Since the MOOC phenomenon took off two years ago, numerous providers have emerged that students might try out, including Canvas and NovoED in the US, Open2Study in Australia, FutureLearn in the UK and iversity in Germany.

And it’s important to note that the history of MOOCs pre-dates any of these platforms, having first started when individual teachers experimented with opening the doors to all comers.

But starting in 2012, three organizations — Udacity, edX and Coursera — started to dominate conversations about MOOCs. These “big three” have the largest catalogs of courses, and they are where most students interested in MOOCs still start their experience.


Despite the growth of MOOC providers, Coursera, Udacity and edX remain “the big three.”

Those three have kept growing — and changing — as they figure out new ways to attract students. For example, all three have made significant changes to their business models. So much so that one of them arguably can’t be described as a MOOC anymore. (More on that later.)

And not only do they have more classes, they have different types of classes than they first did two years ago, as well as new kinds of credentials that you can earn.

What does all these changes mean for you, the student? In this post we’ll examine  the major differences between these three platforms and sum up their pros and cons.

First, what is a MOOC?

The definition of a MOOC also continues to evolve, so let’s clarify what we’re talking about. When the MOOC phenomenon started to take off in 2012, the big three platforms we’re looking at shared a few key characteristics:

  • They provided courses, with a beginning and an end, which makes them distinct from other a la carte educational resources like Khan Academy where you pick and choose among lessons. Also, the majority of MOOC courses are on university-level subject matter from university faculty, though that is gradually changing, as we’ll see below.
  • They are entirely online, rather than hybrid or blended like some online programs that university students take.
  • They are open in two important senses. They are free, and and they have no admissions requirements. You don’t have to be a student at the university offering the MOOC, so anyone with internet access can get started. Advocates of the first MOOCs say they should be open in another important sense — that all the content be freely distributed for re-use. But that is very uncommon, and most providers, including these three, limit the use of their materials off of their sites. If open licensing is important to you, Coursera, edX and Udacity wouldn’t be in the running for best provider.
  • Not surprisingly, a complete course, online, that is free and open for anyone to enter will attract massive interest. A class may include between hundreds and hundreds of thousands of students, but they are always too large for an individual student to expect meaningful interaction with the teacher. Therefore, they rely on students supporting one another or on the student being very independent and self-motivated.

By this definition of MOOCs, Udacity was always an odd fit. As we’ll discuss below, a Udacity course might attract a large number of users, but, because the classes were self-paced, students didn’t work together in a cohort like on Coursera and edX. They never felt massive in the same way. But given that most people nevertheless have referred to Udacity as a MOOC, we’ll continue to look at them together along with Coursera and edX for now.

What do MOOCs cost?

MOOCs are free, right? We just went over that.

Well, this factor is becoming more nuanced on these platforms and is evolving rapidly. The latest development is that Udacity is operating more on a “freemium” model and steering users to the services they can charge for. They still provide a basic “free courseware” version of most classes where anyone can watch the videos, read materials and take the automated quizzes.

Beyond that, Udacity is selling what it calls a “course experience” version of all classes, which includes one-on-one coaching, personal evaluation of specially designed projects and a verified certificate of completion (also known as statements of achievement or SOA’s). This might be a great way to learn, but it’s not free and not a MOOC as we defined it above. So I’ll mostly concentrate on the free courseware part of Udacity.

What’s does Udacity’s course experience cost? You buy access to an individual course on a monthly basis, typically, $150, and then you work on the course at your pace. So the actual cost depends somewhat on you. Are you going to squeeze a course described as 6-8 weeks long into one month or get distracted and take 10 weeks? It might be difference between $150, $300 and $450.

Free certificates and verified certificates

Coursera and edX don’t have personal upgrades like Udacity’s course experience and so don’t charge for any kind of access. But they do offer two tiers of SOA, one free and and for a fee. The free SOAs are “honor system” certificates that don’t verify your identity. Verified SOA’s require you to use a webcam and a government ID to confirm your real identity and that it was you who did the work.

Coursera’s verified SOA’s, available only on some courses, are called Signature Track and cost $40 or $50 in most cases . One good thing about Signature Track is that you can usually opt in to it for a couple of weeks after a course has started, so you can wait until after you’ve experienced some of the class before committing.

The edX version is called the Verified Certificate of Achievement and is only available on a few classes. The cost is usually either $50 or $100.

Advanced certificates

Coursera and edx both have a third level of certificate you can earn by completing a sequence of classes in a subject.

