online learners
Calling all online learners - before deciding on a course, make sure you know the differences between these MOOC-based degrees and online degrees. Source: Romain Lafabregue / AFP

With the COVID-19 pandemic causing universities around the world to close their campuses and shift students into online learners, you’re probably seeing terms like “MOOC courses” and “online degrees” being used.

Not every online programme is created equal. Before choosing one, it’s best to know what sets one apart from the other.

In this article, we explain the differences between online degrees and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses):


MOOC courses

Amid concerns of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, many learners are switching to MOOC courses and online programmes. Source: Bay Ismoyo/AFP

One way that MOOC courses and online degrees differ is the way that they’re delivered to you.

MOOC courses are online programmes 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 you can check your 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 to online learners depends on the university. 

For instance, they can cover video lectures, live sessions of an in-person lecture, discussion sessions and more.


MOOC courses

How flexible are MOOC courses for online learners? Source: Mladen Antonov/ AFP

MOOC-based degrees are typically more flexible, allowing you to complete them at your own pace.

But if you take an online degree, then you will be subject to the course’s fixed schedule and timeline.

MOOCs are also stackable. This means you can take a series of courses that add up to a degree, but if you decide to stop halfway, you can still receive a certification for completing specific courses.

For online degrees, you’ll typically need to complete all the courses and other requirements (internships or exams, for example) before you receive a qualification.

Online degrees by universities also grant online learners access to the same physical resources as those who attend in-person lectures – such as a professor’s office hours and campus library usage – which many MOOC-based degrees do not offer.

Applications and fees

MOOC courses

Which is easier to apply to? MOOC courses or online degrees? Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images North America / AFP

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

Online degrees by universities are often subject to traditional admissions processes too. MOOC admission processes tend to be faster.

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 a larger scale and can accept all online learners with the potential to be successful instead of limiting admission to a certain number of applications.

On the fee front, online learners typically pay the same fees for online degrees as on-campus degrees. For international students, this means they would likely have to pay the same out-of-state fees as their on-campus peers.

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.

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