What Is a MOOC?

Updated October 27, 2022

MOOCs are online courses available to anyone with a computer and Internet connection.

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Massive Open Online Courses: Who They're for, How They Work, and Where to Find Them

MOOCs are online courses available to anyone with a computer and Internet connection. They offer students a way to learn in a setting similar to an online class, but are usually loosely structured and can be accessed without paying tuition or committing to an academic program. Whether a student should sign up for a MOOC will depend on his or her academic and professional goals. To learn just for fun or to get a certificate for a small fee, MOOCs are ideal.

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The 3 Primary Characteristics of MOOCs

  • Open to Everyone If an individual wants to learn, has access to the Web and a computer that meets the hardware requirements for the MOOC, then they can enroll. Because the class information and materials are available electronically, and there is no physical classroom, there are usually no limits to the number of students who can enroll in a MOOC.
  • Free In most cases, MOOCs are entirely free. While some MOOC providers do charge a fee, it's usually a small fee in exchange for a certificate of completion or some other non-degree credential earned upon successful MOOC completion. Some MOOCs do result in academic course credit; however, these are usually offered only to students who are already formally enrolled in an academic institution.
  • Flexible Course Structure Given the online class format and the fact that anyone can sign up to take a MOOC, the coursework is generally self-paced. Students can dive into learning at their own pace and on their own time. When a student is enrolled in a MOOC to obtain a certificate or academic credit, there will be more structure, such as grading and a rough schedule for class progression.

A MOOC and an online college course have many similarities, but they're not exactly the same. MOOCs are different from online college courses in the following ways:


  • MOOCs are offered online.
  • MOOCs are often taught by the same professors that teach online college classes.
  • MOOC course materials are often exactly the same as the course materials provided to college students taking online classes.
  • MOOCs are sometimes offered in partnership with colleges and universities.
  • A set of MOOCs can sometimes be offered for academic credit. However, in these instances, the student will have to be officially enrolled in a college or university and pay tuition to receive academic credit for the MOOC.
  • MOOCs offer self-paced study, allowing students to complete coursework and take tests on their schedule.


  • MOOCs are free.
  • MOOCs have unlimited class size.
  • Anyone can enroll in a specific MOOC, even if they're not “qualified” to take it.
  • Students can start and stop the course at any time, without any formal consequences.
  • Upon completion of the course, a student will not have a tangible or formally recognized degree, certificate or transcript of completion.

While most MOOCs are offered for free, some do require a fee – and that's why sometimes MOOCs are confused with online college classes or online academic programs. It's important to remember that paid MOOCs offer a tangible or formally recognized credential, while free MOOCs do not. Free MOOCs don't offer anything more than the joy of learning something new.

For example, Coursera, one of the major MOOC providers in the world, has a partnership with the University of Illinois to provide an online MBA degree program at a fraction of the cost of the traditional MBA program. Another major MOOC provider, Udacity, has joined with Georgia Tech to offer a Master of Science in Computer Science online degree program.

Even though Coursera and Udacity offer paid, degree granting MOOCs, the majority of their course offerings are still free and open to everyone.

Where to Find MOOCs: MOOC Resources

Looking for MOOCs? These providers are a great place to start.

Canvas Network


The Canvas Network is a collection of MOOCs offered by numerous educational institutions around the world. Most classes do not provide anything beyond the educational experience, although a certificate of completion may be offered by some specific educational providers.



Sample Courses:
  • Introduction to the Science of Cancer

  • Concert Production Techniques: Artistry and Business Development

  • Ocean Literacy

  • Strategic Management

  • Applied Regression Analysis

Educational Institution Affiliation:

Sponsoring institutions include Kansas State University, Boston University, Austin Peay State University, Suffolk University and the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design.

Carnegie Mellon University Open Learning Initiative

Only a few dozen classes are offered at any one time, with most consisting of written materials and exercises. All classes are free, but there is no opportunity for course credit or proof of completion.



Sample Courses:
  • Introduction to Biology

  • Logic and Proofs

  • Media Programming

  • Elementary Spanish I

  • Probability and Statistics

Educational Institution Affiliation:

Carnegie Mellon University.


