MOOCs vs online courses – what’s the difference?

Posted November 18, 2013, by Marni Williams

Since the New Yorker declared the ‘Year of the MOOC’ in 2012, we’ve all gone a little gaga over the M-word. But in all that hype a very important differentiation has been lost – that is, that the MOOC is a very different beast to the current offerings in online education.

No one would dispute that any development that allows a Nobel laureate to teach a million students around the world is a good thing, but there’s a way to go before MOOCs are able to fulfil the broad needs of public education, or offer tangible employment outcomes.

Online courses are enjoying unprecedented popularity, with almost one in four Australian students now studying off-campus through local providers. In contrast, the Grattan Institute’s The Online Evolution reports that only 7000 Australian students had signed up with MOOC provider Coursera by August 2012.

Here in Australia we have some very established online players: Open Colleges have educated over 700,000 students since they began in 2011; Open Universities Australia (OUA) had 60,000 on their books in 2012; and SEEK Learning has welcomed over 150,000 through its virtual doors since 2004. And it’s not just a game for conglomerates: the largest single tertiary provider is Charles Sturt University, with 29,000 off-campus students.

These are significant numbers and enrolments continue to trend upwards. OUA enjoyed a 17 per cent growth in enrolments last year and are at four times their numbers from five years ago.

There’s no doubt there’s a place for both kinds of courses, and each has its benefits and drawbacks. Here’s a comparison of the two – MOOCs vs online courses – so you can find the best option for you.

Would you do a MOOC course or have you studied online? Leave a comment and tell us what you think. 

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MOOCs vs Online Courses




Online courses


Around since 2008. Online courses have had a significant place in the education sphere since the early 2000s with the number of students rising 187 per cent between 2002 and 2008.


‘Massive’ – the largest provider, Coursera, now has five million students worldwide, Udacity has 1.6 million and edX 1.3 million. Enrolments for single courses can be in the tens of thousands. The number of students taking courses online through university and publicly-funded VET providers is approximately 570,000. The number of students studying online through private providers is likely to bring the total figure closer to a million.

Industry size

There are four main practitioners at this stage: Coursera, EdX, Udacity and FutureLearn. With many of Australia’s leading universities, TAFEs and private colleges offering online courses, there are over 100 providers currently operating.

Typical student

The typical MOOC student is likely to have already attained a university degree and wants to work on their professional skills or explore an area of interest. However, the numbers of undergraduate enrolments are increasing. Students who enrol in online courses are a varied bunch. They are usually somewhere between 18 and 50, are employed, already have a degree or certificate, and choose to study for a career change, self-development or to get a job.


Open to all applicants, regardless of experience or location. They do have ‘recommended background knowledge’ or ratings such as beginner, intermediate or advanced. May have prerequisites and required levels of knowledge or experience, only open to local students. 


Online only. Predominantly online, but can also include workshops, residentials and work placements.


Most MOOCs offer certificates of completion, accomplishment or mastery, but no accredited qualification. Only a handful of US universities and one UK university are turning MOOCs into course credits. Most courses come with a qualification attached such as a certificate, diploma, advanced diploma, degree or master’s degree. These are accredited as part of the Australian qualifications framework.

Local relevance

MOOCs providers work in the wholly virtual space and are therefore global.
Most are provided by US universities but the UK has come on board and Australian universities are joining in. The University of New England will be providing free courses with UNE Open, announced this year.
Online courses are often tied to bricks-and-mortar providers and therefore can relate more closely to their locality. Though they are online, most providers encourage participation in discussion groups with local students.


No cost (except for some cases where optional credit-bearing examinations are offered, for a small fee). As courses range from short preparatory units right through to postgraduate degrees, prices can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Course fees are similar or the same as their on-campus equivalents, but you can save on textbooks, travel and student fees. Government assistance is available for most courses in the form of HECS-HELP, VET-HELP and FEE-HELP and students can apply for Youth Allowance.


Computer-based assessment such as multiple choice and short answers. Assignments or longer form answers rely on self-assessment or peer-assessment. Expert assessment of assignments and projects from course tutors/lecturers; some computer-based assessments.


Because of the large number of students, there isn’t a lot of opportunity to receive critical feedback. However, according to Coursera, peer reviewing has been proven to be similar to the assessment given by lecturers. With expert-graded assessments and small discussion groups alongside telephone and email access to tutors, the capacity for individualised feedback is far greater.


Self-paced – start any time; finish any time. Courses can be self-paced, but some can also have fixed start and/or end dates. Many are tied to university and TAFE enrolment dates.

Flexibility and support

The possibility of picking up and dropping courses as you like appeals to many students, but MOOCs haven’t yet found a way to serve learners in a variety of ways. With greater personal interaction and a higher teacher-to-student ratio, most online course providers are better able to address the more complex needs of individual students. There’s usually 24/7 online support and some even offer confidential phone or Skype sessions with counsellors for students who are struggling with their course.

Course length

4-10 weeks, most of which are given to learning and the final week might be to produce a piece of work, sometimes a video. Months to years, depending on the qualification and how you choose to pace your study.

Average weekly study

2-6 hours per week. If you take on a full-time load then you could be studying 20 hours a week, but you can choose to study at your own pace. 

Student retention and results

Learners’ commitment typically fades, with more than 90 per cent dropping out. Usually a few hundred or at most a thousand obtain a certificate out of the tens of thousands who might enrol. Research from the US has found that students enrolled in online courses obtain a higher percentage of ‘A’s when compared to students in traditional courses. The completion rate for online courses is 93.3 per cent.
Marni Williams

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