online degrees
If you're unsure if you should apply for a MOOC-based degree or an online degree, here is what makes them different. Source: Shutterstock

More students are taking up online degrees or MOOC-based degrees – which stand for massive open online course – particularly for postgraduate studies.

According to a release for the report Online Program Management Market – Global Outlook and Forecast 2020-2025: “Graduate students are more likely to pursue virtual courses for higher studies. Distance learning for MBA programmes is gaining popularity as there has been a steady growth in online MBA courses year-on-year.”

“The growing need for life-long learning and career-related skills development is likely to play an essential role in driving the growth of online programmes.”

Some may wonder – what’s the difference between online degrees and MOOCs? Both are taken online, and provide an academic qualification without requiring students to step foot in a lecture hall – but there are clear differences between the two.

Delivery and flexibility

The way MOOCs and online degrees differ is the way they are delivered to students. MOOC-based degrees are online courses that are typically delivered through platforms such as EdX, FutureLearn, and Coursera.

Many universities partner with these reputable platforms and offer these degrees through them, using their technology to deliver the university’s video lectures and follow-up tests where students can check their understanding of the subject matter.

Online degrees are typically offered by accredited universities as an alternative to attending classes in-person. The way they are delivered depends on the university. It can cover video lectures, live sessions of an in-person lecture, discussion sessions and more.

MOOC-based degrees are typically more flexible and can be done at a student’s own pace, while students in online degrees are normally subject to the course’s fixed schedule and timeline.

However, in online degree programmes by universities, students can access the same physical resources as students who attend in-person lectures – such as a professor’s office hours and campus library usage – which many MOOC-based degrees do not offer.

MOOCs are also stackable – meaning students can take a series of courses that add up to a degree, but if they decide to stop halfway, they may still receive a certification for completing certain courses.

For online degrees, a student typically needs to complete all the courses and other requirements (internships or exams, for example) before they receive a qualification.

Application process

It is typically easier to apply for a MOOC-based degree compared to an online degree, which often requires students to submit a full application and take proficiency tests such as IELTS or the GRE for Master-level courses.

Dhawal Shah, the founder of Class Central, a MOOC discovery platform, wrote on EdSurge that the application process for MOOC-based degree programmes is more open, as they are designed to operate at larger scale and can accept all students with the potential to be successful instead of limiting admission to a certain number of applications.

Online degrees by universities are often subject to traditional admissions processes, but MOOC admission processes are more innovative.

For example, a MOOC-based Master’s programme in electrical engineering by the University of Colorado at Boulder requires applicants to complete some of the courses in the programme before they are admitted.

It’s an approach known as “Inverted Admissions,” described by Shah as “one of the more radical and potentially disruptive features” of MOOC-based degrees.


For online degrees, students typically pay the same fees as on-campus degrees, which include out-of-state fees for international students.

Most MOOC-based degrees, on the other hand, cost less. According to IEEE Spectrum, international students at Georgia Tech pay US$40,000 per year for the on-campus Master’s in Computer Science programme, while the MOOC-based degree is just US$7,000 per year.

The University of Illinois recently moved from offering an on-campus MBA to the MOOC-based iMBA in partnership with Coursera, which costs US$22,000 – far less than the average cost of US$60,000 for an MBA in the US.

Liked this? Then you’ll love…

Students can now earn a dual JD/MBA online at this US university

Online research: How students can do this better