I first heard about elearning platforms back in early 2010 and I thought they were a cool idea. However, I didn’t really look into them properly until I started considering a new career path in graphic design a couple of years later.
Being 100% honest, I was extremely confused with all the available online learning platforms, their prices and features. I was also concerned about the quality – Will an online educational community really teach me anything?
You may have similar questions and perhaps you aren’t sure which platform you should choose. To help you pick the right online learning platform for your needs (and budget), I’ve created this in-depth guide.
Best Online Learning Platforms at a Glance
Quick warning: this article is going to be a long one. If you are in a rush and don’t have 20 minutes to read it all, find below my top recommendations for various scenarios.
One thing that’s really confusing is that every platform offers different types of courses, specializations and programs. Let me explain to you what sort of programs you’ll encounter:
Type of online learning courses
Individual courses: There are 1-off classes about a certain topic. The time to complete one will vary depending on the course, but it can take from 2 or 3 weeks to a couple of months. These are the nuclear basis of every other type of course.
Course bundles: Several online learning platforms will offer a collection of courses about a certain topic. They will give you a deep understanding of a field (e.g. data analyst, Python development, etc.). They are called Specializations, Nanodegrees or Learning Paths by the different platforms.
Bachelor’s Degrees: It’s also possible to earn a traditional bachelor’s degree (at edX or Coursera). As these platforms partner with universities, you’ll receive an official university diploma. Be aware that this won’t be cheap, these start at $15,000 per program.
Master’s Degrees: Similarly to bachelor’s degrees, it’s also possible to study for a master’s degree at edX and Coursera.
There are dozens of educational platforms out there that you can use to learn online, and it can be confusing to pick the best one for your needs. Let me quickly give you a couple of tips for you to choose wisely.
Focused topics: Some of these learning communities focus on a certain topic (e.g. data science, coding or creative crafts). Of course, if you are looking to exclusively learn about one of these topics, a specialized elearning platform may be a better option. For example, Datacamp focuses on data science, CreativeLive is centered on creative courses (e.g. photography or design) and Pluralsight and Codecademy are ideal for computer engineers.
Languages: If you are looking for a course in languages other than English, your choice is going to be limited. Only Udemy, Coursera and LinkedIn Learning offer some courses in other languages like Spanish, German or Portuguese.
Community: Another aspect that varies a lot among the different platforms are the communities. Not many are engaged so interacting with other students and the instructor may not be easy. If you value an engaged community, check topic-focused platforms (e.g. Pluralsight or Datacamp) or Skillshare.
Pricing: Do you have some budget? If not, free MOOC like Coursera or edX are probably a good match. Do you prefer a set fee for each course (check Udemy), or you rather have a subscription (check Skillshare or LinkedIn learning).
Assignments, quizzes and certificates: Not all the platforms described here offer the same approach when it comes to how the courses are followed. Some offer self-graded assignments, others offer peer reviews and a few have exams you’ll need to pass to earn a completion certificate. Make sure you understand this before commiting to a learning platform.
Course quality: Some elearning platforms offer better courses (quality-wise) than others. Generally speaking, Skillshare, LinkedIn Learning, edX and Coursera offer (some) top-notch courses. Courses from organisations with topic-centered elearning communities like Creativelive, Pluralsight or Datacamp also will offer a bit more.
Best Online Learning Platforms in Detail
However, if you would like to get to know the most popular online course platforms in-detail, check out the next paragraphs.
Best Bang for Your Buck
With over 5 million students, this online course platform originally from New York offers a wide range of courses you can access for $99 a year ($15 if you pay monthly). Skillshare first started as an elearning platform for creatives, but it has evolved and now covers more topics (e.g. IT, business, language-learning, etc.).
In my opinion, it’s one of the best platforms out there if you just want to learn (or improve) skills, and you don’t mind paying a subscription – you’ll be able to access all the courses as long as you renew your Skillshare premium account.
What are Skillshare’s pros:
Free courses: 10% of Skillshare courses are offered for free, right now there are over 2,000 classes available at no cost. Be aware that offline watching is not available for free members.
Choice: With over 25,000 courses there aren’t many alternatives (besides Udemy) that will give you as much choice as Skillshare does.
Price: A premium membership for Skillshare is only $99 per year (you need to pay in advance) or $15 a month if you pay monthly – cheaper than Spotify.
Course quality: The course quality varies from course to course as anyone is allowed to publish. However, some classes are produced by Skillshare and by leading companies like Mailchimp or Google, these are normally top-quality.
Community: I find Skillshare’s community more engaged (and welcoming) than others (e.g. Udemy or MasterClass).
