Education -- like every other sector -- underwent a digital transformation in the 2010s as the widespread availability of high-speed internet connections and cloud computing let educators offer online courses at scale.
Individual educators, educational institutions and government agencies, as well as nonprofit and for-profit companies seized on that opportunity, creating massive open online courses (MOOCs) that are open to all interested learners. Millions of learners over the years have taken such courses, and demand for access remains strong.
What are the largest MOOC platforms?
MOOC platforms offer a mix of courses; some are self-paced, while others run on fixed schedules. Many platforms also offer learners the opportunity to pursue credentials and degrees. The majority of courses are fee-based, but there are some free classes.
In addition, some platforms have divisions that cater to enterprise clients who can use the platforms to offer training and education to their own employees.
The following list of MOOC platforms -- arranged in alphabetical order -- are among the largest and most well-known.
Founded in Ireland in 2007, Alison is now one of the world's largest free learning platforms for education and skills training. It has more than 4,000 free courses and has served more than 30 million learners in nearly 200 countries. Alison, a for-profit enterprise, makes its money through advertising and merchandise, as well as through the sale of certificates and diplomas for graduates who choose to buy them.
According to Coursera's website, the platform "partners with more than 275 leading universities and companies to bring flexible, affordable, job-relevant online learning to individuals and organizations worldwide." It offers a mix of free and for-fee courses, with opportunities to earn certificates and degrees. Coursera has programs for individual learners and organizations seeking to offer curated training programs to their employees.
Offering more than 4,000 courses, EdX is one of the most recognized names among MOOC providers. Learners can use the platform to take individual courses in a range of subjects, enroll in learning boot camps or earn certificates and degrees. Most courses are free to audit, with varying fees for courses taken toward certificates and degrees. Like other platforms, EdX also has a service specifically for businesses.
In 2011, Stanford University instructors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig offered their "Introduction to Artificial Intelligence" course online for free to anyone interested in taking it. A year later, Thrun co-founded Udacity in 2012 as a for-profit education company offering MOOCs. The company now offers for-fee individual, business and government learning plans, as well as free courses on business and technical topics.
With a tagline promising the opportunity to "learn (almost) anything," Udemy lives up to that boast with more than 210,000 online video courses in its catalog and new additions published every month. Courses cover a wide range of academic, business and general interest topics. Although thousands of courses are free, many also charge fees. Udemy also offers subscription plans for individual learners and organizations.
Additional MOOC platforms
More learning platforms have launched over the past decade to bring online courses to a worldwide audience for free or low costs. Many are offered by businesses, such as LinkedIn's LinkedIn Learning, which has 20,000-plus online courses taught by professionals; MongoDB's MongoDB University, which includes free online courses; and SAP's OpenSAP, which offers fee-based courses for individuals and businesses, and complimentary microlearning and podcast options.
Here are some additional online learning platforms on the market today, listed in alphabetical order:
Operated by the FUN MOOC Public Interest Group, whose brand name is France Université Numérique, the FUN platform offers free academic courses and professional training in a range of subjects. It also offers opportunities to take for-fee coursework to earn certificates and diplomas. FUN offers courses in 10 languages, with the majority in French and a significant number in English. Most have been designed by professors from French universities and schools and their international academic partners. The FUN MOOC Public Interest Group is co-funded by the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, and member institutions.
With courses from 260-plus institutions and educators, FutureLearn lets learners enroll in individual courses in numerous subjects or pursue micro-credentials and degrees. It also lets learners sign up for long-term access to courses and connect with other learners. The platform focuses on professional progression and learning, with varying costs for its programs.
Created by Springer Nature, a research, educational and professional publisher, Iversity offers numerous MOOCs. There are free and paid courses offered in English and other languages in subjects across multiple academic and professional disciplines.
Kadenze partners with universities and other institutions of learning to deliver online lessons from educators, artists and engineers in art and creative technology. Kadenze features courses, micro-courses and programs at varying costs.
