The best online learning platforms have evolved rapidly over the past few years, changing from quite basic portals into interactive hubs. Where once you were expected to simply read through texts and pass a series of click-to-answer exams, now you can communicate with students, test out your learning in real time and collaborate on projects.
The number of subjects available through the best online learning platforms has broadened, too. You’re no longer restricted to English, math and science, as platforms like Skillshare (opens in new tab) and Domestika (opens in new tab) offer fun courses in things like flower arranging and interior design. That’s not to say that these platforms don’t cover the serious stuff, too - you can gain fully-accredited university qualifications through the likes of edX (opens in new tab) and Coursera (opens in new tab), although you’ll have to pay university prices.
As these platforms have evolved, they’ve become notably different to one another, specializing in different subjects and areas. Because of this, it can be tricky to figure out which platform will work for you - but that’s where this guide comes in handy. We’ve highlighted which platforms are best for different kinds of learners, so you can quickly find one to match your needs.
If you’re looking for particular topics, then you may also be interested in some of our other online guides. We’ve rounded-up the best coding courses online (opens in new tab), for anyone interesting in grappling with Python and C#, and we’ve also created comprehensive lists of things like the best ASL online courses (opens in new tab) and the best online piano lessons (opens in new tab). Linguaphiles might also be interested in our pieces on the best learn Spanish online courses (opens in new tab) and the best learn French online apps and websites (opens in new tab).
But if you’re interested in a broader range of topics and courses, here are the best online learning platforms for you.
How we chose the best online learning platforms
1. Course quality
When we were testing these platforms, we usually tried out a handful of courses to get a feel for the overall quality. We evaluated the clarity of instruction and tried to get a feel for how well maintained the courses were. Some classes seemed to have been uploaded and forgotten, so there's no element of tutor interaction and the materials feel dated. Others were buoyed up by an active community and featured more modern reading material.
There's a huge variety in the price tags applied to lessons. Some classes can set you back as little as $8 but others run into the $1000s. What we've done, below, is given a fair assessment of how much value you get from both the top-end classes and the more affordable options too.
3. Teaching method
Pre-recorded videos form the backbone of most of these online courses. However, some of the best online learning platforms have a slightly more sophisticated approach to learning, offering pupils the chance to test out their knowledge via in-browser tools, giving direct written feedback and fitting in interactive quizzes.
4. Ease of use
Most of the platforms we tested were fairly straightforward to navigate, although a few had complicated pricing systems or confusing search engines. We also gave extra marks to classes that had transcripts available in various languages, which made them feel more accessible.
A few of these websites and services offer some form of certification at the end of the course. However, these vary in usefulness, although several platforms rely on external institutions for these accreditations, which lends them a bit more academic weight.
Best online learning platform features
We tested a range of online learning platforms to see which ones are worth your time and money in 2021. Many offer the same kind of courses, but they vary in terms of price, certification options, and individualized feedback.
|Platform||Coursera||edX||Domestika||FutureLearn||LinkedIn Learning||Shaw Academy||Skillshare||Udemy||Udacity|
|Number of courses||3,000 +||3,000 +||~ 1,000||2,400 +||16,000 +||100 +||20,000+||155,000 +||70|
|Primary teaching methods||Video, quizzes, discussion forums||Videos, quizzes, discussion forums||Videos, tasks, student forums||Videos, articles, discussions||Videos, quizzes, live seminars||Interactive webinars||Videos||Videos||Videos, project evaluation, quizzes|
|Tutor feedback||Sometimes available||Sometimes available via forum||Sometimes available via forum||Available on some courses||Sometimes available via Q&A section||Yes, Q&A sessions held after webinars||Not usually available||Not usually available||Yes, projects are graded and it's easy to contact tutors|
|Cost||From $30 per course, or $59 a month||Starting at $49 and going into the $1000s||$9.99 to $35||Most courses cost $40 - $65||$29.99 per month or $239.88 annually||$69.99 per month||$19.99 per month or $99 annually||Usually $18 - $20||$399 per month|
As you can see, teaching methods, pricing and the availability of tutor feedback varies across the platforms. Below, we've broken down precisely the benefits and drawbacks of each platform's approach.
Best online learning platform overall(opens in new tab)
Home to an impressive range of reasonably priced courses – from coding to dance – Udemy (pronounced you-de-mee) has over 35 million users around the world. The breadth of courses may not be immediately obvious when you arrive on the website, but use the search function to find a course that suits your skill level, language, taste and budget. You’ll be able to preview a course to check whether it suits you, then you’ll be invited to pay for it (there are a small handful of free ones, too). Prices range from about $18-25 per course, but budget-conscious learners may seek out more wallet-friendly alternatives.