Available languages: Even if Skillshare seems to encourage instructors to have courses in other languages, the reality is that it’s primarily an English elearning community.
Certificates: Sadly, Skillshare doesn’t offer completion course certificates for its students.
Who is it for?
Skillshare is perfect for professionals that aren’t bothered about getting accomplishment certificates but want to keep on improving their skills or learn new skills at an affordable cost.
Coursera has definitely made a name for itself in the last years by providing online students with top-university courses. Thanks to this elearning platform from California, more than 50 million students have accessed courses from universities like Duke, Stanford or Yale.
I have to say that their mobile app for iOS and Android is one of the best ones I’ve tried. It actually makes it very easy for students to follow courses on the go – it even has offline viewing for free courses.
What are Coursera’s pros:
Content quality: As you can imagine, Coursera’s courses are among the best as universities such as Stanford, Duke or Yale are behind them.
Course flexibility: Coursera offers many types of courses, individual courses, specializations or higher education degrees.
Accredited certificates: Because Coursera partners with these universities, you’ll be able to get official certificates for your courses.
Free courses: You’ll be able to join almost every Coursera class for free as long as you aren’t intending to earn a completion certificate.
Higher-education degrees: It’s one of the few online learning platforms (alongside edX and Simplilearn) to offer secondary education programs (e.g. bachelor’s and master’s degrees).
Languages: There are many languages available at Coursera as it partners with international universities too.
A bit technical: Coursera is all about higher education content, so you may find that some of its courses will require you to have previous knowledge (e.g. maths, chemistry or physics).
Confusing offer: Because Coursera has several types of courses, it can get a bit bewildering.
Who is it for?
Coursera is certainly aimed at students wanting the highest quality education, and looking to earn accredited completion certificates and university diplomas.
What is now known as LinkedIn Learning was founded in 1995 as Lynda, a resource to support Lynda Weinman’s educational project. In 2002 it started to offer online courses (way before Netflix considered streaming entertainment), by 2004 it had more than 100 courses online.
It grew so much that in 2015 LinkedIn bought the project for 1.5 billion – not bad if you think that Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion.
What are LinkedIn Learning’s pros:
LinkedIn integration: Since it integrates with LinkedIn, many users wanting to move forward with their career may find this interesting.
Languages: LinkedIn Learning is available in a few languages other than English.
Price: A LinkedIn subscription is fairly affordable and will give you access to all it’s course library. It also comes with a 1-month cancelation policy.
Course production: Its courses are well produced, and the overall quality is higher than most of its competitors.
Choice: There are over 15,000 courses available at LinkedIn Learning. There is also a big pool of topics available: from spreadsheets tips to astrophotography.
Community: It’s not the most engaged community one could find.
Who is it for?
Similar to Skillshare, LinkedIn Learning offers a huge pool of good content for a (relatively) small annual subscription. If you are an intensive social media user (particularly LinkedIn), it will have some added value for you.
edX isn’t short of users with over 25 million students having enrolled on one of their 2,800+ courses at some point. The concept is very similar to Coursera’s in that they make available top-university courses to everyone.
There are also a bunch of course types that you can enroll in. For example, you can access MicroBachelors, MicroMasters, Professional Certificates or Master’s Degrees. You’ll find the right one for you.
What are edX’s pros:
Official certificates: You’ll be able to earn accredited certificates as edX partners with universities like Harvard, Berkeley, MIT or Boston University.
Free courses: You’ll be able to access most courses for free (provided you aren’t looking for an official certificate).
Flexible learning: Many courses can be started at a time of your choosing. Also, there are several types of courses for you to register.
Course quality: As you can imagine, the quality of edX courses is really high as top-universities prepare them.
University programs: You can enroll in university degrees and earn higher education diplomas at a fraction of the cost (from $15,000).
Technical content: Courses can get a bit technical as they are university produced.
Languages: There aren’t many courses in other languages than English, check out Coursera or Udemy if you require courses in Spanish, German or other languages.
Who is it for?
edX is for anyone looking to earn accredited certificates or university degrees.
Udacity’s focus is more on quality than quantity. With less than 100 Nanodegrees available and about 100,000 students having already graduated, it is not the largest learning platform. However, it partners with leading businesses (e.g. Google or Nvidia) to create amazing courses.
There are a few free courses (about 200) that you can check for free, but if you want a Udacity certificate (non-accredited), you’ll have to enroll (and pay) one of its programs.
What are Udacity’s pros:
Course quality: The quality of the courses is very high, and you’ll be able to gain practical technical knowledge.
