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Which Online Course Platform Should I Use?

Which Online Course Platform Should I Use?


Online course platforms vary widely in their expectations of students. While some MOOC platforms provide self-directed learners with learning materials mirroring university classes, other online course platforms grade assignments, require identity verification for testing, and even have career services departments. While there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to the right online course platform for you, what we can do is ask you several questions that may direct where you study online.

First off what are you trying to achieve by taking online courses?

  • Are you taking courses for employment reasons?
    • Are you pursuing a career that generally honors project-based portfolios like design or development?
      • If so, check out our section on project-based online course platforms.
    • Are you trying to advance in a large organization?
    • Are you preparing for a test?
      • There are MOOCs and online courses for everything from ACT and SAT prep to preparing for professional IT or Accounting certifications. Check out our section on certification prep for more info.
  • Or, are you taking courses for personal exploration?
    • This really opens up any of the options for learning. MOOC platforms that provide very little guidance but access to lectures and learning materials by world class thinkers are particularly unique opportunities. Check out our personal exploration section if this is you.

Project-Based Portfolios

The first category of quality online course platforms is particularly pertinent for students who work or are looking to work in the world of programming, web-based media, creative services, or analytics. In all of these fields a quality portfolio and real world applications of your craft are at least as important as schooling or traditional resumes. Furthermore, many learners solidify new knowledge better when it is applied. Many online course platforms know this, and have centered their offerings around helping to step users through building out portfolio projects.

Udemy is one of the largest online course platforms. There’s a huge course developer community, and a huge community of learners. What this amounts to in practice is that there is a wide range of quality of courses, but a robust reviewing system and community often provides good insight into the quality of a course you may want to take. The range of what constitutes a “course” on Udemy is wider than on other online course platforms, but for the sake of building out projects that can be an asset. While there are broader courses covering closer to what a traditional university course would cover, many courses center around one or a few projects and last just a few hours. With over 65,000 courses to choose from and particular robust offerings in design, business, and computing, students can essentially craft their own curriculum. One downside of the platform is that many courses cost money. However, course fees range from a few dollars to several hundred. If you’re looking to build out your project portfolio on a budget, most disciplines have plenty of courses at a lower price point. Udemy also regularly offers sales dropping all of their courses to $15 or less. If courses are looking out of your budget sign up for their newsletter and come back with one of their sales. Each course offers an intuitive interface, supporting resources, an interactive FAQ section, and high-quality video lectures.

Coursera is a second online course platform that is great for project-based learning. Some of the benefits of Coursera include its scale (over 2,150 courses are available with the closest MOOC platform having 600 less), as well as partnerships with top universities. University partners sponsoring courses on the platform include top schools like the University of Michigan, Stanford University, and Johns Hopkins University. Courses cover eleven broad disciplines, from language acquisition, to classic literature, to data science and programming. This makes Coursera a strong pick for online learners with any aim (not just project-based aims). Most courses allow for users to “explore the course material” for free, which in essence allows users to essentially take the entire course. For a fee, however, users may also submit assignments for grading and obtain a certificate upon completion. For the sake of portfolio-building this is moot, but many employers are becoming increasingly open to certificates of MOOC completion on resumes. Similar to Nanodegrees offered by Udacity, Coursera also offers specializations. Specializations are progressions of courses with communities to learn with and graded assignments. Specializations on Coursera cost monthly subscription fees. Perhaps the strongest reason why Coursera is a great choice for project-based learners is that they have a huge range of courses in topics that value portfolios (design, development, analytics).

CognitiveClass.ai offers a more specializated (but very project oriented) online course platform focusing on data science and artificial intelligence. Both of these fields are definitely disciplines where a portfolio may speak as highly of a job applicant as a resume. So at least for those seeking careers (or advancement) in business intelligence, AI, decision making, or data science this is a great platform to add to the list. Courses are free and provided by both the CognitiveClass.ai team as well as corporate partners. Unique elements of each course include graded exams, active forums with classmates, projects, and additional development resources. The well-supported education provided by CognitiveClass.ai leads us to say that it is a great platform to use to build projects even if you’re in a related field such as non-AI development. You’re sure to learn a lot and have a great deal of support with the CognitiveClass.ai set up.

Certificates of Completion, What Do They Mean?

