MOOCs – pros and cons of the more popular ones

A few years ago, there was a huge fuss about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and how they were going to disrupt education as we know it. As time has passed, I would suggest that they have changed learning for many people, but we have yet to see the disintegration of our longstanding education institutions.

There are plenty of MOOCs now, some free, some not. Each has its own particular mix of technologies, subjects and support forums, and I have tried a few of them over the last couple of years. Here I will try and highlight the main strengths and weaknesses of the ones I have tried.


edX was founded in 2012 by Harvard University and MIT. They have a broad range of subjects, currently from about 130 different partners. I completed some Microsoft courses on Excel with them, and I did find them very useful. The courseware can be a bit buggy – it doesn’t always tick off that you have done something when you in fact have (a particular bug bear when you like to see things tick off like me). It can also be a bit annoying to have to go back and forth to find out where you are up to. However, they have put a lot of effort into providing a good structure, and they are much better than Microsoft’s own learning academy, despite being the same materials.


Udemy market themselves as an online marketplace for learning and teaching. Their range of courses is vast, and they seem to be permanently on sale (not a tactic I approve of but it seems to work for them). I bought a couple of their courses, but it can be difficult to work out which ones will be any good – the courses are often written by individual freelance tutors, and you only really have the ratings from other users to go off. However, they usually aren’t that expensive, and there is no time limit on how long you can take to complete them. The courseware is pretty good, it’s clear and interactive. However, there’s not much variety in the courses themselves, it seems to be largely a few videos followed by a multiple choice quiz. This might be ok for a refresher course but may not work well for more complex or practical topics.


One of the oldest MOOCs, MIT published their first set of courses online in 2002 using their own Online CourseWare. This is and always has been completely free, and is essentially all the course materials for the modules/units they actually run at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Coming from a HE background in the UK, it was fascinating to look at the materials when it first went live, a lot of the topics are very advanced – they have put up their postgraduate courses as well. The courseware is pretty basic, the value comes in learning things as you would at the University. They have added more video content over time, and the departments seem to expand slowly – I recently noticed they have added an Institute for Data, Systems and Society so I will be checking out the materials on that when I get a chance.


Probably most successful of the MOOCs, Coursera has been around since 2012. It started out free, and then added purchasable certificates. They are certainly innovative, with quite a few changes over time to how they charge for courses. You can still access materials for free, but they heavily promote their paid versions. However, they are not too expensive, although they can head that way if you take too long to complete. Their specialisations link together a series of courses that have a monthly fee – take too long to complete and you will pay more which seems fair, and it hopefully an incentive to actually engage with it. The courseware is probably the best I have seen so far. It’s easy to use, ticks things off automatically, and navigation is quite slick. The assessments are probably more imaginative than most I have seen, though some are reliant on peer assessment. It all seems to work well, and is probably the site I use the most out of all the ones I have mentioned here.