Finding the Right Fit: Review of the Top Online Course Providers

The past year has seen the explosion of massive open online courses; “MOOC “and “OpenCourseWare” are now part of the everyday language of hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. and beyond. The New York Times declared 2012 the Year of the MOOC and cites astounding figures for the number of students taking advantage of these free, high-quality classes. Coursera has more than 1.7 million users, and edX had 370,000 students sign up for its very first session of classes.

Though there are still plenty of issues to be figured out in the open courses world “” what kind of credentials to provide, how to prevent cheating, how teachers can help individual students “” the growing popularity and legitimacy of these courses makes now a great time to get involved. Choosing the right provider for your goals and learning style is essential for your long-term learning goals. Although you won’t lose any money if you choose one that doesn’t fit you and drop out, you will lose time and potentially your interest in MOOCs altogether. While most the of the attention focused on MOOCs revolves around what they could mean for education as a whole, students need to understand what each of the major course providers can offer them as individuals.


Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun, David Stavens, and Mike Sokolsky started this OpenCourseWare provider, which began with a single computer science class in 2011 through Stanford. An amazing 160,000 students enrolled and Udacity was born. It currently offers 22 classes in computer science, math, business, and physics. The company recently received a significant investment of $15 million and partnered with tech leaders like Google, Microsoft, Autodesk, and others to develop a new series of courses, so we can expect more innovations and course offerings from Udacity in the near future.

Is it right for you?

The majority of Udacity courses are in computer science “” the founders are computer science and robotics experts, after all. This makes it a great opportunity for anyone interested in expanding his knowledge in technology, programming, and the Internet. There are also opportunities for entrepreneurs, with the current “How to Build a Startup” course, and Udacity’s partnership with Startup Weekend, which provides a four-week, flipped classroom experience teaching entrepreneurs how to create successful startups.

With no official start date for each course and no deadlines, Udacity is a great option for working adults who are taking the initiative to learn new skills in their free time.

Though each unit is designed to take a week, there are no penalties for taking more time when your schedule gets busy or speeding through a couple units when your life slows down a bit.

The format of Udacity courses makes them great for problem-solvers and hands-on learners. Rather than simple video lectures, Udacity provides a built-in programming interface for students to practice what they’re learning and work through assignments on their own. The forum on the site also provides a chance for additional problem-solving; students can respond to others’ questions on the boards, giving the chance for standout users to shine and for classmates to socialize, as well.

International learners might prefer Udacity to some other providers, because many of the courses are available in other languages, like Spanish, Chinese, French, Portuguese, and Croatian. All courses are closed captioned in English, and Udacity is working to provide more courses in multiple languages by crowd-sourcing the translation through Amara.

If you’re trying to receive college credit, Udacity’s partnerships with San Jose State University and testing company Pearson VUE make this a possibility for a few courses. San Jose State University and Udacity are offering three math courses for college credit online, though they won’t be free. Pearson VUE offers students the chance to pay to take a proctored test at the end of a course. If students pass, they earn a credential that is recognized by employers and can even earn credit through Colorado State University’s Global Campus for “Introduction to Computer Science: Building a Search Engine.”


The non-profit course provider edX started with top school MIT’s launch of MITx in December 2011, which drew more than 150,000 students for its first course offering, and became edX when Harvard joined the project. These schools, along with accepted partner schools, each offer rigorous classes to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. More than 200 institutions have asked edX about joining, but so far, only Berkeley, Wellesley, Georgetown, and the University of Texas system have been accepted into the selective organization. Current offerings are through HarvardX, MITx, and BerkeleyX; there are 25 classes students can enroll in.

Is it right for you?

Prestige is a major draw for students in edX. If you want high-quality, elite university education for free, edX is the way to go.

While courses don’t go as in depth as the schools’ physical, for-credit courses, the rigor is supposed to be the same, and you can take courses from the nation’s top professors in the subjects. Biology, for example, can be taken from MIT professor Eric Lander, who was a leader of the Human Genome Project. A course on the ancient Greek hero is taken with Harvard professor Gregory Nagy, who is the Director of the Center for Hellenic Studies in D.C.

For students who like structure and deadlines to their courses, edX is a good fit because courses have start and end dates. These dates vary by course, but tend to fit into a fall and spring semester schedule. Assignments typically have due dates, so students can work ahead but have some outside motivation to keep up with their schoolwork. The estimated number of hours required each week to complete the course are provided on each course’s home page, so students can make a decision about what fits best into their schedules.

Class offerings are expected to expand with the three new school partners developing courses, so edX could soon be the perfect place for learners who are looking for high-quality classes in a variety of subjects. Though the majority of current offerings are still in computer science, there are already courses in Greek writing, global poverty, and copyright. Students looking for a broad education might soon find edX as the perfect provider.

For students looking to put a course credential on their resumes, edX can be useful since some courses allow students to take proctored exams for a fee through Pearson VUE. Without the exams, students receive honor code certificates; with the exam, they receive proctored certificates, which show employers that a person has completed and mastered the knowledge from the course.


With more than 2.5 million users and counting, Coursera is certainly a giant in the MOOC world. The for-profit course provider began with two Stanford professors, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, in 2011. The site is now home to more than 200 courses created and provided by 33 universities from around the world. Each school creates their own classes, typically adapting them from classes offered at their physical universities.

