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Best online learning platforms 2021

Best online learning platforms
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The best online learning platforms – or massive open online course (MOOC) providers – have changed dramatically over the last two years, as more students began to rely on the remote learning solution. Our picks, below, are perfect for adult learners who want to explore online courses, either simply for pleasure or to give an outdated resume a little boost. 

We’ve tested the best online learning platforms directly, actively participating in courses that are available via the websites and evaluating the learning tools of each company. You can find more details on our specific testing criteria below, but you can rest assured that we’ve been rigorous throughout the process. 

We tested seven of the best online learning platforms, reviewing them for things like course variety, lesson quality, ease of use, value for money and teaching approach. We also looked at things like user reviews, so we could confirm that our findings were reflected in the experience of other students.

Our promise to you

While the best online learning platforms cover a range of topics – including coding, drawing, writing and languages – we still think that younger learners will benefit more from the best online tutoring services. This is because this 1:1 tuition can usually be tailored to K-12 students, so you can ask for specific help with test prep and school homework

Similarly, we think there are dedicated platforms that are best suited for things like languages, which is why we have separate guides detailing the best learn Spanish online courses and the best learn French online apps and websites. Do check those guides out if you’re looking to learn a language, or – alternatively – have a look through our round-ups of the best online piano lessons and the best guitar lessons online.

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.

2. Cost
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.

5. Certificates
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.

Online learning platforms at a glance
PlatformCourseraedXLinkedIn LearningShaw AcademySkillshareUdemyUdacity
Number of courses3,000 +3,000 + 16,000 +100 + 20,000+155,000 +70
Primary teaching methodsVideo, quizzes, discussion forumsVideos, quizzes, discussion forumsVideos, quizzes, live seminarsInteractive webinarsVideosVideosVideos, project evaluation, quizzes
CertificationYesYesYesYesNoYesYes
Tutor feedbackSometimes availableSometimes available via forumSometimes available via Q&A sectionYes, Q&A sessions held after webinarsNot usually availableNot usually availableYes, projects are graded and it's easy to contact tutors
CostFrom $30 per course, or $59 a monthStarting at $49 and going into the $1000s$29.99 per month or $239.88 annually$69.99 per month$19.99 per month or $99 annuallyUsually $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 platforms

1. Udemy: Best online learning platform overall

Udemy: Best online learning platform overall

(Image credit: Udemy)

Udemy

A range of video-based courses, with structured learning options under the $30 mark

SPECIFICATIONS

Accessibility: Available via website and app | Teaching format: Video-based lessons

Reasons to Buy

Incredible range of courses
Plenty of free and discounted tuition
Can be accessed on various devices

Reasons to Avoid

Much of the content is not downloadable

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 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.


2. Udacity: Best online learning platform for tech subjects

Udacity: Best online learning platform for tech

(Image credit: Udacity)

Udacity

The company's courses are in-depth, up to date and feature plenty of student-tutor interaction

SPECIFICATIONS

Accessibility: Only available via website | Teaching format: Video tutorials, interactive browser-based tools and course 'projects'

Reasons to Buy

Clear topics
In-depth lessons
Regular feedback and help

Reasons to Avoid

Expensive

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.


3. LinkedIn Learning: Best online learning platform for professional development

LinkedIn Learning: Best online learning platform for professional development

(Image credit: LinkedIn)

LinkedIn Learning

Seamless integration with your LinkedIn profile means that this is a great option for anyone who wants to buff up their CV.

SPECIFICATIONS

Accessibility: Available via website or app | Teaching format: Video-based lessons

Reasons to Buy

High quality video courses
Easy to navigate interface

Reasons to Avoid

Most courses are aimed at beginners
Topics tend to be business-focused

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, 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.


4. Shaw Academy: Best online learning platform for replicating a classroom environment

Shaw Academy: Best online learning platform for classroom feel

(Image credit: Shaw Academy)

Shaw Academy

Interactive, regular webinars make this platform feel more alive than others

SPECIFICATIONS

Accessibility: Through website and app | Teaching format: Webinars

Reasons to Buy

Courses come with a globally recognized diploma
You can set your own learning schedule
Can be accessed on various devices

Reasons to Avoid

Other learning platforms offer a wider choice of courses
Scheduling is a little confusing

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. 


5. edX: Best online learning platform for low-cost academic certification

edX: best online learning platform for academic accreditation

(Image credit: edX)

edX

This famous online learning platforms hosts thousands of courses that have been created and approved by academic institutions.

SPECIFICATIONS

Accessibility: Available via website and app | Teaching format: Videos and quizzes

Reasons to Buy

Impressive free offering
High quality teaching from renowned institutions

Reasons to Avoid

Hard to navigate and find suitable courses
Course quality can vary greatly

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. 


6. Skillshare: Best online learning platform for creatives

Skillshare: best online learning platform for creatives

(Image credit: Skillshare)

Skillshare

With thousands of courses available in creative pursuits, this is a platform that will appeal to artists of all kinds

SPECIFICATIONS

Accessibility: Via website and app | Teaching format: Video lessons

Reasons to Buy

Huge range of content
Some of it free
Easy to navigate

Reasons to Avoid

No certificates
Some courses need refreshing

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 ($19.99 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

Coursera: Best online learning platform for flexible higher education

(Image credit: Coursera)

Coursera

This easy-to-navigate platform offers certified courses from universities and respected companies.

SPECIFICATIONS

Accessibility: Via website and app | Teaching format: Videos, forums

Reasons to Buy

High quality certified courses
Free courses available

Reasons to Avoid

Course content can be dry
Lacking in community interaction

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.

Online learning platform FAQs

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.

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.

Is online learning effective?

Research suggest that it is very effective, perhaps even more so than traditional methods. A study 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, 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.