You can take courses in your own time as there are no deadlines to meet. They can be accessed via a desktop, laptop or smartphone (opens in new tab) so you can dip in and out, as long as you have an internet signal (they aren’t available offline). While courses aren’t accredited, you will get a certificate on completion.
There isn’t much of an interactive element to the courses, which mostly consist of pre-recorded videos, and there is some variation in quality, but Udemy offers a bit more of a structured approach to learning than, say, YouTube, as there are so many learning options in one easy navigable platform.
Best online learning platform for tech subjects(opens in new tab)
This is by far the most expensive platform that we tested, but you do get a lot of value for your money here. Courses are mostly concentrated on tech-related subjects, with classes available in cloud computing, cybersecurity, AI projects and autonomous systems. When we tried it out, we were really impressed with the amount of tutor interaction available. You can fire questions over to experts and you'll also have to submit projects for assessment, which will then be graded.
The video lessons and interactive quiz elements feel fresh and up-to-date. Overall, there's a smaller offering of courses (called 'nanodegrees' by Udacity) but perhaps this is the reason why they all feel so well-maintained. Topics are relevant to students and engineers in the tech industry, with classes in things like self-driving cars and data science for modern business.
A monthly subscription will set you back $399, although there are often discounts available. As Udacity claims that many of its courses take around three months to complete, this could mean that you end up paying over $1000 before you finish the online classes. But if you are really invested in improving your tech career prospects, we think this platform is worth the cost.
There are certificates awarded at the end of the course, although these aren't recognized by any official bodies. However, you will finish your class with a completed 'project' that demonstrates your new knowledge and abilities.
Best online learning platform for professional development(opens in new tab)
This learning platform is included as part of the package when you upgrade to a LinkedIn premium membership. So getting this subscription gives you some networking perks on the website (like being able to see who viewed your profile) along with access to all of these lessons.
A premium subscription will set you back $29.99 per month or $239.88 for the full year. There is an option to buy courses on a one-off basis, but it doesn't work out much cheaper than the standard cost of a month-long subscription – you can also often get a free trial for 30 days on the platform.
Courses are taught via pre-recorded videos, although there are sometimes additional materials to download and study. We found that a lot of content steers towards professional development and managerial skills. You can find classes in things like coding, web development, painting and Photoshop (opens in new tab), but the vast majority of content here is aimed at helping you do things like manage productivity and communicate effectively.
There is a slight element of interactivity with tutors here, which is done via the Q&A tab on the platform. However, although lessons feel well maintained and fresh, there doesn't seem to be a lot of actively engaged tutors answering questions on the site. Once you finish, you'll be given a certificate that can be displayed on your LinkedIn profile.
Best for replicating a classroom environment(opens in new tab)
Unlike most learning platforms, Shaw Academy doesn't just show you pre-recorded videos. Instead, you have to tune in to live webinars delivered by teachers, which are usually around one hour long. These sessions are often followed by quick Q+As, where you can ask for help and explanations.
There is a 'catch-up' option available if you miss your lesson. There's often two lesson slots covering the same topic (for example, one at 2pm and 7pm) so you might be able to tune in later instead.
Shaw Academy is relatively new to the world of online learning platforms and as such has a smaller course catalogue. It's very varied, though, with topics in tech, art, wellness, finance and marketing available. There's also currently a four week trial you can get for free, but as classes tend to take ten weeks to complete, you might have to extend this if you want to finish the full program.
Like a lot of other platforms, Shaw Academy offers certification. These diplomas are certified by Austin Peay State University (APSU) in Clarksville, Tennessee, and - as of 2020 - three other international certification bodies: Continuing Professional Development (CPD), the International Accreditation Organization (IAO) and the International Council of Specialized Online Certifications (ICSOC).
Payment is based on monthly subscriptions, so you can't buy a one-off course. This starts at $69.99 per month, making it one of the slightly more expensive options.
Best online learning platform for low-cost academic certification(opens in new tab)
Founded by Harvard and MIT in 2012, this platform has partnered with the likes of Oxford University, Brown, the Sorbonne, and Columbia. Despite these prestigious associations, a lot of the content on edX remains free, allowing you to easily browse course content, which is delivered through a mix of videos and quizzes.
However, if you want one of those prestigious edX certificates then you'll have to pay up. The free 'audit' version of courses won't end with you getting a signed document, but finishing the paid-for 'verified' version will net you the physical certificate. Alongside this, you'll also usually get to submit projects and receive feedback on them. Prices really vary though, with some verified courses available for $169 and other degrees running into the $1000s.
