Are Online Courses Worth It

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Simon Mclellan

Writer, developer.

There is an old saying; “You learn something new every day”. And in this digital age, with much of the developed (and developing) world benefiting from direct access to the Internet, it is easier than ever to learn new things. Within seconds, we have a wealth of information on our computer screens or handheld mobile devices.

It is no exaggeration to state that the World Wide Web has changed the world as we know it. From its very beginnings, it has assisted in educating and informing, allowing information and data to be shared almost instantly – though it is also true to say that it contains a good deal of content that falls under the category of ‘entertainment’ rather than ‘education’.

However, the emphasis on education is growing rapidly, with thousands of new online courses made available each year. The age of the ‘MOOC’ is upon us, and it is here to stay.


What is a MOOC

Though arguments rage about who started the first one, the idea of Massive Open Online Courses has been around since about 2005/6, becoming more widely accepted from 2008 onwards, and really taking off in 2012.

The thinking behind these courses firstly related to the ‘open’ aspect, in that the founders wanted to offer free access to a wider selection of students. Initially, this was seen as the way forward, described as a revolution in education. Some founders of courses, as well as leading university lecturers, even stated that within 50 years online courses would have such an impact that traditional higher education institutions would be greatly reduced in number.

It is easy to see why there was so much enthusiasm, given that in January 2019 figures showed that 101 million learners signed up – an increase of 30% on the year before. An extra nine hundred universities joined in, providing over 2,000 new courses.

In spite of this, the 30% increase was actually lower than that experienced in 2017. In addition, the number of available courses is starting to swamp the system, with some attracting few students. In addition, pass rates remain low, with a woeful dropout rate of about 90%.

So, it seems that predictions that these courses would replace traditional universities were slightly premature and exaggerated.

In the past few years, there has been a shift in focus, however, with emphasis on the paying customer. To some, this undermines the whole idea of being ‘open’. The courses were intended to provide free access to learning, open to all, requiring no former qualification. The argument is that introducing fees to some courses potentially closes off this avenue to many new students. Given that about 75% of MOOC users already have a bachelor’s degree or similar (according to data provided by Coursera), and are aged between 25 to 35, it could be said that the initial purpose has already been missed.

However, with these courses seemingly as popular as ever, some may ask whether it is worth joining. To answer this, let’s take a look at a range of more popular course providers.


One of the biggest and most popular providers, Coursera was established in 2012, firmly stating its MOOC credentials with free courses. With around 37 million students in 2018, this provider consistently comes top of the list. While it does still offer many courses for free, in 2015 it introduced fees for some, especially when it started to offer degrees. Even with the free courses, certain aspects such as graded assignments and certificates of completion require a small fee. This has netted the company an estimated $140 million in 2018.

Please read our Coursera Review.


This provider, founded in 2010, offers ‘interactive learning’ of what they call real-world skills. The courses are project-based, with the focus on learning new skill sets or refreshing your memory about skills you learned in the past, with an emphasis on creativity. It does not offer degree courses and though you can sign up for free you will be required to sign up to a monthly subscription after a couple of months (starting at about $12 per month). Depending on your reasons for taking an online course, one thing to bear in mind with Skillshare is that their courses are not accredited, meaning that few employers will regard them as an asset. Skillshare is among the smaller course providers, with around 5 million users.

Please read our Skillshare Review.


Since its establishment in 2009, Udemy has seen 245 million people sign up for its courses. They do offer free courses, but most require a fee. One thing that they are notorious for is the ‘discounted course’, with a price tag in the hundreds of dollars crossed out with a greatly reduced rate beside it to tempt you to sign up. This aside, they are fairly well respected, though not accredited. Even so, some courses allow you to print a certificate at the end. With course fees being as reasonable as they are, if not free, this provider is very popular, with about 30 or 40 million students. Most of these are people not looking for degrees, but to expand their knowledge of coding or web design and development. Other than this, language courses are the most popular.

Please read our Udemy Review.

LinkedIn Learning

Originally known as and founded way back in 1995, this provider was absorbed into LinkedIn in 2015. The courses are split into three categories; business, technology, and creative. Although they are not accredited, the connection to the LinkedIn network does offer a big advantage in that these certificates will actually appeal to some employers when attached to your LinkedIn profile. The first month is free, but following this, you will need to pay a subscription, as with other online course providers (currently $29 per month). In spite of its worldwide presence, this provider has only about 17 million users.

Please read our LinkedIn Learning Review.


Matching LinkedIn for its monthly subscription, Pluralsight only offers a free trial of 10 days. This could be taken as a sign of confidence in its courses, which are focused on software development, IT operations, and the business, creative and data professional. Once again, the monthly subscription is around the $30 mark, and Pluralsight is ranked at number 5 in the table of online course providers. Reviews appear to back this up, with most users saying how impressed they were with the quality of the course material. However, a few users have expressed dissatisfaction with the automated subscription system and the lack of customer service. Pluralsight is the smallest on our list, with an estimated 1 million users.

Please read our Pluralsight Review.

So, are online courses worth it

Having looked at a range of course providers (but by no means the only ones!) the short answer has to be; yes, they are worth it.

What it comes down to, though, is your reasons for wanting to study online. These courses offer a lifeline to anyone who is unable to gain access to traditional university education or lacks the means or the time to enable them to achieve qualifications the usual way. This is especially the case for students from developing countries, who, as reports show, potentially stand to benefit the most from these courses.

Overall, these platforms offer flexible training at a fairly reasonable cost, especially when compared with most university fees for degrees.

It is difficult to suggest which is the best without knowing the full circumstances of the student – only you can make this choice. But courses, and their providers, can be split into two broad camps; those that offer ‘micro-credentials’ and those that specialize in degrees. Degrees, obviously, are recognized the world over, enhancing your portfolio. On the other hand, millions of people find that their hard-earned degree, sadly, can be virtually meaningless in certain industries and fields of expertise – not to diminish the achievement or the value of the qualification!

The digital age has ushered in a whole new way of learning and increasing our knowledge in particular subjects, and, as we have seen above with the LinkedIn platform, networking can play a big part in securing new roles and furthering our careers. They may not be degrees, but if you are focused on a career that requires a specific set of skills, then something like LinkedIn may be exactly what you need. As you learn, passing tests along the way, you earn certificates which show in your profile as badges. A prospective employer viewing your profile may see these badges and be prompted to approach you. Either way, the knowledge will stand you in good stead for the future.

So, although they are massive, in that they are available to millions of people, these online courses are not so open anymore, in that the fees may limit access to some. Each platform has something to offer different people, and that is a good thing.

Online courses are, then, definitely worth signing up to, whatever your reasons. And in an age where the advantages of ‘lifelong learning’ are being recognized, it is highly likely that more – and better – courses will soon become more widely available.