Right now, Coursera is teaching over 50 million students worldwide.
This online education juggernaut has partnered with top-ranked institutions to offer thousands of college-level courses, many of which you can enjoy for free from the comfort of your home.
Like many people, I’ve been spending more time at home because of coronavirus. It was the perfect opportunity to see what Coursera has to offer.
In my epic Coursera review I will:
- Explain how Coursera works.
- Break down the learning options available (spoiler: many of these options are free!).
- List Coursera’s pros and cons (along with some advice on making the most of the platform).
- Describe my experience taking 3 individual courses to give you a clearer sense of what Coursera can offer you.
- Give my verdict on whether Coursera could be a good option for you.
Is Coursera worth it?
Let’s find out.
What is Coursera?
Coursera is an online learning platform with a focus on higher education. Much like its competitors Udemy, MasterClass, and Skillshare, Coursera is completely online and covers a wide range of topics.
What sets Coursera apart?
Coursera provides college-level instruction from professors at accredited institutions. Essentially, you gain access to real classes, many of which have been tried and tested at brick-and-mortar institutions.
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to ponder ancient philosophy with a specialist in the field…now’s your chance.
Plus, for a reasonable fee, you can earn a certificate indicating that you’ve completed a course.
Coursera has partnered with universities such as Yale, Johns Hopkins, Rice University, Princeton, the University of Michigan, and many more. The education you receive will be excellent. With over 4100 courses available, you’re sure to find something that strikes your fancy.
Coursera can help you attain a variety of goals, including:
- Gaining additional skills to stay up-to-date at your job or find a new one.
- Honing your skills in critical thinking, analysis, and argumentation.
- You’ve always had an interest in Egyptology, modern art, or zoology, or any other subject covered by Coursera (there are a lot).
- Or you’re simply itching to learn something new while you’re in COVID lockdown.
Whatever your reasons, I believe that Coursera has something to offer you.
The 5 different learning options
As I’ve mentioned, Coursera is free—to a certain extent.
I have personally sampled around a dozen courses (and completed several in full) without spending a single cent.
To understand Coursera’s pricing model, you first have to realize that they currently offer 5 learning options:
- Individual Courses
- Professional Certificates
- MasterTrack Certificates
Each learning program varies in length, difficulty, and cost.
When you first visit the Coursera website, you may be confused by all these options. I’ll take a moment here to outline what each program offers.
Coursera currently offers over 4100 online courses from top universities and companies around the world. Courses consist of video lectures, reading material, peer-reviewed assignments, and group discussion forums.
Many of these courses can be taken for free, which is what makes Coursera so fantastic. You simply make an account, enroll, and jump immediately into the course.
You can also pay to enroll in individual courses. Paying for a course gives you access to:
- Graded assignments
- More content, such as extra video lectures or bonus materials
- A certificate
For most people, the main difference between auditing a course for free and paying for it is the certificate, which can be featured on your résumé or LinkedIn profile.
How much will this help your career prospects in the real world? That’s still an open question and depends on your field and employer.
Specializations are basically a step up from individual courses.
Rather than just dipping your toes in and taking a one-off course, you can pursue a Specialization by taking multiple courses centered on the same topic (say, Digital Marketing).
Right now, Coursera has 430+ Specializations on offer. This is a great option for people with specific career goals who need to demonstrate proficiency in a particular skill set.
Professional Certificates are similar to individual Courses and Specializations, but they’re even more career-oriented. For instance, there’s the IBM Data Science Professional Certificate, which takes an estimated 3 months to complete.
Each Professional Certificate is issued from the institution that developed the course.
These programs often involve completing hands-on projects to build your portfolio. They are designed to give you a pathway to an industry-recognized certification and provide career support resources.
Click here to learn more about Professional Certificates on Coursera.
Taking yet another step up, MasterTrack Certificates involve working through online modules that form a distinct component of a Master’s degree program. So, you can make progress toward a Master’s degree with coursework that may later give you credit in a full degree program.
MasterTrack Certificate programs comprise real-world projects and live expert instruction.
How much do MasterTrack Certificates cost? They generally run around $2000+ USD, which can either be paid upfront or in installments.
Given the hands-on, intensive nature of these programs, you should expect to spend 4 to 8 months completing each one.
Finally, online degrees on Coursera are similar to earning a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree on campus. The credentials are fully legitimate.
One major advantage to an online degree with Coursera is that you can expect to pay a fraction of the price.
At the moment, Coursera offers online Master’s degrees in Business, Computer Science, Data Science, and Public Health, as well as a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Arts and Sciences from the University of North Texas.