One of the more well-known MOOC providers, Coursera works with many educational institutions to offer special programs, degrees and courses to students wishing to learn online. Many courses require a fee to officially enroll, but course materials are often available for free.


Fee or tuition-based, although most course materials are available for free.

Sample Courses:
  • Control of Mobile Robots

  • English Composition I

  • Graphic Design

  • Dynamic Public Speaking

  • Power Electronics

Educational Institution Affiliation:

Numerous, including Stanford University, University of Colorado-Boulder, Duke University, IBM, American Museum of Natural History and the University of Copenhagen.


edX brings together many institutions of higher education and organizations from around the world to provide a wide variety of courses to anyone who wants to learn. Courses are free, although many will provide a certificate of completion for a fee. Academic is also available for certain courses that are offered by a degree granting institution.


Free, although certificates of completion are offered for a fee.

Sample Courses:
  • AP Macroeconomics

  • Introduction to C++

  • Philosophy and Critical Thinking

  • Science of Everyday Thinking

  • Solar Energy

Educational Institution Affiliation:

Numerous, including MIT, Georgetown University, Davidson, Caltech, Columbia University, Dartmouth and Georgia Tech.


FutureLearn is a MOOC provider based in the United Kingdom with free course offerings in addition to special programs that can lead to academic credit, accreditation or a degree. Courses are free unless a student intends to obtain recognized credit, such as a degree or accreditation.


Free, but fees are required if academic credit or a degree is obtained.

Sample Courses:
  • Information Technology

  • Diabetes Education

  • Intercultural Communication

  • Understanding Drugs and Addiction

  • Business Fundamentals: Customer Engagement

Educational Institution Affiliation:

Numerous, including the University of Leicester, Queen's University Belfast, Purdue University, University of Olso, Hanyang University, University of Auckland and Penn State University.

Khan Academy

The Khan Academy is one of the more well-known MOOCs with over 5,000 courses offered, mostly on YouTube. The Khan Academy is unique in that it has a larger number of classes tailored toward younger audiences, such as those in elementary, middle and high school. The Khan Academy also has special courses for major national exams, such as the GMAT, SAT and NCLEX-RN.



Sample Courses:
  • 7th grade math

  • Intro to SQL: Querying and Managing Data

  • US History: Colonial America

  • MCAT: Biomolecules

  • Microeconomics: Consumer and Producer Surplus

Educational Institution Affiliation:


MIT OpenCourseWare

MIT OpenCourseWare is an on online compendium of the course materials from over 2,000 graduate and undergraduate courses offered by MIT, although no course credit or proof of completion is available. Additionally, not all courses offered will have online textbooks or recordings of lectures available.



Sample Courses:
  • The Politics of Reconstruction in Iraq

  • Optics, Introduction to the Visual Arts

  • Aircraft Systems Engineering

  • Poker Theory and Analytics

  • Philosophy of Film

Educational Institution Affiliation:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Open Education

Powered by Blackboard, a leading provider of online education, Open Education is a cloud-based collection of courses that allows anyone to take a MOOC using the same technology available to traditional and online college students.



Sample Courses:
  • Introduction of Conflict Resolution

  • Digital Construction

  • Legal Practice Course Foundation

  • Applied Real Estate

  • Data Skills for Public Health

Educational Institution Affiliation:

Numerous schools around the world, including Stevenson University, Universidad de Navarra, University of Sterling, Concordia University-Wisconsin, Florida State University, Queen Margaret University and West Virginia University.



OpenLearn is an educational website supported by Open University, which is one of the United Kingdom's (and world's) largest and most prominent online colleges. Academic credit is not provided, but participants may earn a Statement of Participation to prove completion of a class.



Sample Courses:
  • Creating Musical Sounds

  • Global Warming, Social Marketing

  • Asset Allocation in Investment

  • The Poetry of Sorley MacLean

Educational Institution Affiliation:

Open University



Udacity is unique among most MOOC providers in that the courses offered focus on technology-based subjects. Many classes are offered for free although if students would like to receive course credit, such as working toward their Master's Degree in Computer Science from Georgia Tech, they will need to be accepted into Georgia Tech's computer science program first.


Varies, from free to several hundred dollars

Sample Courses:
  • Artificial Intelligence

  • VR Developer

  • Self-Driving Car Engineer

  • Android Basics

  • Data Analyst

Educational Institution Affiliation:

Georgia Tech

MOOC Participant Profiles: WHO benefits from MOOCs?