For example, in the edX version, if you take a sequence of 3 courses in supply chain management from MIT or a series of 4 in astrophysics from Australia National University, you can earn (and pay for) an XSeries certificate. The total cost is the sum of the fees for each of the verified SOA’s in the sequence plus an additional program fee of $50 or $75 for the XSeries certificate. So the supply chain management series certificate would total $375 and the astrophysics version would total $275.

The Coursera version, called a Specialization certificate, requires a capstone project and has other features or incentives included in some sequences, designed by each university. For example, the data science sequence of nine classes from Johns Hopkins University allows the highest performing students a chance to video conference with instructors during their capstone projects. Other sequences promise to publish or showcase the best student work.

Best MOOC provider, Coursera

Coursera’s broad catalog includes more courses in the humanities and social sciences than the other two major providers.

The self-paced model

Though MOOCs have starting points, they don’t always have starting dates. Instead, some “self-paced” classes are always accessible, allowing you to start and finish when you like and to work at your own pace.

Udacity classes work on this self-paced model, which means you can go there today and start any freeware class in their catalog. And you can go work on any class you may have started in the past, because it had no end date.

The downside to self-paced courses is that there are typically fewer active students to interact with in the forums. Similarly, the teacher is unlikely to be actively participating. As we discussed above, this stretches my definition of a MOOC a little bit. Udacity classes may have a massive number of students over time, but they don’t have a massive cohort of students working at once.

The scheduled model

Most MOOCs, though, do have start dates and end dates and are accessible only during that time. You work on the class on your own time, but not at your own pace. You’ll have occasional deadlines for assignments. Eventually the class will end and the lights will be shut off.

Coursera and edX MOOCs work on this scheduled model. Only a portion of the classes in their catalogs are active at a given time. For a few weeks after a class starts, you may still be able to enroll. However, assignment deadlines may have passed that make it impossible to earn a certificate. And even if you’re not concerned with the certificate, you may not be able to catch up and do all the work before the course ends.

The upside of the scheduled model is that you will have thousands of peers for moral support and can make friends from around the world. This is one of the most exciting characteristics of the Coursera and edX MOOCs.

Also, even though the teacher doesn’t have time to engage with most people personally, they will often be active on the discussion boards during these active classes. As a result, the experience overall feels less “canned” than the free version of Udacity classes.

The downside of the scheduled model is that you may have to wait months for the course you are dying to take to come around again. Even worse, some Coursera and edX courses run only once and then languish in the catalog without any clear sign that they will be offered again.

Best MOOC provider, Udacity

A sample from the Udacity catalog shows its heavy emphasis on computer science.

Size of the catalog

Think of a MOOC platform as like a catalog from a book publisher. Some catalogs will have more items listed than others.

  • Udacity has 38 active courses in its catalog.
  • edX has had 173 courses at some point. At a given time about 25 to 30 are active.
  • Coursera has had over 660 courses at some point. At a given time about 85 are active.

If lots of choices is the factor that means the most to you, then Coursera wins hands-down.

Breadth of the catalog

Udacity’s strong point is computer science, programming and math. In fact, they have few classes outside of these areas, although one of their most popular is a business class titled How To Build A Startup. They also have one intro physics and one intro psychology class, but nothing at all in the humanities or arts. Increasingly, Udacity is concentrating on courses that provide specific skills for workplace readiness.

Coursera and edX, on the other hand, have at least a couple of selections in almost every field that a university would offer its on-campus students. The edX catalog has slightly more weight on the sciences, technology and medicine, perhaps because of their relationship with MIT. But they do have plenty in the humanities, arts, social sciences and professions like public health.

Coursera’s catalog is more balanced, but they also have developed an extra specialty in professional development for teachers, with 52 courses in that area.

Over all, Coursera is the best place to browse for the most variety. If you’re looking for depth into a topic, don’t neglect Udacity and edX. Udacity is great for computer science and coding, and edX stands out in statistics and medicine.

Best MOOC provider, edX

Coursera and edX have a less consistent look and feel across the catalog than Udacity, but they allow for unique teaching styles. In this edX math class, MOOC students eavesdrop on office hours sessions between a grad student and Professor Michael Starbird at University of Texas-Austin.

How they work with partners

Udacity’s model is to have visiting teachers work within an established format, so the classes have a consistent and familiar feel across the platform. If you like the format of one Udacity class, you’ll probably like all the others.

On Coursera and edX, teachers seem to work more independently, and there is more variable quality. It feels to a student more like hearing from an individual professor at a specific university, but a student can’t assume the structure of one class will be repeated in another or that the teacher has much guidance on teaching in an online environment.

Partnership variety

Most people associate MOOCs with university-level work taught by faculty at major universities. But there’s no reason MOOCs have to be limited to that model, and more courses are emerging that work with different kinds of partners.

