MOOCs are ‘massive open online courses,’ made popular by platforms like edX and Coursera. Here’s how they work — and why they’re one of the best ways to learn online

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  • Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are popular forms of online education.
  • E-learning platforms like edX, Coursera, and FutureLearn offer thousands of MOOCs.
  • Below, learn what MOOCs are, how much they cost, and why they can be great resources.

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If you’re interested in online learning, you’ve probably heard the term MOOC — Massive Open Online Course — before. But you might have questions about what they are, what exactly “open” means, how much they cost, or how they generally differ from other forms of e-learning, like apps or online degrees. Here’s everything you need to know:

What are MOOCs?

MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. In order for an online course to be considered a MOOC, it needs to be:

Massive, or able to be taken by large numbers of people at once (whether it’s 100 or 100,000 students)

Open, or generally accessible to the public — meaning it’s either free, relatively affordable, or has open enrollment

Online, or taken digitally (with optional opportunities to connect with students in forums)

Course, or providing clear learning opportunities, such as learning from an instructor or earning a certificate of completion

A MOOC can be a self-paced edX course you browse completely for free, or a LinkedIn class you can take with a paid subscription. 

How do MOOC courses work?

MOOCs vary in how they work. Some, like on popular platforms edX and Coursera, can simply let you enroll for free to access course materials such as video lectures, readings, and quizzes. 

Others, like Skillshare, LinkedIn Learning, or Udemy, typically require a paid subscription or one-time fee to be able to access unlimited courses.

And then there are MOOCs such as Open Yale Courses and MIT Open Courseware that provide free course materials but aren’t necessarily structured with assignments and are a little more fluid than edX or Coursera MOOCs. 

What are the benefits of MOOCs?

MOOCs offer access to thousands of courses and educational opportunities for free or at a relatively low cost. Top schools like Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and more offer online courses in subjects from computer science to psychology, and companies like Google, Amazon, and IBM offer professional certificate programs that cost a lot less than traditional master’s degrees.

MOOCs can also be a great way to test out if you like a subject or course before committing to a paid subscription or degree. Codecademy, for example, offers free beginner programming classes with optional paid projects, and Coursera can let you audit courses for free before pursuing a MasterTrack program.

How much do MOOCs cost?

MOOCs vary in cost, and affordability is relative. Platforms like edX, Coursera, and FutureLearn offer many of their MOOCs for free, with optional paid certificates or subscriptions for unlimited access. 

Others, like Skillshare, LinkedIn Learning, and MasterClass, typically charge monthly or annual fees for access to all their courses. 

And platforms like Udemy or CreativeLive let you buy individual MOOCs for a one-time fee.

LinkedIn Learning:

Offers free and paid MOOCs in career development topics, from hard skills like project management and soft skills like elevator pitching. You can browse some of its most popular classes here.

Offers unlimited MOOCs under its subscription plan, in topics from career development to writing and drawing. You can read more about Skillshare here.