While MOOCs are not a total replacement for traditional education or even online college programs, they serve a much-needed demand for convenient, quality education. Depending on an individual's academic needs, MOOCs can be the perfect learning delivery method. The following groups of individuals benefit from MOOCs in their own, unique ways.


Teachers can obtain a tremendous amount of professional development through MOOCs. Benefits of taking MOOCs including leaning new teaching styles and methods, completing continuing education requirements, collaborating with fellow teachers and obtaining additional knowledge and training to supplement the teacher's current lesson plan. Then there's also the interesting feeling of being a student again.


With almost nonexistent class limits and self-paced learning options, MOOCs make learning convenient for students. Students benefit from MOOCs in a wide variety of ways, whether it's getting extra instruction on a class project, having access to self-tutoring materials for a difficult subject or obtaining course credit for a graduate degree. And since MOOCs are almost always free, students can take classes purely for learning enjoyment without using up semester course limits or paying tuition.

Working Professionals

Working professionals are most able to benefit from MOOC's self-paced and customizable curriculum features without the cost of formally enrolling in an online academic program. For those who need additional training to get that promotion or be better prepared for working in a different field, MOOCs offer a free way for working professionals to learn on their own time. MOOCs also offer special certificates that provide evidence of completion and mastery of a given subject, which can be nice to include with a resume.


Parents want to help their children succeed, but this is often hampered by the fact that the parent knows less about a particular subject than the child they are trying to help. Or perhaps a parent aced statistics back in college, but needs a refresher so they can help their high school senior child who is now taking AP Statistics. Either way, MOOCs provide a way for parents to learn on their own timetable, at no cost beyond the time needed to take the course. And of course, for parents who love to learn but don't have the time or money to go back to school, MOOCs can quench that thirst for knowledge.

Business Owners

Many business owners could benefit from additional knowledge about accounting, marketing and other business topics, but simply don't have the time or money to enroll in a formal class. Because business owners have full control over the business, any time away can mean lost income. But with the convenient nature of asynchronous learning, business owners can get the knowledge they need without having to take as much time away from their business.

Lifelong Learners

With MOOCs, lifelong learners have a plethora of classes to choose from and the ability to learn only what they want to learn, on their own schedule. Since lifelong learners learn for the sake of learning, they don't need a degree, diploma or certificate. This means all they need is time and can save their money for tuition on other things in their lives.


With more advanced technology becoming available to the public, many hobbyists see the benefit of technical training to take full advantage of leisure activities. For example, with 3D printing and drones becoming ubiquitous, many individuals who do not have a manufacturing, engineering or scientific background can benefit from taking these types of courses for free, on their own time.

5 Reasons to Explore MOOCs

MOOCs aren't for everybody, but they provide an unparalleled learning opportunity that is only rivaled by the Internet itself. Here's why taking a MOOC is a great idea for most.

1. Supplements other learning methods

Even though most MOOCs do not provide academic credit or result in a degree, some of the biggest beneficiaries of MOOCs are students formally enrolled in an academic program. Most students will struggle with at least a few classes in their academic career. And not all students have the money or resources to access additional assistance, whether from tutors or special academic programs. MOOCs provide a free way for students to obtain additional academic assistance that wouldn't otherwise be available.

2. Provides lifelong learning opportunities

One of the biggest ways to make learning fun is to learn something because you want to – and MOOCs are the perfect way to learn on your terms. The fact that anyone can stop taking a MOOC without worrying about hurting their academic record or losing out on tuition takes away a lot of the pressure that can make learning less fun.

3. The vast majority of MOOCs are free

Learning has traditionally cost both money and time. With MOOCs, it now just costs time. The fact that there is no tuition or fees for MOOCs (as long as the student isn't getting academic credit or a certificate of completion) means that many individuals can now receive a high-quality education, one that is effectively exactly the same as a student paying $50,000 per year at an elite private university.

