By Pat Bowden, published October 31, 2017.
According to Class Central, the three biggest MOOC providers are Coursera, edX and FutureLearn, although XuetangX, based in China and founded in 2013, is steaming up the straight. As I write this article, XuetangX may already have overtaken one or more of these market leaders.
Today I will discuss some of the features of the English language providers Coursera, edX and FutureLearn.
Coursera (USA) was officially launched in early 2012, edX is a non-profit organization that was established by Harvard University and MIT (USA) in 2012, and FutureLearn (UK) began offering courses in September 2013.
In my experience, edX courses tend to be more challenging, Coursera generally less so, and FutureLearn generally the easiest. However, individual courses may differ from this sweeping assessment.
The Different Platforms
Coursera: most materials are delivered as videos, although there may also be readings, powerpoint slideshows and optional books to purchase. Progress is easy to see on the left side of each page and the platform automatically moves to the next page after videos finish (except when advertisements for the paid option come up if you haven’t already paid).
Although the edX platform looks similar to Coursera at first glance, it’s harder to check your weekly progress and see how much more work is needed for each module. Several times I’ve finished a section, thinking I had finished the whole week’s work, then another module with about 10 steps (videos, readings and learning checkpoint questions) would appear. One excellent aspect of edX is the “Progress” page, that shows a graph of completed test questions and cumulative scores for the course.
FutureLearn features a “To Do” page for each week, where you can check your progress and see at a glance how many more steps before the week’s work is completed. There is also a little message at the top of each page. You have to manually mark each page as complete, but it’s easy to revisit and mark off a page if you forget to do so.
When I began taking online courses, I expected it to be a solitary experience sitting in front of my computer. I was surprised when I began enjoying conversations with students from all around the world. I began looking for threads written by people whom I’d met in previous courses.
Sadly, a year or two ago, Coursera changed the delivery platform and the previously dynamic discussions all but dried up. Now, many Coursera courses are offered on a two-to-four week rolling timetable, so although there were previously many thousands of students enrolled in a class, now there seems to be less than a hundred in some runs. Discussion threads usually carry over from previous runs of the course, so may be months or years old. To find recent comments on the discussion forum page, click on All Threads and select Sort by Latest.
The first edX course I did in 2015 had cumbersome discussion pages that needed two or three clicks to see a complete thread and its replies. Happily, it has improved and some recent edX courses I’ve done have featured some interesting conversations.
FutureLearn does not have a dedicated discussion page, instead, each course page has the option to comment and engage with other students. In several courses that I’ve done, however, students appear to rarely engage with each other’s comments, even when encouraged by course mentors. Sometimes there is simply a long list of individual opinions. You can filter comments by “following” course mentors and particular fellow students and reading only those if you prefer.
Coursera’s mobile app allowed me to download a week’s worth so I could work offline. A handy option, because I have a small mobile data plan. I downloaded via my home Wi-Fi and had no trouble watching the videos while in aeroplane mode. I could also change the playback speed, a real plus in my book because I prefer to watch videos at 1.5X speed or 2X speed, slowing the speed or repeating sections when necessary. While connected through the app, I took practice quizzes, a test for assessment, and added a comment to the discussion forum.
After trialling the Coursera app, EdX’s iPhone app seemed rather cumbersome to this unpracticed user. I couldn’t change the playback speed of videos, nor could I download them for offline viewing. Videos needed to be watched via YouTube, with consequent temptations to continue browsing YouTube. To get back to the app after watching a video, I had to press the Home button and open up the app again. The quizzes and discussions worked fine, but changing screens is much slower on my phone than on the laptop.
I could not find a FutureLearn app for my iPhone, although there appears to be an Android app. When I searched Google for FutureLearn, I was able to log onto the FutureLearn website on my phone. I completed several steps of a course and added a comment to the discussion without difficulty. I was unable to download videos or change the playback speed.
Although all three providers extol their free access, if you want a certificate, you will have to pay. Increasingly, the benefits of paying are forced into students’ consciousness, often with repeated pleas to purchase full access and a certificate. Remember that course costs are usually quoted in US dollars or British pounds. Convert the price into your country’s currency to know the cost.
Coursera offers financial aid to needy students. It may take two weeks for submitted applications to be assessed.
All three providers verify students’ identity using a government-issued form of identification such as a driver’s licence with a photo, plus a webcam picture or uploaded photo of the student. On test pages, the student may have to declare that they are the person taking the test. It’s an honour system, but really, why bother having someone else take a test for you? All three providers promote certificates to improve students’ job prospects and some certificates can be used as credit towards formal university courses. Stories abound from past students who landed their dream job or started a new career after studying online.
Some courses on Coursera can be accessed fully without paying, others have assessment items and sometimes additional bonus resources behind a paywall. Single courses appear to be available for purchase outright, but many specializations (see below) are charged by monthly subscription. Individual courses in specializations can be audited for free. Coursera is also keen for corporations to purchase staff training through their site.
EdX is non-profit, but still offers paid certificates. Receiving a verified certificate is currently the only difference between a free course and the paid option. Fees go towards creating new classes and improving edX.
In early 2017, FutureLearn adopted a policy of limiting free access to courses to two weeks after the end of the course, then access to that course is deleted from a user’s account. Sometimes tests are behind a paywall. If the student later pays for the course their progress is restored. They can then take any outstanding tests and earn a certificate. Courses that were started before this policy was introduced are still available on students’ “Your Courses” page. FutureLearn also has some paid-only courses designed for career people interested in continuing education, such as health professionals.
While Coursera’s and edX’s verified certificates are delivered electronically, FutureLearn also provides a hard copy, which is posted to the recipient. Postage costs differ depending on what country you are in.
As well as single courses, all three providers have some collections of courses designed to be taken together as a series.
Coursera calls them Specializations. EdX calls them XSeries. FutureLearn calls them Programs.
They are great for in-depth study of particular subjects, but it’s increasingly difficult to access these for no cost. As mentioned above, you can often enroll in and audit each course separately without paying cold hard cash.
A Final Thought
If you are interested in a particular course, then enroll in it, no matter which platform it’s on.