VIP partners: Udacity creates its courses partnering with leading professionals and companies like Nvidia, Google or Mercedes.
Career advice: One of the services that paying Udacity students are offered is career advice. They’ll help you write your CV or plan the skills you need to acquire.
Certificates: Even if they don’t offer accredited certificates, Udacity completion diplomas are taken seriously by employers.
Jobs: There are several companies (e.g. Lyft, Mercedes, Nvidia or Google) that look into Udacity Alumni to fulfill job openings.
Limited choice: There aren’t many courses available. At the moment about 80 Nanodegrees are offered. Also, the pool of topics isn’t the most varied so you won’t find courses on every subject.
Expensive: A Udacity Nanodegree won’t be cheap, it’ll cost you between $700 to $2,000 depending on the program.
Community: I have the feeling that is not the most engaged community out there, but that’s just my personal opinion.
Who is it for?
Udacity will be useful if you are looking to professionally develop or have a career change. They can also help you find a job that suits you.
If you’ve heard of one online educational platform, chances are it was Udemy. Udemy is probably the most popular elearning community with over 50 million students and more than 150,000 courses available.
Udemy is a global marketplace for online courses, you’ll be able to find classes about pretty much every topic and from many instructors (even in languages like Spanish, German, French or Chinese).
What are Udemy’s pros:
Choice: Udemy has the largest pool of courses available, you’ll be able to find the one you are looking for.
Price: Udemy is fairly affordable, individual courses start at $19 and can cost you up to $199.
Free courses: Udemy offers loads of courses at no cost. If you are looking to learn for free, make sure to check them out.
Refund policy: There is a generous refund policy of 30 days. If you are not satisfied with the course, give it back.
Non-accredited certificates: Udemy isn’t an accredited institution so its certificates aren’t official.
Content quality: Anyone can publish courses at Udemy, and even if there are content quality checks, the quality of the course can be a bit of a miss and match.
Who is it for?
Udemy is going to be a good option if you prefer to pay for each course individually and have access for life. It’s also an affordable platform, but you’ll need to do your due diligence to assess course quality.
This San Francisco-based elearning community has helped over 1 million students to earn certifications. Over 2,000 instructors work around the clock to produce and maintain its programs. Around 400 courses are available at the moment of writing this article.
Simplilearn curates its courses, the offer is more limited than with other online learning platforms, but the quality is (normally) superior too. It’s curious that it started as a blog for Project Management.
What are Simplilearn’s pros:
Higher Education Partners: Simplilearn offers some programs where you’ll be able to obtain certificates from their educational partners (e.g. University or Georgia, Duke or Santa Monica College).
Course quality: You can expect the Simplilearn courses to be good.
Digital skills: Simplilearn focuses on digital skills, you’ll find programs for subjects like IT, data science, digital marketing or project management.
Price: Simplilearn programs aren’t cheap, you’ll need some budget to get into one.
Choice: There are a few hundred courses, it’s not the elearning platform with the largest pool of courses.
Who is it for?
Similar to edX or Coursera, those looking for good-quality courses and the possibility to earn an official certificate, should consider Simplilearn.
That’s a fair point, some of you may be looking for an elearning partner that can help your business or your team get better at whatever it is you do. Then, check out these platforms:
Coursera for Businesses
LinkedIn Learning: With LinkedIn Learning, companies’ employees will get access to 16,000 courses in 7 languages (English, Spanish, German, Portuguese, French, Japanese and Chinese). It’s suitable for small teams and also to big organizations.
Skillshare Teams: If you want to offer your company’s employees top-quality courses at an affordable price ($99 a year per user), Skillshare is a good option. Sadly, it’s only available in English.
Udemy for Business: Choose Udemy if you are looking to provide employees with the largest course library (over 150,000 courses). It starts at $360 a year per user for a minimum of 5 users – so it won’t be cheap.
Coursera for Business: For $400 per year (and user) employees will get access to more than 3,000 courses and will be able to earn certificates for those.
Be aware that most of these elearning platforms offer education advice for businesses, but this is normally paid separately (e.g. a higher plan).
Most Popular Online Learning Platforms
The elearning platforms popularity can vary a bit from country to country, but if we look at the trendier platforms globally, we see a clear winner: Udemy. It seems to be the only platform with a clear upwards trend.
Google Trends Online Learning Platforms Comparison
The other popular online course platforms seem to have stable growth, perhaps Coursera’s popularity has increased a bit the last year or two – nothing too exciting though.
How Much Are These Platforms?
Prices with elearning platforms can be a bit confusing as there are way too many types of courses and different approaches to pricing. In the following paragraphs I’ll try to explain how all these work.