One of the earliest educational institutions to offer MOOCs, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology continues to do so through MITx Online. The site lists courses created by MIT faculty and instructors that are delivered through the Open EdX platform and available to learners around the world. Learners can enroll in courses for free or earn a certificate of completion for a fee. Courses feature interactive components, discussion forums, videos, readings and tools to enhance learning.
OpenClassrooms offers more than 500 free-access courses in professional topics, including business, data, HR, project management, communications and marketing, systems and networks, and career coaching. It also offers training programs for individual learners, as well as training and hiring services for businesses.
The Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI), an independent faculty of digital engineering at the University of Potsdam in Germany, has been offering MOOCs in various IT, digital health and design thinking topics since 2012 on its OpenHPI platform. The online courses are available in both German and English, and the platform features a global social learning network. HPI offers its own courses via its platform, and it also has its white-label platform mooc.house for use by enterprises or institutions to teach their own employees, students or other stakeholders in a managed, scalable format.
One of a growing number of for-profit online learning platforms, OpenLearning has served more than 3 million learners worldwide since 2012. Customers can take individual short courses or work toward earning micro-credentials and degrees, at varying costs.
The Open University/OpenLearn
This platform features what it calls "bite-sized learning experiences," namely hundreds of short courses ranging from one to 100 hours of study; thousands of articles, quizzes and interactive games; and hundreds of videos and audio files -- all for free. The available content covers a wide range of subjects. All courses enable learners to earn a statement of participation; some even offer a free digital badge. A U.K.-based entity, OpenLearn is delivered by The Open University to support the well-being of the community. The Open University also offers undergraduate and graduate distance and online learning courses.
A nonprofit initiative started in 2008, Saylor Academy offers free online courses open to everyone. It has nearly 100 full-length college- and professional-level self-paced courses, including business-oriented and professional development topics, as well as courses in traditional academic subjects such as mathematics, philosophy and sociology.
This site from Stanford University, another early provider of MOOCs, offers a mix of learning opportunities, including self-paced professional development lessons, graduate education and fee-based classes, as well as free online courses taught by Stanford instructors and industry experts. It also offers on-demand webinars, articles, e-books and other content on a variety of topics.
The Government of India's Ministry of Education launched SWAYAM to support access, equity and quality in learning. Courses include video lectures, downloadable reading material, self-assessment and online discussion forums that are offered in English and Hindi. Courses are available for free, although learners seeking a SWAYAM certificate must register and pay for proctored exams that are taken in person at designated centers in India on specified dates.
Launched in 2013 by Tsinghua University and MOE Research Center for Online Education, XuetangX is the first Chinese MOOC platform. It partners with nearly two dozen educational institutions, mostly in China, to offer online courses and certificate and degree programs in multiple disciplines, ranging from English and American literature to traditional Chinese medicine and IT.
5 reasons to consider MOOCs
MOOCs offer many advantages, particularly for professionals who want to add skills but don't have the time, money or need to pursue advanced degrees, according to researchers, workplace trainers, education advocates and HR professionals.
According to these experts, the benefits of MOOCs include the following:
- Flexibility. Learners can access courses from anywhere, at any time.
- Personalized and customizable learning paths. Learners can pursue topics that interest them to fulfill their unique knowledge gaps.
- Access to high-quality instruction. Many MOOCs have been created by highly selective academic institutions, large corporations, industry leaders and notable experts from a range of disciplines.
- Affordability. A high number of MOOCs are free, while fee-based options are generally available at a low cost.
- Diversity of subjects. MOOCs span a range of academic and professional topics, allowing learners to pursue the areas that interest them the most.
Editor's note: This list was compiled based on reporter research, including academic reports; interviews with analysts and consultants in the online learning space; as well as reviews of dozens of learning platforms for information about their course offerings, number of students served and/or targeted by their services.