

Massive open online courses are online learning modules that allow anyone from anywhere to sign up and follow along. Whether it’s a course in biophysics or basic math, a teacher develops the curriculum, then guides students through the learning process. Sometimes MOOCs are recorded versions of a live course that’s made available online. Most MOOCs use a written curriculum and online tools that students can access at anytime, combined with regular lectures or podcasts and exams.

At the end of the MOOC, you receive a certificate of completion that you can sometimes exchange for college credit. Even if college credit isn’t possible, your certificate stands as a testament to the fact that you completed and passed the course. You can put this on your resume or add it to a university application as proof of your pursuit of self-improvement.

MOOCs vs. Distance Learning

Don’t make the mistake of confusing MOOCs with school-offered long-distance learning. Long-distance learning courses (LDLs) are offered through a specific institution and culminate in college credits – when combined with other online or offline courses, they can result in a formal degree.

There are a number of traits that separate MOOCs and LDLs:


  • Are free or low-cost
  • Require little or no interaction with the instructor
  • May require watching a video series on your own time
  • May not require registration
  • Do not result in college credit unless you’ve chosen a MOOC from an affiliated college whose completion certification can be transferred to the college as credit for a fee
  • Have thousands of students participating at once
  • Have no or low educational requirements to join
  • Have almost no personalization or instructor interaction


  • Require registration
  • Have educational requirements for registration, such as institution enrollment, previous credits, or a certain GPA
  • Require paid tuition, similar to that of a brick-and-mortar class
  • Have a dedicated professor and professor-student interaction
  • Have a set curriculum and timeline, which each student must follow
  • Have a set enrollment cap
  • Culminate in college credit
  • Can be used as part of a college degree

While MOOCs sometimes culminate in credits, they’re more for interest or to build skills, rather than to put toward a degree. If you’d like to pursue an undergraduate or graduate degree online, your best bet is to enroll in distance learning courses from an accredited online college.

Pros & Cons of MOOCs


While they’re still fairly new to the education game, MOOCs do offer specific benefits unseen in traditional college courses:

  • Free or Very Low Cost. This means you can check out topics and subjects without spending thousands of dollars. MOOCs are a great way for college students to narrow potential majors without breaking the bank.
  • Work Long Distance. As long as you have an Internet connection, MOOCs are an excellent choice if you live far away from a  learning institution. Many MOOCs are available in multiple languages.
  • Have Few or No Registration Requirements. Most have low barriers for student entry, which means almost anyone can participate, regardless of prior education.
  • Can Round Out Your Resume. While you may not earn a degree, voluntarily taking a MOOC speaks volumes about your work ethic. For instance, if you want a bookkeeping position, taking a business accounting MOOC (such as Udemy’s Accounting Skills for Managers) can help you learn new skills that you can apply to your job, or use to spruce up your resume.
  • Can Give You a Taste of a Subject. MOOCs can help you gain exposure to new topics before you invest time and money into paid coursework. If you’ve always wondered about astronomy, taking a free course, such as Coursera’s Duke-affiliated Introduction to Astronomy, gives you an introduction to the subject without a major monetary investment.
  • Help You Brush up on Skills. MOOCs can help you gear up for college courses by helping you brush up on the basics before you pursue a more demanding course load. Similarly, if you’re about to take on a new position or reenter the workforce, MOOCs can prepare you for the demands you’re likely to face.


Before you register for a MOOC, you should know there are several drawbacks:

  • Low Completion Rates. Very few MOOC enrollees actually complete the courses, with only about 10% receiving completion certificates. In fact, a 2012 Duke University MOOC on bioelectricity had over 12,000 students register for the course, but only 7,700 logged in and watched one of the videos. Only 3,600 actually attempted to complete one of the quizzes, and a paltry 345 actually took the final exam.
  • Little Investment Can Result in Little Interest. Taking a MOOC might be akin to borrowing a book from a friend. Because there’s little investment involved, there’s also little incentive to actually finish the course.
  • Not all MOOCs Are Created Equal. Not all MOOCs are accredited or recognized by colleges and universities. Some schools offer their own MOOCs, which can be transferred as college credit at their institution. Other MOOCs offer certification, but little in the way of recognizable credit. Always research what MOOC completion gets you – if you’re hoping for credit, take a MOOC or LDL course from a traditional college or university. Just keep in mind that taking a course through a school won’t automatically give you credit – check with school admissions to see whether your certification is transferable as credit.
  • Little Personal Attention. At brick-and-mortar schools, you interact with professors and other students, complete group projects, and bounce ideas off of one another. While MOOCs sometimes include online discussions as part of the course material, there’s almost no personal interaction between students and teachers. After all, with thousands of students, it would be nearly impossible for teachers to offer individualized attention. MOOCs are a more solitary form of education, which may hinder students who prefer a cooperative experience.