The main problem we had with edX is this lack of clarity on payment structure, alongside a confusing interface that makes it difficult to find courses you might enjoy. The quality of courses can vary greatly too, although the big-name institutions tend to offer excellent classes.
Best for creatives(opens in new tab)
Skillshare is an easy-to-navigate learning platform that will quickly quench your thirst for knowledge. It is heavily focused on the arts, and courses are presented through a series of video lectures, and clearly titled so you know what you’ll be getting. Most courses are clear and engaging, and text versions of the videos are available in the transcripts tab, handy for catching up on sections of the video you might have missed, or for enriching your notes. The Skillshare subscription ($32 per month or $99 annually) is all inclusive so you get access to loads of content and can dip into as much of it as you please – perfect for the curious among us.
However, some courses only scratch the surface; they don’t offer the same level of learning as a dedicated course on the subject, and Skillshare can’t guarantee that your course teacher will be able to offer direct feedback. As tutors often manage multiple courses, they simply don't have time to respond to queries, although you can try and engage other students in the forum.
Some courses feel like they’ve been abandoned by their creator or haven’t been updated, so the platform could do with a bit more quality control. Don’t expect a certificate for completing a course, either, but if you’re after a platform where you can pick up a quick range of arty skills (don’t come here for physics or math!), this could be it.
7. Coursera: Best online learning platform for flexible higher education
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Best for flexible higher education
Coursera has thousands of lessons available, but it also has programs that have been curated and approved by famous universities and brands. Think Stanford, Penn, Google, IBM and Imperial College London. Some of these institutions are offering straightforward online degree courses, which are priced according to traditional costs so start at $20,000.
This isn't the only offering available on the platform, though, as Coursera also has a membership plan option that costs around $59 per month or $399 annually. Subscribing to this will get you access to most online courses on the platform. You might not be able to access those pricey degrees, but you can access some shorter, well-respected courses offered by the above-mentioned institutions. When you finish, you'll also be awarded a certificate, which bears the name of the course. You can also opt to buy one-off courses instead of opting for the subscription, although that's usually around the same price as a monthly subscription fee.
There are some excellent courses on here, but there are also some older classes that are in need of updating. When we tested it out, we found it difficult to engage any kind of feedback from out tutor, or even to establish a friendly comradery with fellow students. However, Coursera has a really robust reviews system, which means you can see how student have found the course. Professors and instructors are rated individually, along with the courses they teach, and students leave insightful comments explaining what they liked and disliked about the lessons.
Best new platform
Derived in Spain, Domestika is an online learning platform for creatives, offering a wealth of paid courses across illustration, marketing and business, photography and video, craft, design, 3D and animation, architecture and spaces, and calligraphy and typography. While most courses are presented in Spanish, with spoken subtitles in English, there are many English-speaking courses available, too.
All courses are well-structured into digestible units, high in quality and led by professionals. There is a one-off charge per course, typically ranging from $9.99 to $35. However, Domestika’s strategy is to frequently offer discounts – sometimes with up to 75% off. In addition, ‘Bundles’ offer selections of three, four and six courses as a package, saving around 30% off the price.
The PRO service is $29.90 per year, and includes a further 20% discount on courses, access to free classes and regular newsletters with tips and advice from creative experts and personalized service from the support center – however, this is not vital for general learning.
The only sticking point is the mobile app. On several occasions, we found that information wasn’t being shared between the two formats. We recommend using the app for downloading tutorials for offline watching when necessary – however, we wouldn’t advise the app for everyday learning.
Best for student discussions
Like edX and Coursera, FutureLearn specializes in providing accredited courses. Students can take classes that have been created by recognized universities and industry bodies, and some courses even earn you credits towards a degree. Once you’ve finished, if you’re on a paid subscription, you’ll get a certificate – but you can audit a lot of the classes for free, too.
One of the things we liked most about this platform was the lively discussions on student forums, which you’ll find at the end of each module. Course participants are very much encouraged to post there and chat with other pupils. It’s not quite the same as a classroom discussion, but it does go part way towards recreating this environment.
That said, there’s a very limited catalogue on the website and classes don’t tend to cover core subjects. For example, you won’t find a standard maths or history diploma on the site, but you can find topics covering sports coaching and educational leadership. Most of the classes have a career focus, so it’s probably not the best platform for anyone who simply wants to learn for the sake of learning. It’s also a UK company, so most of the universities and companies associated with the site are British.
Some of the more expensive courses and subscriptions – the ones that will net you a universally-recognized certificate and take a few years to complete – can cost hundreds of dollars, but you’ll get time with a tutor and lots of feedback. Most of the classes you’ll find on here will only take a month to complete and will set you back around $40.