4. Provides recognized certifications

Many highly skilled jobs have mandatory requirements, such as a specific degree or certificate. But in some jobs or industries, what's important isn't the academic credential, but rather the actual knowledge an individual has. Before MOOCs, individuals could only prove their knowledge with an academic degree or certificate. Although online certifications can provide a more convenient alternative to on-campus programs, they can still be cost-prohibitive for some individuals. MOOCs can provide an alternate method to proving skills and understanding of a variety of topics without forcing individuals to commit to a full degree or expensive credential.

5. MOOCs offer a wide range of subjects

Very few academic institutions can provide the same plethora of academic and technical subjects that MOOCs offer. Topics can range from middle school biology to theoretical mathematics for use in artificial intelligence and Big Data. And while it's true the Internet has offered this wide range of knowledge almost since its inception, individuals usually did not have the information presented to them in an organized manner.

Steps to taking a MOOC

Interested in taking a MOOC? You can usually get started within minutes as long as you have an e-mail address. But to get the most out of your time and ensure your academic and professional goals are met, you may need to take additional steps.

  • 1 Figure out your reason for taking a MOOC If you're taking a MOOC because you're interested in writing your own apps for smartphones as a hobby, that's one thing. On the other hand, if you're taking a MOOC to get a certificate of completion or obtain academic credit, that's a different story. For example, in order to get a certificate of completion, you may need to take the course during a set period of time and pay a fee. If you're getting academic credit for taking the MOOC, you'll need to make arrangements with your school.
  • 2 Determine if a prerequisite is required Because even the most advanced MOOCs are available to anyone, it may not seem like prerequisites should matter. But to make the most of what the course has to offer, it will help to have an understanding of the foundational concepts before taking the MOOC. If you're paying a fee to get a certificate of completion, not only do you risk not learning the material, but you risk not getting that certificate.
  • 3 Confirm technical requirements If a student has an Internet connection, they can take a MOOC. However, if a particular MOOC has large data requirements, such as videos, an online text book or other course materials, a broadband connection may be essential. Additionally, special software may be necessary to access or view course materials, such as a PDF. While most computers will have the ability to run the necessary software, some computers running older operating systems may not be compatible with certain courses.
  • 4 Register with the MOOC provider Registration usually consists of just providing a name and e-mail address. After that, individuals can immediately start taking their MOOC. In situations where the individual wants to receive a certificate of completion or other recognized credit, a formal application may be necessary. It may ask for the individual's reasons for taking the MOOC, academic history and relevant work experience.
  • 5 Pay the fee Most MOOCs are free and those that aren't often provide some form of recognition upon completion of the MOOC, such as academic credit or a certificate. Depending on the MOOC, fees may be paid upfront or as the student makes progress through multiple courses.
  • 6 Apply to the relevant academic institution If a MOOC offering will result in an academic degree, a formal application to the degree granting institution will be required. In many situations, a school's online degree program will be offered through a MOOC provider. In this sense, the MOOC provider isn't offering a degree. Rather, a school has chosen the MOOC provider to deliver the online course material to the student.

MOOC Technology


MOOC course materials are often delivered in multiple formats, such as video lecture recordings, written text and academic exercises. Rarely will lectures be offered live, but this is occasionally available. Some MOOCs consist mostly of written text, including lecture slides, quizzes and worksheets requiring students to read the material and engage in written exercises. Others will have a stronger emphasis on video lectures.

Because the course materials are offered electronically, students must ensure they have the hardware and software needed to successfully review all materials. The typical laptop that can open PDFs web pages and run online streaming videos should have no problem with the clear majority of MOOCs. Individuals with only a smartphone for Internet access may struggle with some of the course materials, such as completing certain exercises. It may also be difficult to read large amounts of text on a small screen. Additionally, those without a broadband Internet connection may become impatient with the slow loading of videos and downloading of course materials.

Most MOOCs can be taken at any time with no set schedule whatsoever. However, some MOOCs, such as those offered with a certificate or for academic credit, must be taken during a certain time period, usually lasting several weeks to several months. There are also MOOCs that are completely self-paced, yet have a particular starting date. Some special programs consisting of multiple MOOCs will strongly recommended courses be taken in a particular order.

Advice from a MOOC Student

Margaret Fieland has completed several MOOCS, including a song-writing course, a math course and several courses on writing. She is the author of four science fiction novels and a book of poetry.

Featured Image Credit: Xavier Lorenzo | MoMent | Getty Images

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