How to choose a free online course – Forbes Advisor

ByMike V. Cooper

Sep 12, 2022

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At first glance, they seem too good to be true: Free courses, often offered by top universities, that students can take at their own pace from anywhere with an internet connection? What’s the catch?

Although Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are not suitable for all learners, this widely accessible educational format can benefit both your career and your personal learning.

Free online courses can help participants learn new professional skills, prepare for or complete a traditional academic program, or simply explore a topic of interest. That said, the format offers limited learning support, so students need a lot of self-motivation to stay on track.

What are free online courses?

Free online courses usually fall under the MOOC. Registrants often access these courses through learning destination sites like Coursera and edX. These platforms act as hubs for course content from partner institutions around the world, which often include well-known schools like Columbia University and Harvard University. In fact, Harvard, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founded edX in 2012.

Businesses and non-profit organizations can also create free online course options. For example, Coursera users can take science classes at the American Museum of Natural History or study marketing analytics with Meta. Technical educator Udacity develops course content in partnership with companies like GitHub and Microsoft.

Limited study support

These courses are by definition massive, with often tens of thousands of registrants. Due to their scope, MOOCs rarely allow learners to interact with instructors or receive feedback from instructors. However, courses can incorporate opportunities for peer feedback, and many feature self-graded assessments to help students track their progress.

Some MOOCs are self-paced, which means students are given all the course material at the start and work through it at their convenience. Other courses gradually distribute materials, including assignments with deadlines. MOOC students learn through readings, pre-recorded lectures, quizzes and discussion forums.

Registration open

Another essential characteristic of the MOOC format is contained in its name: openness. Open enrollment means that MOOCs do not maintain formal admission criteria. Anyone can join, although some sites require learners to have a minimum age (usually between 13 and 16).

MOOCs are free, but they may charge for certain features, like certificates of completion. For example, while edX users can audit courses for free, verified track participants pay around $50 to $300 per course. Similarly, FutureLearn makes most of its content available for free, but students must pay a one-time fee or purchase a subscription to earn certificates and access course content after their courses are completed.

How to find free online courses

Learners are responsible for checking MOOC providers to ensure they choose a reputable one. If you sign up for a free course that doesn’t provide what you need, you might not lose money, but you don’t want to waste your time or energy either.

Do your research ahead of time to target courses that are worthwhile. Consider the factors below when looking for free online courses.

Student reviews

Hearing from other learners can help you decide if a free online course is right for you. Course providers often select testimonials to feature on their websites, so peer review sites can offer less biased perspectives. Find reviews on sites like G2 and In effect.

Instructor Profiles

Course descriptions must include instructor biographies. Make sure the teacher in your class has relevant academic or professional training in the subject. Instructors for university-affiliated courses are usually qualified professors from those institutions. You may want to dig deeper and research your instructor’s resume, publications, or previous courses.

Course layout

Make sure the course you are considering suits your learning style. If you’re primarily a visual learner, for example, you may struggle to retain information presented in a busy course. Also consider your time management skills. Do you find the work at your own pace easy or do you prefer fixed deadlines?

Syllabus and course materials

Online courses usually publish their syllabuses for prospective enrollees to review. Review the course syllabus before enrolling to ensure it covers the topics you want to learn.

Completion documents

Find out if a potential course charges for completion materials, like certificates or badges. If so, ask yourself if the cost is worth it. Also consider the potential benefits of paying the required fee for this documentation (e.g. bolstering your resume).

If you’re aiming to get a micro-certificate – a short skill-based qualification – the provider may ask you to pay a fee.

What are the benefits of free online courses?

Students enroll in free online courses for a variety of reasons. Some participants change careers and others want to sharpen their skills in their current roles. Other learners are preparing for a new educational undertaking, such as returning to school. Some simply pursue learning for fun. Each learner has their own priorities.

At best, free online courses allow students from all walks of life access to educational resources that have historically been reserved for a select few. Although the MOOC model has its drawbacks – low completion rates and a general lack of regulation, for example – it still has the potential to offer major benefits to a diverse student base.

Continue your education

If you are currently a student or preparing to re-engage in academia after some time in the working world, free courses can be a great study aid. They can complement your formal classes, provide alternative perspectives on tricky topics, or help you brush up on important concepts and skills that may be rusting.

For lifelong learners, free online courses provide the opportunity to explore new interests, without the need to re-enroll in school.

Warm up in a new area

Free courses can help working professionals, recent high school graduates, and college grads explore new areas with minimal investment. If you’re looking for a career change, look for introductory courses taught by instructors with current industry experience. You can then move on to more complex courses if you like what you have learned.

You can also find free general and area-specific career development courses that cover topics like networking and interviewing.

Increase knowledge for a new project or position

Free online courses cannot replace an official degree. However, these courses can help you gain real-world skills and knowledge, establish specialization in your field, and stay up-to-date in rapidly changing industries.

If you’re looking for a promotion, continuing education can enhance your resume by demonstrating desirable qualities such as a work ethic, intellectual curiosity, and willingness to learn.

Prepare to ask for a raise

Taking free online courses can help you vouch as an employee who brings value to the job. When negotiating a raise, you can note how your self-education shows your commitment to continued professional growth and development. You can also highlight new or improved skills that can make you more effective at your job.

Boost your small business

Entrepreneurs and small business owners often wear many hats. If you can’t outsource some essential work tasks, free online courses can help you tackle them yourself with confidence. Courses in subjects such as marketing and accounting can teach you the skills and knowledge needed to tackle specialized business functions and grow your business.

Conclusion: Are Free Online Courses Worth It?

The value of an online course to you depends on your goals. If your goal is career advancement, be sure to research whether the course you’re considering teaches skills relevant to the position you want. Also, make sure the supplier is reputable.

Likewise, if you’re going back to school to study a new field and want to test the subject in a MOOC first, be sure to find a course that matches your skill level. For example, if you plan to study web development, but don’t have technical knowledge, you should start with basic coding courses before diving into system design.

If your primary goal is personal enrichment, your standards may be lower. Still, it’s worth checking to see if the program covers the topics that interest you the most. Also find out what kind of experiences previous students have reported.

Online courses generally require self-discipline and strong time management skills. Many free courses are self-paced and offer little external feedback, requiring a high level of commitment and self-motivation. If you’re up for the challenge, it’s possible to find relevant and reputable course options to support your professional and educational goals.