Is it right for you?

Not interested in computer science? Coursera still has dozens of subjects for you. The site’s 200+ courses cover 20 different categories, including food and nutrition, education, law, medicine, and more.

If you’re interested in enhancing your knowledge in several subject areas but want to make sure it comes from a reliable source, you can choose your courses from notable schools like Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, Vanderbilt University, and more. This provider is for the academic jack-of-all-trades.

For learners who do better in groups, online courses may seem like a big step out of their comfort zone, but Coursera acts as a hub for classmates. Physical meet-ups are easily organized through Coursera’s Meetup channel where more than 16,000 “Courserians” in 1,700+ cities are registered. Members can set up regular meetings or just try to meet up for a particularly difficult section of the course. Search your city and join or suggest a meet-up for your course. Online forums are also available and widely used for those who can’t find meet-ups nearby. With millions of users, you’re sure to find someone to discuss assignments with.

If you’re at all worried about proving to future employers that you personally completed an open course online (and didn’t copy and paste the answers), Coursera’s solution will ease your mind. For some courses, you can pay a fee to earn a Verified Certificate. The coursework you complete is linked to your identity through your personal, unique typing pattern. Signature Track also lets you share your course records with employers or schools if you choose, so they can see exactly what you accomplished.


Udemy launched in 2010, based on the idea of Eren Bali and Gagan Biyani. After just two months of being in business, the site hosted 2,000 courses and 10,000 users had registered. Courses are uploaded by experts in a variety of fields that are recruited by Udemy staff. More than 500,000 students have taken part in these classes, taking lessons in everything from photography and crafts to games and health.í¿

Is it right for you?

If you’re looking for more than just straight academic courses, Udemy is a great fit. You can take courses in crafts like woodworking and cake decorating, and then jump over to a course in yoga or ear training. For lifelong learners who are trying to pick up a wider variety of skills, and not necessarily ones in their field of work, Udemy has hundreds of options.

Udemy is different than the other course providers mentioned here in that the majority of the courses it offers cost anywhere from $9 to $200. This might discourage some potential users, but for people who need a little extra motivation to actually complete a course, the monetary sacrifice can help keep them in the game. The paid courses also mean there are fewer students taking each course than the hundreds of thousands you might encounter in another MOOC ? perfect for those who want a little more interaction and personal attention from the instructor.

In Udemy, experts in a variety of fields create their own courses and monetize them. A quarter of them end up making $10,000 or more through enrollees. This not only means that there are a variety of teaching styles available through Udemy, all from experts in their fields, but it means the teachers have a monetary incentive to provide high-quality lessons. And don’t worry; all Udemy instructors are approved by the site first and students can rate the instructors and courses when they’ve completed them, so you’ll know you’re spending your money on the best classes for you.

Khan Academy

Salman Khan, an MIT and Harvard Business School grad, started Khan Academy after finding that tutorials he posted on YouTube were becoming extremely popular and he was receiving positive feedback from viewers. He started to work on Khan Academy full-time in 2009. As a non-profit, Khan Academy is funded entirely by donations, including some large ones from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google. The site has more than 3,900 free video tutorials covering a wide range of academic topics, and claims to have delivered more than 233 million lessons to users and to reach about 6 million students a month.

Is it right for you?

The lessons in Khan Academy are presented in video format using voiceovers and drawing software, making it a great option for those who don’t learn well in a straight lecture format but instead need more visual components. You don’t watch simple recordings of lectures, but rather hear concepts explained and see visual representations and key terms and figures. For hands-on learners, Khan’s exercise dashboard allows students to test the knowledge they’ve gained by answering questions with immediate feedback and hints.

Instead of having to work through all the units in a full course, Khan Academy’s video library lets users choose videos based on specific lessons they want to learn.

Learners with very specific goals don’t have to waste time wading through information they already know or might not be interested in. Rather than offering courses to enroll in, users can just look at individual videos, which are each about 10 minutes long, or they can go through a playlist with sequential, related videos on a topic.

If you’re looking for free test prep, Khan Academy could be incredibly useful for you. They offer tutorials and practice problems for SAT Math, GMAT, CAHSEE, California Standards Test, Singapore Math, and the IIT JEE.

For those who want to be able to measure how much they’re learning, Khan tracks your stats whenever you’re logged in. It can tell you what lessons you’ve learned, what subjects you’re spending the most time in, and what goals you’ve been hitting. This can be encouraging and motivating, as you can see how your mastery of a subject increases over time.

International learners can both take Khan lessons and contribute to the translation of other lessons. Khan Academy’s website is available in more than a dozen different languages, and many of the videos have been dubbed in 16 of the world’s most-used languages. More translated content becomes available every day as international users help dub videos so Khan Academy can reach more parts of the globe.

Even with brilliant innovation and the best names in ed tech, open online courses aren’t going to benefit you as an individual if they don’t fit your lifestyle, goals, and learning preferences. Find the provider that best suits your needs for long-term motivation and success. Since you’re not obligated to take more than one course on a site or even complete a course if you don’t find it useful, you can move onto other providers that are more your style. With the right fit, you can develop skills to fill out your resume, switch careers, or just start a new hobby.

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