Udacity, for example, often develops content with corporate partners like Salesforce or 23andMe to ensure that the material is current.

edX hosts classes from the expected lineup of elite universities and liberal arts colleges in the US, along with a significant number of schools in Asia. They also have partnerships with The International Monetary Fund and the Linux Fund.

Coursera has the largest variety of university partners around the world, and their other partners include The Museum of Modern Art, The American Museum of Natural History, The National Geographic Society and The World Bank.

Best MOOC provider, edX

All three MOOC providers are developing more advanced and specialized courses through a broader range of partnerships like this example from Seoul National University.

Difficulty and skill level

MOOCs don’t necessarily only have to be on college-level subjects. Udacity classes, for example, while serious and rigorous, are less likely to follow the 15-week college class format, and the focus is usually on helping students develop specific workplace skills.

On all three platforms, when they first launched two years ago, you were more likely to find introductory “freshman year” courses, but gradually they are laddering up into more advanced classes on many subjects. The sequences described above, for example, require a range of entry-level and advanced classes.

Unfortunately, none of the platforms have yet grown in the other direction. Lots of ambitious high school students do take MOOCs on Coursera, edX and Udacity, but so far none of the providers offer MOOCs specifically designed for younger learners.

Usability of the discussion forums

None of these platforms have anything to brag about when it comes to the discussion forums. In all cases, the formats are unwieldy and difficult to navigate. Strangely, none of them have yet integrated any kind of live chat feature on their open versions, so it’s difficult to get a fluid conversation going with classmates. Students are encouraged to form smaller discussion groups in other social networks such as Facebook, but none of the platforms integrate that or facilitate it. Students usually spend a lot of time at the beginning of a class trying to set up their own outside discussion groups.

Udacity’s discussion forums in the free versions, as noted above, tend to be ghost towns, which is in the nature of the self-paced model.

Between edX and Coursera, I have to give the edge to Coursera on discussion forums. The edX version is less intuitive to navigate or to sort by topic, by date or by what’s already been read.

Foreign languages

Coursera offers a large number of courses in languages other than English, though this is a little misleading. In very few of those are the lectures delivered in another language. Instead, the video transcripts and some other written materials are translated.

edX has a few in foreign languages, but you can’t search by that feature to find them.

Udacity so far only has a few classes subtitled in Japanese.


The three platforms have been releasing mobile apps recently, with Coursera in the lead, though the apps are generally disappointing for students wanting to fully engage with their course. The apps are basically video players, which is great for offline or on-the-go viewing. But the apps do less well on the discussion forum and quiz functions.

As of this writing, Coursera has iOS, Android and Kindle Fire apps. Udacity has iOS and Android, and edX has doesn’t have any. There’s no sign from any of them yet of Roku or smart TV apps.

Coursera Udacity edX

  • Free unverified certificates of completion.
  • Biggest catalog.
  • The best of the discussion forums by comparison, but nothing to brag about.
  • The greatest variety of partners.
  • Transcripts in many different languages.
  • iOS, Android and Kindle Fire apps.
  • Free “honor system” certificates; fee-based verified certificates; advanced certificates for specialized work.

  • Start anytime. You don’t have to wait for the course you’re interested in.
  • Move at your own pace. Caters to self-directed students.
  • Lots of programming and computer science classes.
  • More focus on current on workplace skills.
  • iOS and Android apps.

  • Free unverified certificates.
  • Big catalog from interesting and prestigious university partners.
  • Great for the sciences and medicine.
  • Some foreign language classes.
  • Free “honor system” certificates; fee-based verified certificates; advanced certificates for specialized work.

  • Too structured for some learners. You have to go at the pace the professor releases the videos and assignments.
  • More variability in quality.
  • You might have to wait awhile until the course you want is made active.

  • No more free certificates.
  • Smaller community. You’ll mostly be working on your own unless you pay for the premium version.
  • Difficult if you need deadlines to keep you on track.
  • Very little in foreign languages.

  • Frustrating discussion forums.
  • More variability in quality.
  • No apps.

So which is the best MOOC provider?

I’m going to resist naming one. Coursera, edX and Udacity each have their pros and cons, as you can see from the table above. But there are a few judgments I think are fair to make.

  • Coursera is the safest bet for a general interest MOOC browser hoping to find something to catch their interest.
  • edX is where I would start searching if I was primarily interested in science classes, particularly from elite schools.
  • And Udacity’s freeware MOOCs work best for very self-directed learners who just want to watch the videos and try the exercises, particularly in skills based programming and computer science classes.

Have fun, and let us know which one is your favorite or if you think we should be looking at different factors.

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