Comparing Traditional Education

Currently, MOOCs are not positioned to replace college degrees. While you can cobble together a few degree requirements using university-affiliated MOOCs, no colleges or universities offer 100% MOOC degrees. Still, MOOCs have made some courses more universally available for students who may not be able to formally attend a college or university, so you should consider them when weighing your college options. If you’d like to obtain a formal degree online, look into tuition-led online (LDL) university programs.

Comparing Traditional Education

Where to Find MOOCs

MOOC provider websites gather, develop, and work with schools to provide courses free of charge. Some MOOCs require registration, while others do not.

Here are several of the most popular MOOC provider websites:

1. Udacity

Search a variety of open MOOCs on Udacity, one of the most user-friendly sites available. Unlike some MOOC providers, you can sign in using Facebook and browse available subjects. Courses are particularly focused on math, biology, and business.

Udacity allows you to sign up for courses at any time, and learn at your own pace. There are no course start dates or deadlines, which is great for busy adults, but can result in low personal investment – you may have little incentive to see the course through.

  • Best for: Those who want to test the waters without a commitment

2. edX

If you want to research a course before committing, you may prefer edX, which offers course information and introduction videos you can watch before registering. edX courses follow specific schedules, so each course has a start and end date, as well as weekly quizzes and assignment deadlines. Students can interact through online forums, and if you pass the proctored exam at the end of the course, verified certificates are available for $50 to $100, depending on the course.

  • Best for: Serious students looking to add to a resume.

3. Coursera

With the largest catalog of courses to choose from, Coursera develops sponsored curriculum with partner schools and also curates courses from other sites. Subject matter ranges from law, to music, to social science, to nutrition. Like edX, Coursera courses usually have specific start dates and deadlines, which may make them harder for some students to complete. Expect to watch videos, complete quizzes, and take a final exam before receiving Coursera certification.

  • Best for: Students looking for university affiliation and a set schedule.

4. Academic Earth

Nicknamed “The Hulu of Education,” Academic Earth has more than 2,000 lectures available online, enabling you to watch full courses or choose from individual class sessions. Some lecturers even offer playlists so you can get the short-form version of a subject without having to register, follow, and test in a full course environment.

As of 2013, Academic Earth does not develop its own curriculum, but simply catalogs and organizes courses. You can watch any video or playlist at your leisure without deadlines.

  • Best for: Overwhelmed students just starting out.

5. MOOCs Offered Through Formal Schools

MOOCs offered through colleges and universities are typically more structured. Stanford is the pioneer in MOOC creation, offering a wide variety of free online courses. For a fee, you can convert your certification into usable college credits when you transfer them to Stanford.

UC Berkeley, Harvard, Duke, MIT, UCLA, and Yale all offer some version of MOOCs. Check university programs to see if their free online courses translate into future course credit.

  • Best for: The student looking for future college credit.

Online Education Course

MOOC Costs

MOOC development varies widely, from a quick video lecture, to a pricey full-fledged course. Just because you can take MOOCs for free doesn’t mean they’re free to develop. Most MOOCs are paid for by university benefactors. According to Minding The Campus, a site such as Udacity budgets $400,000 for each of its courses, but much of the cost is sponsored by the schools that choose to have their name and organization affiliated with the course.

For instance, Harvard shoulders the financial burden for some of the edX courses. It’s a marketing coup for the school, as it helps convert online learners into tuition-paying students. Similarly, San Jose State University is the benefactor for a catalog of courses on Udacity that convert to college credit with the school.

While many MOOCs are billed as “free,” you may have to pay something to complete each course. For instance, some classes have required texts and materials that you must purchase from the site. These paid materials help sites recoup some of the course costs. Sites may also charge for secondary services, such as tutoring, or for the delivery of the certificate upon course completion. Completion certificates usually cost between $50 and $100.

Some university-affiliated MOOCs charge to convert certification into college credit – usually around $200 – which is much cheaper than typical college tuition. The schools that fund MOOCs are banking on the idea that a casual course-taker may end up registering for LDLs or on-campus credits, resulting in greater tuition dollars and a significant return on investment.

Final Word

MOOCs are still in their infancy, so it’s hard to know how they’ll impact the overall educational climate. Still, if you’re looking to further your education and round out your resume, taking and completing MOOCs can be a great way to achieve your goals and reduce the cost of a college education. While they may not be a perfect alternative to pricey university degrees, the more popular MOOCs become, the more successful they’ll be at driving down college costs.

Have you ever taken a MOOC? What was your experience?

Jacqueline Curtis
Jacqueline Curtis writes about edtech, finance, marketing, and small business strategy. With over 14 years of copywriting experience, she's created content and scripting for organizations such as GE, Walgreens, Overstock, and MasterCard. She lives in Utah with her husband, three kids, and an overzealous springer spaniel named Penelope.

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