Online learning platform FAQs
How we tested the best online learning platforms
We tested these platforms simply by using them. Our reviewers attended a course, looked through the website’s broader content and read user reviews to ensure that their experience was in line with that of other students. After spending several days on each platform, reviewers reflected on how they found the teaching methods, course quality and overall experience before writing comprehensive reviews that explored each of these aspects.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of online learning?
A clear advantage of these massive open online courses (MOOCs) is that you can pace your own learning. Being able to learn at home makes it easier to squeeze classes in around a busy schedule, so it presents a good solution for adults who have to balance other life commitments.
It can also be relatively cheap. Some of the courses outlined above cost $20 or less, which is much cheaper than the standard in-person course. And if you're someone who lives in a remote area, these online courses present an opportunity to access excellent learning materials that otherwise you'd have to travel quite far to reach.
On top of this, online learning has been proven to be quite effective. A study (opens in new tab) from MIT found that students who engage with online learning, rather than classroom-based education, may actually learn more. And a more recent meta-analysis (opens in new tab), looking at several studies that have attempted to quantify eLearning vs classroom learning, found that web-based instruction was 6% more effective than classroom-based instruction for teaching declarative knowledge.
However, there are certain classroom elements that online learning platforms can't replicate. Some of the above websites don't offer much in the way of student community, so you miss out on some social interaction and discussions. And while some of the above platforms (such as Udacity and Shaw Academy) are excellent at providing tutor feedback, others completely lack this element.
How much does online learning cost?
There’s a huge variety in the pricing on MOOCs, which we’ll outline here. In general, though, the more in-depth courses, which offer certified accreditation, will set you back a lot more than the lighter courses offering introductory sessions.
Both edX and Coursera offer online degrees, which can cost upwards of $20,000. However, these platforms – along with several others in this list – also offer courses that have been created and approved by respected brands (like Google, for example.) These courses tend to cost less, around the $100 - $200 mark.
You don’t necessarily have to pay for your course in one bulk fee, though, as lots of platforms offer subscriptions. A subscription to Skillshare can cost as little as $19.99 per month, while Udacity subscriptions usually cost around $399 per month. On the opposite end of this, you have platforms like Udemy, which let you pay a one-off fee for courses that can cost just $10.
The most important thing to consider, when purchasing a course, is deciding what you need from it. If you’re learning for sheer fun, there’s no reason that you should opt for one of the more expensive options. But if you’re going to be relying on the newly acquired knowledge for your job, or you need an accredited certification at the end of it, then you may want to opt for the pricier platforms.
Other online learning platforms
Most of the above online learning platforms (or MOOC providers) offer a really wide range of courses, which aim to help you improve a particular skill. However, we’ve not included some big name apps and websites here, as we think they fall into slightly different categories.
Online language platforms
Although some of the above websites do offer language courses, language-specific platforms and apps tend to have a slightly different format. Most of them allow you to create a profile and build up your language knowledge through word-association tasks. We still rank these kinds of apps highly but they don’t feature in this guide as they don’t have the traditional MOOC format of video and quiz led classes.
If you're specifically looking for language-focused content, have a look through our guides to the best learn Spanish online courses (opens in new tab), the best learn French online websites and apps (opens in new tab), and the best learn English software (opens in new tab). Those looking to learn sign language online can find recommendations in our roundup of the best ASL online courses (opens in new tab).
Online instrument platforms
Again, some of the above platforms offer brief courses in things like piano and guitar, but they can’t compete with the best online piano lessons (opens in new tab) and best guitar lessons online (opens in new tab). These musically-focused lessons use all kinds of tools to help learners quickly grasp the ropes when they’re playing new instruments. For example, platforms like Simply Piano (opens in new tab) measure your accuracy by tapping into your smart device’s microphone and actively ‘listening’ for mistakes. And all of these lessons have easy-to-follow videos, which lay out keyboard fingering, while also explaining the theory behind music.
Online coding courses
In line with the above, we've also pulled out the best coding courses online (opens in new tab) and listed them separately. Some platforms, like Udemy and Udacity, feature in this guide. But you'll also find completely different platforms, like SoloLearn (opens in new tab), which can help you master the basics of Python and HTML.
We’ve purposefully left out platforms like TedX and MasterClass (opens in new tab) when rounding-up this list of online learning websites. This is because, unlike platforms offering courses, these websites don’t tend to offer content that builds and tests your knowledge. Instead, these websites offer interesting insights and inspiration in smaller bursts.
When you're facing learning challenges, using one of the best online tutoring services (opens in new tab) can really help. While you won't necessarily be given a set course to work through and learning goals to achieve, it can be really useful if you're struggling with a particular problem or subject.