You might worry that an online degree just isn’t the same as a more traditional one. And it’s true that you won’t have the classic “college experience” of living on a treelined campus, attending class in huge Gothic buildings, or browsing the endless shelves of the university library.
On the other hand, you also won’t have to deal with sharing a dorm bathroom!
But there are plenty of benefits to studying online. For instance:
- Flexibility to study anywhere, anytime.
- No need to leave your job or hometown to access a top university degree.
- There’s no speed limit: You can set your own pace.
Let’s talk about the last point a bit more – no speed limit.
If you’re extra motivated, you can complete an online degree incredibly quickly. You not limited by the speed limit of a traditional curriculum.
Just one example: Derek Sivers explains in his article There’s No Speed Limit that he completed a 5-year Music Degree in just 2 years. If you’re hoping to accelerate your degree ambitions, an online platform may be perfect for you.
Coursera allows a good deal of flexibility. You can move at your own pace, whether that means working slowly and steadily due to a hectic lifestyle, or blazing through a degree in record time.
One final thing to mention about degrees: You can’t simply pay the money and enroll immediately. Instead, you’ll have to apply and be admitted to the specific program.
How much does Coursera cost?
As I mentioned above, there are thousands of free courses on Coursera. You can access a truly mindboggling amount of material for free and work through it at your own pace.
If, however, you want a qualification at the end, then you will pay a fee. The pricing structure is a bit convoluted, but here are your main options:
- Individual course certificate: Courses usually cost between $49 and $99 as a one-off payment.
- Specializations and Professional Certificates: These run on a subscription basis, typically between $39 and $79 per month.
- MasterTrack Certificates: The starting price is around $2000.
- Degrees: Expect degrees to cost $15,000 and up.
Coursera Plus is a new feature in 2020. You get unlimited access to over 3000 courses for an annual subscription. At the time of writing, the cost is $399.
This is an excellent option for people who want to broaden their horizons and take multiple courses. Across the year, you could earn several certifications from leading universities and tech firms.
Check out all the features of Coursera Plus here.
Is Coursera Plus worth it?
I guess it boils down to how many certificates on Coursera you want to earn in a year.
If there are multiple certifications you’re genuinely interested in, Coursera Plus offers good value. If you only want to take one or two paid courses, you’re probably better off without it.
One benefit of Coursera Plus is that by paying $399 upfront, you’ll be extremely motivated to complete new courses on a monthly basis to guarantee that you get your money’s worth.
Coursera Plus subscription vs specialization subscriptions
As I mentioned above, specializations range in cost from $39-$79 a month and takes three months to complete on average. Therefore, the average cost for a specialization is between $117-$237.
If you plan on enrolling in multiple specializations across the year then Coursera Plus offers excellent value.
In which fields are Coursera especially strong?
While you obviously can’t become a surgeon or earn your MD without hands-on experience, you can vastly improve your health literacy and prepare for an array of careers in Healthcare. Coursera offers online degrees in Public Health from Imperial College London and the University of Michigan. In addition, it has Specializations on Epidemiology in Public Health, Anatomy, the Fundamentals of Immunology, and many more.
As for Business, Coursera again makes it possible to earn your MBA online, or simply to take a variety of classes in Management, Finance, Marketing, Entrepreneurship, and so on.
These are all areas in which Coursera offers an impressive array of courses. You can mix and match as needed, earn a Certificate in a particular skill, or opt for the more systematic rigor of a degree depending on your personal goals.
When it comes to the Liberal Arts, Coursera may not be completely comprehensive, but it has some real gems. I’ve sampled multiple courses over the past few years, on topics ranging from History and Literature to Biology and Psychology.
Are Coursera certificates worth it?
Coursera has helped revolutionize online learning by offering access to quality education for free or at low cost.
However, if you choose to pay for a course, the question is whether Coursera certificates are worth it?
On the one hand, anyone can enroll in Coursera which tends to negate the sort of exclusivity universities and colleges have.
However, a Coursera certificate does show that you are committed to learning more about your field and that you are self-motivated to complete the work.
With the introduction of specializations and professional certificates, it seems that Coursera certificates are becoming more valuable. These demonstrate proficiency in a particular skill set and are much more hands on in terms of coursework.
MasterTrack certificates, of course, are even more valuable.
A Coursera certificate can be added to your résumé and LinkedIn profile, and shown to your employer. As Coursera continues to grow in popularity, the recognition of these certificates should continue to grow.
How Coursera works
I have tried out several Coursera courses. Especially now that I’m at home, I’m so happy to have easy access to this much quality material.
