I took one of the first Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in 2011. Back then, everything was 100% free: the videos, the assignments, and the certificates. But in 2017, you can’t find this sort of free learning experience anymore.

As MOOC providers focussed on finding a business model, they started putting certain aspects of the experience behind a paywall, hoping to get more people to pay. MOOCs went from “free” to “free to audit.”

Free certificates were the first items to be shifted from free to pay. Then the graded assignments were put behind paywalls. Now, all the major MOOC providers are making courses that are completely paid, with even video lectures locked away behind paywalls.

This shift to a freemium model — with more and more chances to up-sell — seems to be working for the providers. The top three services earned more than $100 million combined last year.

Each provider has a different model, and this can prove confusing for students. So here’s a summary of what “free” actually means for the four biggest MOOC players.


edX, started jointly by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the only major MOOC provider to still offer graded assignments for free. It was also the last major provider to do away free certificates (it held out till the end of 2015).

edX also offers certain courses that are not free at all, which they call Professional Education. These typically cost hundreds of dollars.

But beyond that, all the edX courses are completely free to take, and students only need to pay if they want to earn a certificate.


Coursera aggressively tweaks its monetization model, which can lead to constant changes in how its courses work. Different courses have different policies — which sometimes depends on when they were launched and what the policies were at the time.

It will be difficult to cover every scenario, so let’s focus on policies that apply to most courses, which also reflects the direction Coursera wants to move into it.

A good majority of the new courses on Coursera are part of a specialization, a series of short courses that lead a “microcredential.”

Last year, Coursera introduced subscriptions for their specializations. Instead of paying per course, students pay a monthly subscription as long as they want to access the premium aspects of the course. Under this model, the videos are free to watch, but students have to sign up for a subscription to get a certificate and access graded assignments.


Most recently, Coursera introduced a 7-day free trial for subscriptions. For students who want to access course videos for free, they need to click on the tiny “audit” link in the bottom right, as shown in the screenshot above. Many students probably don’t notice this link as an option — if they even know what “audit” means in the first place.

A small number of courses that are not part of any specializations will sometimes have the option to sign up for an “audit mode.” In these cases, even the graded assignments are free to take (though you can’t claim certificates).

For a long time, Coursera had a liberal financial-aid policy. Well, they recently clamped down on it. It now takes at least 15 days for them to respond to financial aid applications.


FutureLearn is the UK-based MOOC provider wholly owned by The Open University. It has close to six million students, making it one of top 5 MOOC providers in the world.

FutureLearn never offered free certificates to begin with. But recently, FutureLearn introduced a new pricing model that limits access to the course contents once the course is over.


Under the new pricing model, the exams sit behind a paywall (similar to the way Coursera operates). The course content is still free to access, but it’s only available for the duration of the course, and for two weeks after it ends.

For unlimited access to the course (caveat: as long as it exists on FutureLearn), learners needs to upgrade. That costs about $30 to $90.

At the end of 2016, FutureLearn announced that it will offer six postgraduate degrees completely online in partnership with Deakin University. A majority of the courses created for the degree will not be free.


Unlike the other MOOC providers listed above, Udacity does not partner with colleges. Instead, it prefers to partner with tech companies. Udacity also create their own courses, which are sometimes taught by people at these partner tech companies.

Udacity was the first MOOC provider to stop providing free certificates, way back in May 2014. It doesn’t give out certificates for individual courses, either. Instead, Udacity offers its own proprietary micro-credential known as Nanodegrees. Nanodegrees can take months to finish, and they usually consist of online courses, human-graded projects, and some mentorship.

The courses that are part of Nanodegree are usually free to take (though getting the certificate requires payment). They also contain some basic quizzes and interactive coding assignments (mostly in Python).

Udacity recently acquired Terminal.com, and will integrate Terminal.com’s interactive coding environment into its Nanodegrees. It probably won’t be part of free courses.

The fact that MOOCs were free sparked widespread interest in them. Students got excited because they were getting to learn from the best teachers in the world for free.

In fact, this is what inspired me to build Class Central — so I could personally keep track of all of these new courses.

Then the media got all excited because they got to write clickbait titles about the imminent death of universities.

But once the hype died down and MOOC providers tried to monetize, they found it difficult to do so without charging for content.

Matt Walton, chief product officer at FutureLearn, said this about their recent pricing change: “Research we carried out showed that a certificate on its own doesn’t offer enough value for money and that some people don’t want or need a certificate.”

So the MOOC paywall had to expand to include parts of the content.

Every MOOC provider has expanded their product lines to target multiple price points, from tens of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. What’s free in MOOCs has been constantly shrinking.

Without true innovation in pricing, it will be difficult for MOOCs to reach the people who could benefit from them the most.

My post first appeared on EdSurge. Sign up for EdSurge’s Weekly Higher Ed Newsletter for weekly news updates, interviews, and debates on edtech and the future of education.