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MOOCs: What are they and why are they so popular?

Learn all about massive open online courses (MOOCs). Find out what they are, who should take them, and what benefits they provide to learners.
Written by Bethanny Parker, Contributing Writer

When recent graduates start job-searching they often realize that college didn't properly prepare them for the job market. Lacking skills required to land a job in their industry, some turn to massive open online courses (MOOCs) to fill in the gaps.

MOOCs are most popular with younger generations. Almost two-thirds of students taking MOOCs are under 35 years old. However, people of all ages join the classes.

What are MOOCs?

So what is a MOOC? It's an online course anyone can take. MOOCs often enroll large numbers of students from all over the world. 

Since MOOC classes are online, students can take courses offered by universities and countries in another part of the world. Individuals who would otherwise not be able to attend prestigious universities can learn from Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.

Enrollees use MOOCs to learn skills that will help them advance their careers, change their careers, or get more enjoyment out of life. For example, a computer programmer might use a MOOC to learn a new programming language. If you can demonstrate a skill, your employer may not care whether you learned it through a MOOC or a more traditional educational path.

The biggest advantage to taking a MOOC is that most are completely free. Many MOOCs are self-paced as well, making them flexible options for busy professionals. MOOC classes are best for self-motivated individuals who will progress without anyone keeping them accountable. 

Most MOOCs provide an estimate of course length based on a suggested weekly time commitment. MOOCs typically take between one and 16 weeks to complete.

One downside of MOOC courses: In most cases, you receive no proof of completion. You don't get a certificate to show your employer or a degree to add to your wall. Some MOOC providers do offer completion certificates for a fee.

Why are MOOCs so popular?

Free MOOCs attract students who either can't afford a college education or aren't interested in one. Other attendees are people who want to learn more about a hobby or topic of interest.

MOOCs are also popular with computer professionals -- even those with college degrees -- because they provide a convenient way to learn new languages and skills. These professionals can then add those skills to their resumes.

The popularity of MOOCs surged during the pandemic. Perhaps new students were unable to attend in-person schools and sought an alternative. Or maybe people who lost their jobs turned to MOOCs to learn new skills and increase their employability.

What are some of the most popular MOOC courses? 

The most popular MOOC courses are often created by universities. Free courses from prestigious universities such as Harvard and Princeton attract many students.

Here are five of the most popular MOOC courses.

Machine learning

Stanford University


Over four million people have enrolled in Stanford University's machine learning course, offered via Coursera. Machine learning fuels web search, speech recognition, and self-driving cars. Students get introduced to machine learning techniques, datamining, and statistical pattern recognition.

CS50's introduction to computer science

Harvard University


More than three million people have enrolled in CS50's introduction to computer science, offered via edX. This 12-week Harvard University course teaches the art of programming and requires no prior programming experience. Students learn to solve problems efficiently with algorithms.

Programming for everybody (getting started with Python)

University of Michigan

Image: rootstocks/ Getty

The University of Michigan offers programming for everybody (getting started with Python) through Coursera. The course teaches Python programming basics. This class targets students with moderate programming experience.

Analyzing and visualizing data with Excel



Analyzing and visualizing data with Excel takes about six weeks to complete. Offered by Microsoft via edX, this self-paced data science course introduces tools for analyzing data in Excel. Students should understand how to use pivot tables and slicers before taking this course.

Algorithms, part I

Princeton University


Princeton University offers algorithms, part one through Coursera. This free course covers algorithms and data structures, including scientific performance analysis of Java implementations. Students learn searching and sorting algorithms and elementary data structures.

Should I enroll in a MOOC?

If you want to advance your career without returning to college, a MOOC might help. Taking MOOCs demonstrates a commitment to self-improvement. You can provide your employer with a list of the MOOCs you have taken next time you're up for a promotion. Your additional education might give you an edge.

The skills you learn through MOOCs can help you improve your job performance. For example, a course on negotiation skills may come in handy if you work in sales, leading to higher commissions. In addition, taking MOOCs can increase your job prospects by giving you more skills for your resume.

You may even be able to change careers completely by taking MOOCs. This is especially true if you want to launch a career in technology, where skills are often more important than a degree.

Are all MOOC courses free?

Although MOOCs are by definition "open," some MOOC providers now charge for some of their courses. On Udemy, the list price typically ranges from $69.99 to $139.99 per course. The site often runs sales, reducing prices to about $14.99 to $25.99.

Many free online courses are still available through MOOC providers such as Coursera, edX, FutureLearn, and Udacity. For example, Coursera offers free courses from Yale University on the science of well-being and financial markets, as well as a course on successful negotiation strategies and skills from the University of Michigan.

Are MOOC courses worth it?

Since most MOOC courses are free, the only question is whether they are worth your time. Is it worth it to you to spend 21 hours taking Peking University's Chinese for beginners course? If you're planning a trip to China, it might be. Likewise, a course on the strategy of content marketing could be useful if you work in marketing.

For MOOC classes that aren't free, you must consider the cost as well. Only you can decide how much a particular skill is worth to you. Consider how learning that skill will affect your work and bolster your resume. If a skill will help you land a better job, the class mayl be worth the cost.

Do employers care about MOOCs?

A recent study asked employers how MOOC credentials compared to traditional postsecondary credentials. They also asked whether MOOC credentials on a freelancer's profile influence their decision to hire the freelancer.

The researchers found that employers prefer a bachelor of arts, associate of arts, or even a certificate from a community college to a MOOC credential. However, for candidates with no other educational experience, respondents preferred candidates with MOOC credentials over those with no MOOC credentials.

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