The learning content of the MOOC (video tutorials and other materials) is often accessible free of charge.
A fee will apply only if you want to receive an optional certificate for the MOOC.
MOOC providers use a "mixed calculation": If only 2% (or 200 learners out of 10,000 course participants) choose the optional paid certificate, this will fund the course for all participants.
How to Learn with MOOCs Without Paying
How this works depends on the individual MOOC platform. In addition, there are often different course models and changes to the system. (All the information below is therefore provided without any guarantee.)
In general, free access to the most important providers works as follows:
Most of the edX MOOCs are free (if you don´t need a certificate).
Upon registering for a MOOC, you have 2 options: "Verified Certificate" or "Audit this course".
Choose the “Audit” option so you can access the learning material for free.
Some course series (MicroMasters, XSeries) are only accessible after paying. This will be clearly displayed.
If you click on the "Enroll" button, you will often see the options "Purchase Course" or "Full Course, No Certificate". The latter option (no certificate) is the free one. (Sometimes it is called "Audit".)
BUT: If the MOOC is part of a course series (known as Specialization), it could require paying a fee to participate. This will be clearly indicated. You will have to register for the Specialization. (You can participate in one MOOC or in the entire series.) Often, there is a 7-day free trial period.
Please note: The exact cost options are only shown after clicking on the “Enroll” button, which can be slightly confusing.
The FutureLearn MOOCs are free in their basic version (click the button "Join free" or "Join course").
If you choose the optional, fee-based "Upgrade", you will receive unlimited access to the online courses as well as a certificate.
You should always check the current status on the respective course website.
Online University Lectures: Always Free!
Besides the MOOCs mentioned above, there are many free online lectures available from a variety of universities.
In contrast to the MOOCs, these lectures do not include tests or discussion forums, and they do not offer certificates.
They are, however, always free to learn.
Key universities with free online lectures include:
You can find these online lectures here. You can also filter this list according to your topic of interest.
So Why Pay for Online Courses?
Other than the listed free options (MOOCs and online lectures), many online courses can only be accessed after paying a fee. Large providers such as Udemy or Udacity mainly offer fee-based courses.
So why are many online learners choosing these paid courses (or paid certificate version of a free course) despite all of the free options?
Certificates: Many online learners would like to receive a certificate for their learning efforts to document their success, or to use when applying for a job. ("Are the Certificates Worth It?")
Quality of the content: Paid video courses made specifically for online learning are often of a higher quality. They are well designed and use content from established universities and experienced professors. This way, students will spend their precious study time on high-quality content and not on videos of unknown quality.
Full course experience: In contrast to simply watching videos, complete online courses can offer a learning experience similar to classroom-based courses. Besides the certificate, this also includes options for interaction or further support. For instance, course provider Udacity offers complimentary career support for graduates of their fee-based Nanodegree courses.
Moderate prices: A video course (MOOC) from a leading international university that includes online interaction, tests, a final course certificate and lasts a number of weeks can often be obtained for less than $50 USD. This is significantly cheaper than most classroom-based courses.
What's the Cost of MOOC Certificates and Fee-based Courses?
Depending on the provider, content and duration of the course, prices for fee-based online courses or for the certificates may differ.
As a general guideline, you can assume you will pay a fee of approximately $50 USD for a single MOOC certificate and around $50 USD/ month for a paid course in a subscription model.
Here are a few selected examples (always check the current course details!):
At Coursera, the (optional) certificates for individual MOOCs cost between $50 and $100 USD. Longer course series (Specializations) are often accessible for around $50 USD/ month (with a free 7-day trial period).
The edX certificates (optional) are also available for approximately $50 - $100 USD.
FutureLearn charges approximately 60 GBP for an “upgrade” that includes a certificate.
Learners at Udemy will have to pay anywhere from $15 to $100 USD per course. The courses differ greatly in terms of scope.
Udacity charges approximately $200 USD/ month for their Nanodegrees (in-depth courses on a topic). Participants who complete the course within 12 months may save 50%.
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