So what does a typical course look like?
When you click on a course you’re interested in, you will be directed to a page with information about the course, an introduction to the instructor(s), and a syllabus. This overview lets you know the topics covered in the course and the expected timeline.
If you decide to enroll, you’ll be taken to the course homepage, which gives you a week-by-week overview and prompts you to get started with the first lecture. You can see at a glance what to expect each week: how much time you should expect to spend watching video lectures, reading, and completing practice exercises and quizzes.
Although the courses are generally broken down into weeks, remember that this weekly schedule is only a suggestion. You have complete discretion and can move more quickly and more slowly.
I completed a “4-week” course in only 7 days.
On the left-hand side of your screen, there’s a toolbar that directs you to other areas of the course, such as Discussion Forums, Notes, Messages, and Resources.
As you watch video lectures, you can easily take notes on the side. Closed captioning is available, often in multiple languages. And if you scroll down, you’ll typically find a full video transcript.
There is some variation in video production quality, but so far, all the video lectures I’ve watched have at least been functional and effective (even if they’re not about to win any Oscars).
Each week is broken up into smaller chunks. That includes the lectures; instead of hunkering down for an hour to watch a lecture, you can watch shorter segments of 10 to 15 minutes at a time.
As an example, Week 2 of “Model Thinking” includes 6 short videos on Aggregation, 6 short videos (plus a reading) on Decision Models, and then a quiz to review the material. The videos range from 5 to 18 minutes in length.
This organization makes learning easy. I can go back to review individual concepts as needed, and I enjoy the ready-made breaks in between lessons, which give me the chance to refocus.
The pros of Coursera
Now that I’ve covered how the platform works, let’s get to the important part: Does Coursera actually work? How effective is at teaching you something new?
Overall, I have been very happy with my experience using Coursera and think it is one of the best online learning platforms available for several reasons:
- Coursera is a huge platform with thousands of courses.
- You have the option to enroll in or audit many courses for free.
- For a reasonable price, you can earn certificates or even degrees online.
- You can work at your own pace.
- You’ll receive high-quality instruction from experts in the field.
The cons of Coursera
Of course, nothing’s perfect, and even a platform as vast and varied as Coursera can’t provide everything to everyone.
Traditional instruction has benefits that simply can’t be replicated online—things like in-person socializing and networking, and the sense of accountability that comes from personal interaction with your instructor.
In my experience, Coursera has the following limitations:
- The discussion boards are hit-or-miss, especially in larger courses that can be taken at any time.
- You have limited interaction with instructors.
- There are also limited opportunities for in-depth feedback.
- The platform is not yet fully comprehensive: Some subject areas have more available courses than others.
In the following sections, I’ll delve into these strengths and limitations of Coursera and give you a clear picture of what to expect from this platform.
Individual course reviews
If you’ve read my Coursera review this far, you’re probably interested in giving Coursera a try.
But which course should you take? With several thousand options available, it’s hard to decide where to start.
In this section, I’ll review some of the more popular classes currently available on Coursera and make my personal recommendations.
Science of Well-Being by Yale University
One of Coursera’s most popular offerings right now, The Science of Well-Being is taught by Yale professor Laurie Santos, who created the course because she was concerned about the rising levels of stress, depression, and anxiety she noticed among her undergraduates.
So far, over 2 million online learners have benefited from the class as well—myself among them!
Santos addresses common misconceptions we have about the things that will make us happy and demonstrates how we can change our habits and thought patterns to increase our own happiness. She has a conversational style of lecturing, and the video lectures are filmed in a “living room” environment with a small group of Yale students in attendance.
I love that this course blends theory and practice. Santos not only covers relevant, up-to-date research, but also directly encourages students to apply this research to their own lives.
Each week, you’re assigned “rewirements,” new habits to practice and track over time. Rewirements for Week 4, for example, are exercise and sleep: When I went through this week, I increased my daily exercise, made sure to practice impeccable sleep hygiene, and reported on my experience in a journal.
You’ll need to take accountability for following through and completing these assignments if you want to derive the full benefit of the class. I think it’s worth it—as I consciously “rewired” my habits, I gained insight into which aspects of my life were working for me and which weren’t.
By the end of the course, I felt a noticeable lift in my mood.
Model Thinking by the University of Michigan
Taught by Scott Page at the University of Michigan, Model Thinking introduces students to a variety of models, ways of thinking and organizing information that enable us to make sense of a chaotic, confusing world.
Models can help explain (and predict) phenomena such as market crashes, social changes, business decisions, and more. I’ve learned about tipping points, Markov processes, Lyapunov functions, just to name a few.