Pay Per Course
The most simple arrangement is to pay for each course that you take. This will work out cheaper for you if you are only interested in taking a couple of courses.
But what online course platforms will let you pay per course?
LinkedIn Learning: If you aren’t interested in purchasing an annual LinkedIn Learning subscription, you can purchase courses separately, those start at $19.99.
Udemy: Courses at Udemy are purchased individually, they will cost you between $19 to $200 depending on the course.
Coursera: There are a bunch of ways you can enroll on a class or a program at Coursera, one of them is to purchase one of its courses – this will get you access to graded assignments and the option to get a completion certificate. Prices are between $29 to $100 a course
edX: Similarly to the other previous platforms, edX will let you purchase courses individually. Be ready to spend between $50 to $3000 per course.
Library Course Subscriptions
Probably the most common approach is to have a subscription-based account that will let you access all (or most) of the elearning platform’s courses. The price goes from about $100 per year up to $400.
Let’s check the most popular subscriptions for these elearning platforms:
Number of courses
Yes, not accredited
1,800 hours of content in IT
6,000 courses in IT
Yes, not accredited
1,500+ creative courses
Statements of Accomplishment
Course bundles Subscriptions
Some of these platforms also offer a series of courses about a certain topic that you can take to become an expert in that subject. The platforms give them several names like career paths, nanodegrees, specializations or micromasters, but in essence they are the same concept.
Coursera Specializations: Between 4 to 10 courses that relate to a common topic (e.g. machine learning), once you complete them you’ll be awarded a certificate. They cost about $39 to $89 a month, the duration will depend on how hard you work and the amount of courses the bundle has.
Udacity Nanodegrees: Udacity programs are a set of courses about a topic (e.g. car engineering). You’ll need to pay a subscription for the time that you take to finish the program, normally they cost between $700 to $2,000 (depending on the duration).
edX MicroMasters and MicroBachelors: You can think of these as a little taster of a full Masters or Bachelors degree. They cost $166 per credit, so a micro/program can range from $500 to $2,000.
Simplilearn Learning Paths: Similar to the other providers, Simplilearn offers several course bundles to help you develop a career path. They normally include between 6 to 13 courses and cost about $1,300 to $2,000.
Scholarships & Financial Aid
Some of these online learning communities have in place Scholarships you can apply to to get into the courses without having to pay tuition fees. Generally, you have to fill in a form explaining why you deserve the scholarship and provide details of your financial situation.
Coursera financial aid
If you don’t make it into a scholarship, it’s also possible to ask for financial aid so you can still afford your course. Most elearning platforms have financial partners (e.g. PayPal Credit) that will help with this. However, please check the interest rate that they will charge you.
Free vs Paid Courses
As you’ve probably seen, many of these elearning providers offer some of their courses for free. However, they normally come with some limitations:
Udemy certificate example
No certificates: You won’t be able to earn any proof of accomplishment if you are on a free course, this option is exclusive to paid plans.
Graded assignments: Some online course platforms will let you give a go to the assignments (even for free), but you won’t receive a grade.
Instructors’ feedback: Finally, some platforms won’t let you message the teacher or assistants for help if you aren’t on a paid plan/course.
Will They Help Your Career?
We live in a time where changing careers is more common than it was 30 years ago with the average person changing careers 5-7 times during their working life. Now that’s where online learning has become more appealing than ever, due to its flexibility and affordability to name just a few of the perks.
So I thought it would be helpful to highlight why learning online may help you in your career development.
Developing Your Skills For Free
If you are curious about learning online and a little hesitant to commit financially to a particular course. Then don’t fear as so many online learning platforms generously offer many of their courses for free. This really is a unique way to develop your already existing skills to learn something completely new for absolutely nothing. Whoever said ‘there is nothing free in this life’ well in this case there really is.
Online platforms like skillshare offer a generous 1-month free trial and sometimes even have a promotional 2 month free trial. This allows you to try any course for free and explore your options before you have to spend a penny.
One thing that is probably the most valuable to all of us is having enough time. Learning online is a guaranteed way of saving time. You have the convenience of studying from home or maybe your favourite coffee shop as long as it has decent WIFI.
In addition to working from a comfortable spot, many courses like Udemy are completely on-demand, meaning you can enrol on a course at any time and learn at your own pace.
There is the added bonus of the Android and iOS app of being able to download an entire course for offline viewing. This is particularly convenient if you are planning to check the course on the go (e.g. train commuting)
In our ever changing world the job market and types of careers available to us are evolving and developing constantly. This means that universities and businesses are focused on offering updated career and market-driven courses. Many online platforms like Udemy are regularly renewing their courses with the newest and current versions of the software that is being used for the course.
