Beginners Guide to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

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Written by Pat Bowden Last updated on June 03rd, 2021

What are MOOCs?

MOOCs are courses delivered online and accessible to all for free.

MOOC stands for massive open online course:

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

MOOCs typically comprise pre-recorded video lessons, readings, assessments, and discussion forums.

For example, here’s the information page of a MOOC that teaches programming in Python.

Who makes MOOCs?

Most MOOCs are made by universities. Some of the first and most active MOOC makers are Stanford, MIT, and Harvard. (To see the full list, click here.)

Some MOOCs are made by companies, such as Microsoft or Google, or by various organizations, such as IEEE or the Linux Foundation. (To see the full list, click here.)

Where can I take MOOCs?

Although MOOCs are created by universities, universities rarely distribute MOOCs themselves. Instead, they rely on course providers such as:

So it’s on those platforms and others that learners actually take MOOCs.

When do MOOCs start?

Some MOOCs can be started at any time. Others start at regular intervals — every few weeks or months. Some are seldom offered — sometimes reappearing after a year of absence. Finally, some stop being offered entirely.

Do MOOCs have deadlines?

Some MOOCs are self-paced — you progress through them as quickly or slowly as you want — while others run on a schedule:

  • All the course material may not be available from day one. Instead, it’s released in fragments week after week, forcing students to pace themselves.
  • Assessments may have deadlines, preventing learners from lagging behind.

But even when they involve a schedule, MOOCs remain flexible: you study when it suits you best, day or night.

How long to complete a MOOC?

MOOCs range in length from 1 to 16 weeks. Most provide an estimate of the weekly time commitment, although this may vary significantly from one learner to another.

How are learners tested in MOOCs?

MOOCs can include:

  • Auto-graded quizzes — that is, quizzes that are automatically graded upon submission, such as multiple choice questions.
  • Peer-feedback assignments — that is, assignments that are graded by other learners according to a specific rubric.

Your performance on these assignments then determines your overall course grade.

Note that instructors don’t grade learners’ work in MOOCs.

Can I earn a credential for finishing a MOOC?

If you finish a MOOC with a passing grade, you may earn a certificate of completion. Sometimes, the certificate is free. But more often, you have to pay for it.

Paid certificates often require ID verification, which involves sending a picture of yourself and a government-issued ID.

To give you an example, here’s how edX verified certificates look.

Note that some courses offer free trials.

Are there paid components to MOOCs?

Beside certificates, other MOOC components may be hidden behind a paywall — for instance, graded assignments.

MOOCs often offer two enrollment options:

  • Free Auditing — which gives you access to videos, readings, and forums for free.
  • Paid Enrollment — which gives you access to all the content, including paywalled elements such as the certificate of completion.

A small number of courses are pay-only.

Note that online courses that involve paywalls are still often referred to as ‘MOOCs’ despite not being truly ‘open’ anymore.

Is financial aid available to take MOOCs?

Some MOOC platforms allow you to apply for financial aid or scholarships:

If accepted, you may be able to earn a certificate for free or at a discounted rate.

Are there other restrictions on MOOC access?

Some course providers restrict enrollment to people over the age of 13 years. Parents may complete courses with their children. Some MOOCs may be unavailable in particular countries because of trade restrictions or government policies.

Can I contact the MOOC instructor?

Interaction between instructors and learners is minimal or non-existent in MOOCs. Many courses have mentors monitoring the course forums. Occasionally, instructors may contribute to the discussion.

Learners are encouraged to help each other by answering questions. You are not allowed to post quiz answers, but you may recommend helpful resources, so struggling learners can work out the answer for themselves.

What to consider before taking a MOOC?

Before starting any MOOCs, it helps to understand just why you want to enroll.

Do you want to take a MOOC to:

  • Switch careers?
  • Gain a promotion?
  • Become better at your job?
  • Improve your job prospects?
  • Or, simply for the pleasure of learning?

Other important considerations are:

  • Do you want to take the full MOOC 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?

The MOOC listing contains information to help you decide if the course matches your goals, such as potential prerequisites, course content, difficulty, and expected time commitment.

Which are the best MOOCs?

The world’s most highly rated courses can be found at The Best Free Online Courses of All Time. This list is compiled from student activity and reviews on Class Central.

Or have a look at The Most Popular Online Courses of All Time list, which was compiled from enrollment numbers supplied by course providers.

Can I earn academic credit through MOOCs?

Some MOOCs allow you to earn academic credit from specific institutions. This usually requires paying for the certificate, completing the course(s), and then enrolling in a degree program at said institution.

Note that credit earned through MOOCs is not the same as traditional academic credit. MOOC credit is only recognized by the institution listed on the course information page.

In rare cases, other institutions may accept MOOC credit, but this is entirely at the institution’s discretion, so you should seek approval beforehand.

What are microcredentials?

Microcredentials are a series of related MOOCs that allow you to gain a deeper understanding of a specific subject.

Some popular microcredentials include:

To earn a microcredential, you must pay for and earn a passing grade in each of its courses.

What is a MOOC-based degree?

Some universities offer full-fledged online degrees based on MOOCs.

Georgia Tech, for instance, offers an online master’s in computer science (OMSCS). You can learn more about OMSCS and other MOOC-based degrees here.

Note that although they leverage MOOCs, these degree programs don’t work on an open model: to join, you have to go through an admission process and pay a tuition fee.

What is Class Central?

Class Central is a search engine for online courses.

You can search for your topics of interest, read course descriptions, and go through course reviews to help you decide which courses to try.

You can also create a free account to create personal course lists, write course reviews, and follow particular subjects, universities, or course providers.

The website was founded by Dhawal Shah in late 2011, when the first MOOCs started to pop up. Now, Class Central lists thousands of MOOCs from a wide variety of course providers.

Note that Class Central is not involved in running courses; our goal is simply to connect the right user to the right course.

How to find online courses?

To find MOOCs on Class Central, you may:

You can also start a search by clicking on the search field or magnifying glass icon at the top of any page. And you may further narrow the search results by using the filters on the left of the page.

When you find an interesting course, click on its name. This will take you to Class Central's information page about the course. For example, here’s the information page of Harvard’s introduction to computer science.

How to enroll in an online course?

You can enroll in just a few steps from the course information page. Simply click on the ‘Go to class ⟶’ button. This will take you to the course provider page, from where you’ll be able to sign up.

When can I enroll in an online course?

Not all courses are available all the time. The course information page will tell you if there is a session available, upcoming, or self-paced, or if the course has no currently scheduled sessions. The page will also indicate the next start date, if there is one.

Note that:

  • Upcoming courses may sometimes be accessed before their start date — in particular, courses that run on a regular schedule.
  • In progress courses can often be joined after their start date — although you may need to work hard to finish the course before it closes.
  • Self-paced courses can be joined at any time.

How to keep track of an online course start date?

If you enroll in an upcoming course, the course provider will send you a reminder email when the course begins.

Where to go from here?

Have more questions? Head to the Class Central Help Center to find answers to your questions.

Ready to start learning? Head to Class Central Homepage to find online courses that meet your needs and interests.

Want some suggestions? Check out Class Central’s curated collections.

Class Central's Help Center represents our best effort to answer the most common questions new learners face. It may not be completely accurate in every circumstance.

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