First the short answer: Yes, in many cases you can learn for free with the Coursera and edX MOOCs.
However, if you wish to receive a course certificate, you have to buy it.
We’ll explain to you what this means in more detail.
(Jump directly to the list of MOOCs from all providers in our directory.)
The Idea: Learning is Free of Charge and Certificates are Optional
Modern online learning was significantly improved with the creation of MOOCs. Universities such as Harvard or Stanford offer open learning content on the Coursera and edX platforms in a modern video format (also see: "How does a MOOC work?").
In general, the MOOC model is as follows:
In practice, providers offer different tracks you can register for depending on your learning goal. If you only want to learn for free and don’t need a certificate, you usually have to select the "Audit" track when registering. Otherwise select the "Verified Certificate" track.
Certificates Fund the Operation of MOOC Platforms
When MOOCs were in the developmental stages, complete courses including a final certificate were often free.
However, since the course providers had to find a way to finance their educational offer for learners all over the world, paid certificates were later introduced.
Thus, they are now combining the education mission with a sustainable business model. This freemium model is also common in other industries.
50$ for an Optional MOOC Certificate
The paid certificates are chosen by participants for two reasons:
However, despite the relatively low prices, the majority of participants learn for free in most courses without purchasing a certificate.
A Harvard / edX certificate proving successful participation (Source: edX)
Watch Out: Several Exceptions!
There are several exceptions to the general rule ("Learning for free, buying certificates if needed").
When you have found a MOOC in our directory, always check the up-to-date costs on the course provider’s website! This is usually displayed once you click on "Enroll".
Also note that fees for individual courses may change. For example, edX announced plans to introduce a (relatively modest) Support Fee to finance some of their MOOCs.
Other Course Platforms: Similar Cost Models
The fee system of other major course providers is similar to that of Coursera and edX. For example, with FutureLearn, certificates can also be purchased if needed.
At Udacity, however, a distinction is made between free individual courses and fee-based course series ("Nanodegrees"). Udemy requires a fee for nearly all of their courses, but these often cost less than 20$.
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