This course is highly engaging. Page is a clear communicator and, like Santos, he has an easygoing and conversational vibe that makes me want to keep watching.
He’s designed the course to be useful to a variety of learners. For each model, he provides an accessible intro lecture followed by more technical lectures that walk through the necessary steps and real-world applications. So, depending on your personal preferences, you can either learn just the basic concepts or delve into applying these models to practical situations.
This is one of those courses I can see myself returning to over and over again.
Roman Architecture by Yale University
I highly recommend Roman Architecture by Yale professor Diana Kleiner for anyone who has been to Italy or who is hoping to visit when the pandemic is over. I just began this course a couple weeks ago.
Something about being trapped in one place has sent my wanderlust through the roof, and since actual travel is off the table, I’m trying vicarious travel (with a side of historical time travel).
In this well-structured lecture course, Kleiner focuses first on the city of Rome and ancient cities in central Italy such as Pompeii. She then turns to the Roman provinces, which extended around the Mediterranean in North Africa, the Middle East, Greece, and Western Europe.
In the past few days, I’ve learned how to “read” Roman cities instead of simply admiring them. Rome is now a huge and sprawling city, but Kleiner gave me an appreciation for how it has developed over the centuries and why it looks the way it does.
As she explains, “You can see from the relatively crooked and narrow streets of the city of Rome…the city grew in a fairly ad hoc way…It wasn’t planned all at once; it just grew up over time beginning in the 8th century BC.” Rome itself stands as a stark contrast to other, more planned Roman cities, which were typically designed methodically and resembled military camps.
I’m still learning about Rome and central Italy, and I can’t wait to move on to other Roman sites such as Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia.
What I liked most about my experience with Coursera
Like many online learning platforms, Coursera gives you the freedom to design your own schedule and curriculum, especially if you’re taking courses for personal enjoyment.
During this time of lockdown and social distancing, I’ve greatly accelerated my learning pace. One course I’ve tried out is Russian for Beginners, and it’s amazing to see how quickly I can progress with all this free time on my hands!
I am constantly amazed (and very appreciative) at how much top-quality and 100% free content Coursera has. At the moment, I’m not working toward any particular degree, just exploring new subjects and indulging my curiosity.
And I haven’t spent a single dime.
Furthermore, I enjoy how well-organized and engaging most of the courses I’ve taken are. The instructors have a wealth of knowledge in their fields, and I can tell how much effort has gone into crafting each lesson. Video lectures are typically quite short (from 5 to 30 minutes), long enough to get the central points across but short enough to fit into a busy day.
Coursera is not just a passive platform. You absolutely cannot just sit and watch a few videos as you slowly fall into a stupor and then say you’ve learned something. To get the most out of each course, you need to put in the work.
For example, most courses require you to complete quizzes, readings, and peer-reviewed assignments, as well as meet a minimum grade before you can successfully pass the course.
I find that Coursera works best when you embrace these more active elements. Even if you’re just auditing a course, I strongly suggest you do all the readings, complete any worksheets or assignments, take notes, and give your full attention to the video lectures.
What could’ve been improved
How could Coursera do better? And what are its limitations?
In my opinion, there are a few areas where Coursera has room to improve and a few limitations that are basically intrinsic to any online learning platform.
First, there aren’t very many language-learning courses (with exceptions for a handful of languages). English language learners are in luck: There are multiple courses on improving your English skills, including Specializations in Business English.
As for other languages, there are beginner courses in Mandarin Chinese, and you can find a few classes in languages such as Russian, Korean, and Spanish. But in general, Coursera is not the most comprehensive language-learning platform out there, so if you aspire to become a polyglot, you may want to look elsewhere.
Another drawback: Assessment of student work is limited. In a typical college-level History class, for instance, you’ll often write papers and receive feedback from the instructor. You may even have a scaffolded assignment that involves submitting multiple drafts and editing them in response to feedback over the course of the semester.
Coursera classes generally can’t provide this kind of intensive feedback. Instead, you’ll see assessments such as simple multiple-choice quizzes. That said, each course is different, and some involve interactive exercises or graded assignments with peer feedback.
Finally, as can be expected, there is no in-person socializing or networking on Coursera. The platform attempts to generate a sense of community via discussion boards, with mixed results.
I have yet to find a Coursera discussion board at a comparable level of interaction and engagement as an in-person discussion section at a university (even one filled with relatively unenthused undergrads). This is especially true for larger classes that accept enrollment at any time. While I love moving at my own pace through the material, I do sometimes miss having a cohort of students learning alongside me.