Udemy Last Updated
For many, learning online is an opportunity to pursue a verified certification. Your objective may be to help improve your job prospects, add to your resume or share your certificate on your LinkedIn profile.
Some online platforms are partnered with prestigious institutions and companies who create and teach their courses. If you were to choose to study with, for example, edX on one of its 2,500+ courses that are partnered with 145+ prestigious institutions you would receive your accredited certificate from Harvard or Berkeley.
edX verified certificates
Learning and studying on a course or a degree program offered online is far less expensive than those that are offered at a traditional bricks-and-mortar school. Many online learning platforms are partnered with established institutions offering top quality courses with the added recognition of a top-ranked university like MIT or Berkely. If you were to study on a degree program with Coursera or edX its prices range from $10,000 to $25,000 – traditional universities cost around $40,000 a year.
Some of the elearning platforms highlight the possibility of getting a job after completing one of its courses. Udacity’s platform offers a service for career advice where you can get, for example, help to rewrite your CV. You also have the possibility to organise a 1 to 1 chat with one of their career advisors. Be aware that this service is only available in the US.
Udacity career advice
The majority of online learning platforms are designed to create an interactive environment between their learners and instructors. Studying online means you can become part of a global network of other professionals. Many of the platforms give the contact information of its instructors, like Udemy who are happy for learners to contact instructors directly to ask any questions, building good relationships whilst studying may be beneficial in your future career.
Udemy Instructor Bio
How To Find the Right Online Course for You
When deciding on the right online course it can feel a little overwhelming as there are so many options out there. So I put together some tips to help you with making the right decision.
All the online learning platforms have filter features that can really help to narrow downyour search into the specifics that you want from your chosen course. Some platforms like Udemy have a more detailed filter system like topic, course level, language, price, etc – (see image below)
Type of Course
It is true that each elearning community has a different focus for learning. If you look at a platform like Udemy who offers over 150,000 courses on a broad range of subjects from cake decorating to finance and accounting. Whereas a platform like edX focuses on formal education offering well over 2,500+ accredited courses which are all created and taught by prestigious institutions like Harvard.
Most online platforms have reviews and ratings from past students for you to read about their experience of taking a particular course. This really is a good way to read first-hand feedback. It will give you a comprehensive overview of the course. Platforms like Coursera or edX have a really visual and comprehensible review system.
Before deciding on a particular course, something we all want to read about is the course information (e.g. the syllabus, course duration, quizzes, reading material etc). All the learning platforms detail this, but some are more comprehensive than others. Udacity provides a helpful option to download the entire syllabus in a PDF format so you can go away, read about it and then come back and make a decision.
Udacity Course Syllabus
Free Trials & Refunds
Most elearning communities offer free trials when you first sign up, this really is key for you to get to know the platform and what courses they have to offer. The fact that you have a certain number of days to try out its courses without any risk is something none of us can complain about. Some platforms are more generous than others, for example, Skillshare offers a 1 month trial on all its courses and sometimes there is a promotion of 2 free months.
Course prices have a broad range. Prices can start at $19.99 for an individual course and go up to $25,000 for a certified degree program. These prices also reflect your commitment to a course. If you decide on a $19.99 individual course that is 3 weeks self-paced you may not feel so financially bound compared to a $25,000 2-year intensive degree program. Keep in mind many platforms like Skillshare and Udacity offer a bunch of free courses.
Finding out about the instructor that will be teaching your chosen course can be critical in the experience you have. It’s important that they have the right credentials and knowledge to execute the course successfully. For example, Udemy and Skillshare courses are created, owned and managed by the instructor and each instructor has a different approach to teaching
Last Thoughts About Online Course Platforms
So with all things considered I hope this comprehensive overview enables you to have a deeper knowledge of all the online learning platforms that are available to you.
If you are looking for some takeaways from this guide before you make any final decisions. I have highlighted some below:
Key areas to consider:
Range of course topics
Best free courses
Self-paced or instructor-paced courses
Accredited certificates (for some platforms)
Choosing the right online course may take a little bit of time and research, but once you find the right elearning community and course you won’t look back. So don’t miss out on joining the wave of online learning and its global community.
Please, leave a comment below if you have any questions and I will do my best to get back to you.
Hey. I am Catherine and have been working as a freelancer for many years now and I believe that you are in charge of your own destiny. If learning a new skill or having a career change is something you want to do, then there is no better time than the present. If you have a question please feel free to ask me anything or leave me a comment.