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Help Center

Beginners Guide to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

Written by Pat Bowden last updated on January 13th, 2019

If you are new to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) or have questions about them, the Class Central Help Center is for you.

You can find the answers to many questions about what MOOCs are and how they work, how Class Central works, plus Help Guides for the largest MOOC providers in the world.

What are MOOCs?

A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course.

  • Massive because enrolments are unlimited and can run into hundreds of thousands or more;
  • Open because they are open to anyone who has access to the internet on a computer or mobile device;
  • Online because they are delivered via the internet;
  • Course because they are of a finite length with a syllabus, learning materials, and assessment items available. A MOOC is not simply a series of videos on a topic which you might find on YouTube.

MOOCs usually have pre-recorded lecture videos which can be watched at any time of the day or night suitable for you. Some can be downloaded for offline viewing. Most also include reading material and links to useful websites. Some MOOCs have a weekly schedule, others are self-paced.

Many MOOCs also provide online social contact through discussion boards/forums and social media groups.

Assessment can include auto-corrected online quizzes or exams. Some courses have homework or assignments which are assessed by other students in the class (your peers). A marking rubric is provided by the instructor to guide peer assessments. Instructors do not mark students’ work in MOOCs.

A certificate of achievement is usually available for a fee. To join a course for free, look for a free or audit option. Auditing a course means you can access the videos, readings and course discussions, but in some courses the assessment items are locked unless you pay. A small number of courses are pay-only. These are labelled with a green $ symbol.

Anyone with access to the internet can join a MOOC, although some course providers restrict enrollment to people over the age of 13 years. Parents sometimes complete courses alongside their children. Particular MOOCs may be unavailable in some countries because of trade restrictions or government policies.

Interaction between the course instructor and students is minimal or non-existent in MOOCs. Many courses have mentors, peer facilitators, or teaching assistants to monitor questions in the discussion forums. Occasionally, instructors contribute to discussions, but do not communicate with individual students. Students are encouraged to help their peers by answering questions or referring them to useful webpages etc. You are not allowed to post quiz answers, but it is acceptable to recommend helpful resources so struggling students can work out the answer for themselves.

Choosing a MOOC

How to choose a MOOC? Before starting any MOOCs, it helps to understand just why you want to enroll. Do you want to increase your knowledge in a particular field to improve your job prospects or change careers? Did a friend or your employer suggest you should study to become better at your job or gain a promotion? Or is it because you find a particular subject interesting?

Are you looking for a basic course, or something more advanced? How much time can you spend on your MOOC each week? How many weeks can you set aside for your MOOC?

The course information will say if you need background knowledge in the subject. For example:

“This two-part course is designed to help students with very little or no computing background learn the basics of building simple interactive applications.” (From An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python (Part 1).)

Or “This course covers advanced topics in Computer Networking such as Software-Defined Networking (SDN), Data Center Networking and Content Distribution.” (From Computer Networking.)

You do not need high school or tertiary qualifications to enroll, although you may need to spend more time on some courses if you do not have any prior learning in the field.

Courses are sometimes grouped into different Microcredentials like Specializations, Nanodegrees, MicroMasters, or Programs. You can gain a deeper understanding of the subject by completing all the courses in the group. Pay for all the courses and gain passing grades to earn a Microcredential.

Time Commitment

MOOCs range in length from one week up to around 15 weeks. Some are released on a strict schedule, others are more flexible. Many courses are self-paced. Check each course’s information page and enter important dates in your diary or calendar.

Most MOOCs provide an estimate of the weekly time commitment, although this may vary greatly from one student to another. Consider your own situation and plan your study times before starting a course.

What is the Most Popular Course?

Popular courses can be found at Top 50 Free Online Courses of All Time. This list is compiled from student selections/clicks and reviews on Class Central.

The course with the largest number of students in the world is Learning How to Learn, made by Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski partnering with the University of California, San Diego. It is provided by Coursera, the largest online course platform. More than two million students have enrolled in Learning How to Learn since it was released in 2014.

What is Class Central?

Class Central is a search engine for online courses. You can search for your topic of interest and also read reviews of courses to help decide which courses to try.

Dhawal Shah set the site up in late 2011 when several universities began making courses available online for free. Dhawal wanted to list the courses so he and others could keep track of when they were available. Now, thousands of courses are listed. Class Central is not involved in running the courses.


You can create a free account to make your personal collection of courses and write reviews. You can also follow particular subjects, universities, languages, and course providers.

When you sign up to Class Central, you are automatically added to the email list. If you do not want to receive emails from Class Central, see How do I unsubscribe from Class Central emails? You can re-subscribe at any time from your Preferences page.

Course Information Pages

You can find plenty of information about the courses from the information page. For example, take a look at the An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python (Part 1) page:

Overview, Help Center, Related Courses and Reviews are quick links found on every course page.

Who Makes MOOCs?

Class Central does not produce or distribute MOOCs.

MOOCs are made by hundreds of universities and other institutions and are distributed by a number of course provider platforms. See the Massive List of MOOC Providers Around The World. While most MOOCs are in English, a number of other languages are represented. Look for the By language link on the left while browsing courses. Many courses have subtitles in several languages. Several providers have mobile apps.

The Class Central Provider Guides answer common questions about the four largest course providers:

  1. Coursera
  2. edX
  3. Udacity
  4. FutureLearn

Answers to more questions can be found in the individual Help or Support pages found on each course platform.

How to Find Courses

You can use Class Central's search feature to find courses based on your interest:

Type in your subject of interest, then a list of courses should appear. You may need to select See all results for (your subject). You can also browse courses by subject:

When you find an interesting course, click on its name. This will take you to Class Central's information page about the course.

How to Enroll

You can enroll in just a few steps from the Class Central information page.

Not all courses are currently running. The information page will tell you if there is a session Upcoming, In progress, Self paced, or Finished, along with the next start date.

If you enroll in an upcoming course, the provider will send you a reminder email when the course begins. If you want an email reminder from Class Central before the course opens, without actually enrolling yet, select the +Add button on the Class Central course page, then select Interested. Some upcoming courses, particularly those available on a regular schedule, can be accessed before the official start date.

In progress courses can often be joined even after the start date. You may need to work hard to finish the course before it closes. Some courses allow you to transfer your enrollment to a later run without penalty. Read the course information carefully.

Current self paced courses can be joined at any time.

Sometimes, courses have finished and a new session has not been announced. Courses may re-appear after months or even years of absence. Select the +Add button to receive an email if the course is rescheduled in the future.

Some courses are archived. Usually, the videos and resources are still available, but you cannot take assessments, earn a certificate, or add to the discussion forums. If you want to know about a new run of the course, select the +Add button and Interested. When the course provider informs Class Central about a new run, we will send you an email.

How to Enroll for Free

Some courses have clear instructions for free enrollment. For others, the free option is called audit mode. This guide explains how to audit Coursera courses for free.

Certificates and Academic Credit

This can be a confusing topic. Some courses are online for-credit courses that can be accessed for free. If you want a certificate of completion, you will have to pay, unless you qualify for financial assistance from the course provider. If you want to use your course for university credit, you need to be enrolled at a university and have approval to use the course as part of your degree.

Whether or not to pay for a certificate is an individual choice, depending on your circumstances.

Never Stop Learning!

With thousands of MOOCs available, managing your lifelong learning has never been easier.

Class Central's Help Center represents our best effort to answer the most common questions new learners face. It may not be completely accurate in every circumstance.

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