That said, the discussion boards can come in handy. In some cases, instructors and their teaching assistants keep tabs on student feedback and jump in to answer common questions.
For instance, as part of the Science of Well-Being course, Professor Laurie Santos recently held a Facebook Live Q&A event specifically to address student concerns in the age of COVID-19.
The 3 Coursera alternatives
Now that you have a thorough understanding of what Coursera is, how it operates, and what kinds of classes it offers, I’ll briefly outline how it compares to other online learning platforms. With so many options available, we are living in a golden age of online education.
I’ve experimented with these platforms as well, and here’s my take on the best online learning platform in 2020.
Coursera vs. MasterClass
I’m no stranger to MasterClass. I’ve already written a detailed review of it on Hack Spirit, which you can find here.
If you cross Netflix with TED talks with education, you basically get MasterClass. Rather than replicating the higher education experience (with professors and a focus on traditional academic subjects and career-oriented skills), MasterClass partners with people who have made a huge name for themselves in their respective fields.
How cool is that?!
If you want to advance in a career such as data science or accounting, then Coursera will be the better learning platform for you. Likewise if your interests lie in areas like psychology, history, or other academic subjects.
If you are pursuing a creative career or simply want to be inspired by absolute legends, then you should look into MasterClass.
Coursera vs. Udemy
Udemy, in my opinion, is somewhere you go to “dabble” in an array of topics. It’s great for learning a few new skills here and there.
Coursera is far more focused. If you truly want a deeper understanding of an academic subject, then I would suggest Coursera.
That said, Udemy is valuable if you are more interested in art, creativity, or personal development. It has many courses available in these areas and provides quality instruction at a great value. And it does have some reasonably priced classes in areas such as web development, finance, and IT.
Coursera vs. Skillshare
Skillshare offers courses in nearly everything. However, just like Udemy, it’s not nearly as focused, and the production and lecture quality is not quite as good at that of Coursera.
My overall bottom line is clear: Do you want college-level courses without the college price tag? Do you want a more thorough understanding of a particular topic? Do you need specific new skills to advance in your career?
In all of these cases, Coursera is your best bet.
If, however, you want to brush up on creative skills, then take a look at Udemy or Skillshare. And if you want inspiration from masters who have reached the upper echelons of their field (and become household names along the way), then MasterClass is probably your platform of choice.
Coursera Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
I’ve covered just about everything I can think of in this Coursera review…But just in case, I’ve compiled answers to some of the most common questions people are asking online about Coursera.
Is Coursera free?
Most courses are free to audit. If you would like access to graded assignments and a certificate upon completion, then you will need to pay a fee.
How much do Coursera courses cost?
Individual courses with a certificate cost between $29 and $99 (one-time payment). More intensive programs have higher price tags (e.g. MasterTrack coursework might cost $2000+).
Is Coursera legitimate?
Yes. Coursera was founded by two Stanford professors, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller. It provides legitimate instruction, and the platform is safe to use. The skills and knowledge you obtain from Coursera are completely credible. I’ll never obtain formal credit for that class in Egyptology I took, but I gained a wealth of accurate information on the topic.
Is a Coursera certificate useful?
Out in the “real world,” Coursera can have tangible benefits. Verified certificates indicating that you’ve completed a course are increasingly recognized by employers. As Coursera grows, employers’ familiarity with the platform is likely to grow too.
Do I need a subscription to use Coursera?
You only need a Coursera subscription if you want to take a Specialization or Professional Certificate. However, the courses in these programs can be audited for free if you don’t care about earning a certificate upon completion. If you do subscribe, you can cancel your subscription at any time.
Is there a money-back guarantee?
Yes, Coursera provides a 14-day money-back guarantee when you purchase a Coursera Plus subscription.
How many people use Coursera (as of 2020)?
Last I checked, 53 million learners worldwide are using Coursera.
My Coursera review verdict: Is it worth it?
I recommend Coursera to anyone who wants to further their education without the commitment or expense of a traditional university degree.
I have friends who have used Coursera to pick up skills that helped them negotiate for raises. I know people who have been unsure what they wanted from life and explored a few different subjects on Coursera to figure it out.
As for me, I’m just thrilled that I can benefit (for free) from Coursera as I sit in the comfort of my home, on lockdown for what feels like an eternity.
Instead of spending this afternoon bored out of my gourd, I’m going on a virtual tour of Leptis Magna in North Africa, as it appeared during the reign of Roman emperor Augustus.
If you’re in a similar position, I hope Coursera gives you the same opportunity to learn something new and brighten your day during isolation.
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