The second major objective of individuals seeking an online course platform is to obtain documentation of skills and knowledge for a resume. A number of MOOC and online course platforms offer certificates of completion as well as certificates of competency around different skills. While certificates of completion are not at all comparable to degrees, certifications (more on that in the next section), or for-credit course work, there are a number of situations in which they can help you advance in your career. For those already in an organization and seeking to advance, continuing to enhance your skills and providing some proof until you can land a project at work that uses those skills can be a great way forward. And if nothing else, certificates of completion from MOOCs or online courses are often viewed as proof that one is familiar with a topic even if it does not signify a high level of expertise. One way to get the most out of certificates of completion is to choose a platform or course of study in which there are graded assignments and feedback on work turned in. This is often available in paid online courses

First we have Udacity, a platform created by Sebastian Thrun, David Stavens, and Mike Sokolsky and an outcropping from a free computer science course offered by Stanford University in 2011. Unlike some other online course platforms, Udacity is known not for partnering with top universities, but rather for partnering with top tech firms such as Google, Amazon, and IBM Watson. Through pairing with companies that perform an integral function of creating and molding in-demand technologies, Udacity is often able to provide up-to-date, in-demand, and practical skill-centered courses. Individual courses are free, and are often centered around building projects. Nanodegrees, or progressions of multiple courses that include certifications for successful completion are paid, however. While both individual free courses and paid Nanodegrees may be used to work through projects to add to portfolios, Nanodegrees offer additional features including forums to talk with classmates, graded assignments, and feedback from expert instructors.

If you’re looking to gain proof of expertise in a field that is often taught in university settings, EdX might be the platform you’re looking for. EdX partners with many of the top universities in the world to turn some of their most popular classes into online courses. For a small fee for identity verification, users can obtain certificates of completion at the end of their course of study. While some of the platforms good at project-based learning largely offer courses in technology-related fields, EdX excels at offering courses in a range more similar to that of a university. Courses are available from experts and superstar professors in subjects as wide ranging as environmental studies, architecture, law, nutrition, and many more. As you might have surmised, EdX is a great platform for students seeking to learn about topics that may not lend themselves to online projects. For those seeking additional verification of expertise, EdX also offers professional certification programs, MicroMasters, and XSeries certificates. All three of these options are crafted by field and university leaders, require multiple courses in a discipline, and may be thought of as “more than a certificate of completion.”

Certification Prep

Professional certifications and continuing education credits are a long-established route towards professional development in many fields. For many of the most popular certifications there are now online course platforms offering courses meant to help prepare you for taking an exam to receive a certification. One should note the difference between a certificate (covered last section) and certification is that in a certification an accrediting body comes up with industry standards for what those obtaining a certification should know and administers testing in this area. Certifications often have strict prerequisites of both time worked in a field as well as testing requirements. And in certain fields like accounting, management, cyber security and information technology many jobs may expressly require an applicant to hold certain certifications. This is different from a certificate (as in a certificate of completion) which is often given out at the discretion of those engineering the course of study. While certificates may also be valuable, the requisite levels of expertise for obtaining them is not established by a professional board or industry-wide entity.

As many professional certifications are industry-specific, the first best bet for finding an online course platform is to search for professional organizations in your field that offer online courses. Professional organizations have long offered continuing education credits, and in recent years some fields have shifted these events into online formats. Secondarily, Udemy is perhaps the only major online course platform with many certification prep courses. With that said, Udemy allows anyone willing to make a course up to their standards to post a course to their platform. This means that you may want to check the credentials of whoever is creating the course on certification prep. Though in practice those offering courses in preparation of certifications on Udemy often at least hold the certification themselves.

For those seeking certifications in the certification heavy fields of information technology and information assurance, Cybrary.it is a great option. Most courses are by industry-leading professionals, offer continuing education credits, and are geared towards either real world skills or certificate preparation. Cybrary also offers a number of valuable filtering tools for searching for courses by your role in an organization, your relative skill level, and the certification that you’re seeking. Courses are free though many offer the ability to buy a discounted certification exam admittance voucher through the platform.

For those seeking university instruction that leads to a certification, Ed2Go is a great platform. This platform partners with real world universities to offer their certification prep courses online. Though certification prep courses can be more expensive than other options (closer to traditional tuition for a university course), you’re essentially taking a course from a university. Once you’ve completed the prep course, just show up at one of the many testing centers nationwide to try and gain your certification. Testing fees are included in the cost of study through the platform. Particularly for fields like engineering, management, and accounting, Ed2Go offers a wide range of quality certification prep from the convenience of your home.

Personal Exploration

For those seeking online courses for personal exploration, you really couldn’t have “chosen” a better time to be alive. Superstar professors from around the world offer some of their most mind-expanding courses for free online. Projects like MIT’s OpenCourseWare offers (at least) partial course materials for thousands of undergraduate and graduate courses they’ve held on their campus. For more full-bodied courses from top universities, check out Coursera which often comes with an active forum community, tests of your knowledge, video, and supporting materials. If you’re interested in seeing some of the most acclaimed online courses (of all time) check out our piece of content on the most popular MOOCs of all time. Almost all of these courses are free, and many have educated hundreds of thousands of students.