One question I get asked all the time here at Class Central is: are Coursera courses really free?
Coursera’s user interface is intentionally designed to push learners towards Coursera’s paid offerings. It often confuses new learners regarding what content is actually free on the platform, and how to go about signing up for it.
Since I’ve answered this question hundreds of times before, I decided to write an article clarifying this. I will also try to answer some basic questions about Coursera, and update this article regularly as Coursera changes its policies and UI.
If you plan to recommend Coursera to someone, maybe you can point them to this article as well.
What is Coursera?
Coursera is an online education provider that offers online courses, popularly known as “MOOCs” or Massive Open Online Courses, from top universities around the world.
Currently, Coursera has 150 such university partners from 29 countries around the world. These partners include Stanford, Duke, Penn, Princeton, Michigan, Peking, and HEC Paris. Coursera has also started partnering with companies like IBM, Google, and PwC who are launching online courses on Coursera’s platform.
Can you get a Coursera Certificate for Free?
Certificates were free in Coursera’s early days. Unfortunately, you can’t get a free certificate for completing Coursera courses now. MOOC providers across the board have stopped offering free certificates for completing their online courses.
Is Coursera Still Free?
Yes and no. There are definitely a few courses on courses on Coursera that are paid only. Examples of these would be Writing Skills for Engineering Leaders or Google’s Computing, Storage and Security with Google Cloud Platform. At this point, I am not sure how many of these kinds of courses are out there.
At the time of writing this article, a vast majority of the courses have some element of “free” — mostly the videos are free to watch, but you need to pay if you want access to graded assignments and certificates.
If you search for free courses on Coursera’s website, you will see a sticky note at the top of the search results basically saying what I mentioned. However, Coursera still has a few courses for which even the graded assignments are completely free.
Remember to Audit
Coursera calls having access to the free portions of a course “auditing the course.” I first came across this concept of auditing when I went to Georgia Tech, where I got my Masters in Computer Science. I got my undergrad degree in India and we didn’t have the concept of auditing there.
Here is a quick definition from a university’s FAQ
Auditing a course allows a student to take a class without the benefit of a grade or credit for a course.
So when you are trying to enroll in Coursera courses for free, look for the word audit. We will explain below — with screenshots — how to sign up for Coursera’s audit mode, but Coursera keeps tweaking their UI or testing different iterations so what’s on your screen on Coursera’s website may be different to what’s presented below.
How to Enroll in Coursera Courses for Free?
Find the Course Page — You can only sign up for free via individual course pages
Coursera has two main products: online courses and Specializations.
Specializations basically consist of a sequence of online courses designed to enable you to master a particular topic. Some Specializations have a capstone project as the last course in the sequence. Not all courses are part of Specializations, but a majority of courses that are newly launched are part of a Specialization.
Some of the older courses that were around twelve weeks long have been converted into Specialization format, with the original course split into multiple courses.
As you browse/search courses on Coursera, you will notice that Specializations and courses are mixed together in results. For Specializations, you will see the number of courses in a given Specialization below its name. You will also notice that Specializations are listed higher in the rankings than regular courses.
Specializations pages do not allow you to sign up for their individual courses. If you click on the “enroll” button, you will only be given an option to pay for the Specialization.
To sign up for free, you need to find the individual course pages. Unfortunately, even though it lists the courses in the Specialization, the Specialization page doesn’t link to the individual courses.
If you scroll down a bit you will see a list of courses that are part of the Specialization. To visit the course’s page, copy the course name and paste it in the search bar on Coursera.
Better yet, you could search for the course on Class Central — https://www.class-central.com/search. We will also show you results of similar courses that are not on Coursera.
Enroll on the Course Page
At this point, I am assuming you are on the Coursera course page of the course you are interested in, and that you are signed in to Coursera.
Coursera has two different monetization models for users to purchase the non-free portions of the course.
The first is a straightforward model: buying certificates for individual courses. In this case, once you click on “enroll” you will see two options, one of which (“Full Course, No Certificate”) allows you to sign up for free (as shown below).
Some courses might not have the “full course” option (i.e. the graded assignments are behind a paywall). In that case, the second option will show as “audit.” Select “audit” and then click on “continue” to sign up for free.
The second monetization method is a monthly subscription-based model. By paying a monthly subscription fee (starting from $39/month), you get access to premium features for all the courses that are part of the Specalization. Your access ends once you stop paying for the subscription.
If you are signed into Coursera and on a course page for a course that is part of a Specialization, you will see the blue “enroll” button surrounded by green background. It will have the text “try for free” above it. Note: this button surrounded by green is only shown to users who are signed in to Coursera. Pricing information is not shown to learners who are not signed in.
Once you click on “enroll,” you should see a popup that prompts you to sign up for a free trial (as shown below). At the bottom right of this popup, you will see a small “audit” link. Click on that link to enroll in the course for free. You will be able to watch videos and participate in discussion forums but won’t have access to graded assignments.
I hope you found this guide useful. If you found any part of the guide confusing, do let me know and I will update the guide to be clearer. Also, do comment if you find a Coursera course that doesn’t fit the patterns described above.