MOOCs are free online courses

Is a MOOC or a Master's degree right for you? Find out the key differences.

Since educational practices began their shift from solely physical locations to various online alternatives, MOOCs have played a notable role in conversations about accessibility and learning 

MOOCs – or massive open online courses – can often be confused with online degrees offered by universities, but there are a number of key differences. 

What is a MOOC? 

Much like its name suggests, a MOOC offers easily accessible, completely online courses that can be taken by thousands of people simultaneously around the globe. 

Similar to online degrees, they offer plenty of flexibility for students with tight schedules. In fact, MOOCs can be completed at any pace a student deems fit, as such courses often involve little interaction or input from anyone else. There are also no entry requirements, meaning anyone can begin a MOOC if they wish. 

How are MOOCs different to online degrees? 

Most confusion around the differentiation of MOOCs from online courses stems from the fact that MOOCs themselves are constantly evolving 

For example, while at their inception MOOCs were often promoted as being free of charge, in present times courses can contain paywalled elements or require paid certifications and still be considered MOOCs. 

In addition to this, while many MOOCs are created by universities, they’re rarely distributed by these institutions themselves. Instead, these courses are offered on platforms such as Udacity and Coursera. 

For students considering a MOOC in the hopes of eventually earning a certification, it’s also important to note that MOOC credits are typically only recognised by the institution offering that specific course, unlike traditional academic credits. 

How do I tell which option is right for me? 

There are a few different aspects to consider when choosing between an online degree and a MOOC.  

  • Support: MOOCs do not usually offer personal feedback or one-on-one time with academics. Most assessments are either auto-graded or peer-reviewed. This can be a drastic drawback compared to online degrees, as they deny students the opportunity to gain detailed notes on their work, get industry insights from professionals, and make helpful connections to aid their career goals. 
  • Interactivity: Both online degrees and MOOCs will have multiple students studying at the same time as each other. However, as online degrees have set start dates and entry requirements, students will often have a significantly smaller number of course mates. While they may not always interact in real-time, these course mates can still be tasked to come together for group projects and academic discussions. This helps replicate the same responsibility and collaboration called for in professional settings, while also fostering a more nurturing learning environment. Conversely, MOOCs less engaging material – combined with their lack of structure – have often been pointed to as reasons for low completion rates. 
  • Resources: Online degree programmes give students access to the same resources available to those who study on-campus, such as online libraries, career guidance services, and alumni networks. In many cases, these resources prove useful to students years after graduation as well. Unfortunately, most MOOCs do not usually offer these benefits. 
  • Price: MOOCs are undeniably the cheaper option of the two, though exact costs can vary substantially from course to course. As students are often left to undertake the entirety of the course themselves, MOOCs can offer lower price points than on campus or online degrees. This can make them a viable option for someone looking to get a first taste of a new subject or field. 
  • Credibility: As touched upon before, there is a certain degree of separation between the majority of universities and the MOOCs that they offer. Combined with the peculiarity of MOOC credits and debates over unstandardised levels of quality, a MOOC may not carry the same weight as a degree from a university, which comes with the same accreditations regardless of whether the course was taken on campus or online. 
  • Opportunities: As a result of the above, this could also mean that a MOOC certificate and an online degree unlock different opportunities. MOOCs often focus solely on advancing a student’s knowledge of one specific subject. An online degree will also strive to teach them practical skills via tutor-led assessments and remote technology. As a more comprehensive learning experience, a student is therefore more likely to pick up or develop a wider array of abilities, increasing their overall employability. 

Ultimately, MOOCs and online degrees are two fundamentally different modes of learning. The former offers a way for students to study specific subjectwith learning material that’s oftentimes selected by reputable institutions. 

Online degrees are focused on holistic development, with hands-on involvement from the university offering it. This means said courses provide more than just a foundational understanding of a topic.

With a degree, students gain the technical and practical know-how needed to navigate a career in the field of their choosing, and are equipped with the connections and real-world examples needed to apply these skills in a way that leads them to long-term success. 

If you’re considering furthering your education, the University of Portsmouth’s tutor-led, online degrees are part-time and flexible. Access your course material from anywhere in the world, and be supported by our excellent academics and your own personal student adviser. 

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