The Best Online Learning Platforms of 2021

Last Updated on July 27, 2021 by pf team

Online learning platforms have become popular in the last few years, as online education becomes more accessible. The trend isn’t showing any sign of slowing down either, as online learning takes off in formal education, on-the-job training, and more.

Online learning platforms offer flexible programs and some even let you develop your skills for free, or at least cheaper than most other learning methods. All the online learning platforms covered in this guide allow you to learn from home or anywhere else.

online learning platforms
copyright: LoveVector / bigstock.com

What are online learning platforms?

An online learning platform is a web-based portal with educational content which offers online courses, video courses, classes, professional certifications, bachelors programs and master’s degrees. Some platforms go further to offer hands-on training and live webinars.

The best-known and largest companies that make up the online learning sector are sometimes known as the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) markets.

We will cover some of the most popular MOOCs in this guide, such as Coursera, edX, Udemy and Skillshare. The entire MOOC market should surpass a value of $20 billion by 2023.

Benefits of online learning platforms

Many businesses now benefit from online learning platforms for training remote workforces. By contrast, for individual learners, it offers many exciting new opportunities to develop their careers.

Some of the main benefits of online learning platforms are better accessibility and inclusivity. However, there are many more unique benefits, which depend on the type of learner you are:

  • Recent high school grads: Can take online courses or degrees that are often cheaper than on-campus. Many colleges and universities now offer online courses. Others offer a hybrid learning approach where students can learn either on-campus or in their own time online.
  • Career minded people: Online learning platforms can help career-minded people reach their goals without the high costs of traditional workshops and seminars. For businesses, online learning is hugely beneficial, since it makes it easier for them to train their new hires or reskill current team members. Many online learning platforms even offer tailored career paths to do just that.
  • Industry switchers: In recent years, there has been a growing trend of people switching industries to boost their careers. In the past though, this often meant quitting their current jobs to take time off for costly training programs. However, with online learning platforms, people can now learn at their own pace from the comfort of home.
  • Lifelong learners: As the saying goes, no one ever stops learning. Online courses are not only for people concerned with professional development or formal education. They are also good for lifelong learners, whether they are looking for a new online job requiring specific skills or just want to learn something new. Many users of online learning platforms are even retired people.

10 Best online learning platforms

The best online learning platform largely depends on what you want to use it for. Some platforms cater to specific subject areas, while MOOCs like Coursera cater to a huge range of interests. Here is a quick look at the platforms we will cover in the guide:

  • Coursera – Best Overall
  • edX – Best for Free Courses
  • Udemy – Best for Professional Development
  • LinkedIn Learning – Best for Business Training
  • Skillshare – Best for Creative Skills
  • FutureLearn – Best for Online Degrees
  • Pluralsight – Best for Tech Skills
  • MasterClass – Best for Celebrity Classes
  • Udacity – Best for Tech Training
  • Datacamp – Best for Data Skills

1. Coursera

coursera online learning platform
source: coursera.org
  • What they offer: 5336 courses, 1884 guided projects, 581 specializations, 47 professional certificates, 27 master track certificates, and 31 degrees.
  • Subject areas: Computer science, business management, information technologies, health, arts and humanities, and more.

Coursera is one of the leading names in online learning. Founded by Stanford University computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller in 2012, it was one of the first MOOCs in the elearning industry.

What we like:

coursera partners
source: coursera.org
  • Accredited university degrees: By partnering with over 200 top universities, Coursera offers real degrees online for those who complete a course.
  • Low tuition costs: Course fees are quite a lot lower than in normal schools, and many of them are even free.
  • Offline learning: You can download Coursera’s learning materials for learning offline or on the move. There’s also a free app for iOS and Android and for Microsoft Windows.
  • Rich learning experiences: Coursera’s courses include a wealth of rich media, including visual content and videos, reading materials, and hands-on quizzes.

What we don’t like:

  • Peer assignment grading: Like other platforms, Coursera has had problems with organized cheating and plagiarism due to other students being allowed to peer-assess assignments.
  • No degree: There are many free courses on Coursera, but they do not offer a degree or certification.

Pricing plans:

Courses cost between $29 and $99, but those that are part of specializations require a subscription. These subscription rates range from $39 to $79 per month or $399 to access most courses on the platform.

The most expensive options are those that feature online degrees. These can cost anything up to $25,000. That said, you will earn a real degree from a real university.

2. edX

edX online learning platform
source: edx.org
  • What they offer: 3375 Courses, 221 professional certificates, 58 micro masters programs, 11 micro bachelors programs, 13 master’s degrees, courses in Spanish and English.
  • Subject areas: Arts and culture, biology and life sciences, business management, communication, computer sciences, economics, engineering, humanities, and more.

edX is a non-profit MOOC co-founded by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2012. They have since partnered with over 160 educational institutions from around the world to offer online learning to more than 34 million students.

What we like:

  • Accredited certifications: By partnering with some of the world’s most famous universities including Oxford, Cambridge and other institutions, you can earn a widely recognized certificate after completing a course.
  • Refund policy: If you decide you don’t want to continue with a course, you can get a full refund within 14 days.
  • Free course auditing: Almost all course materials are available for free, although you will need to pay for graded assignments.
  • Flexible learning: Most courses let you learn at your own pace. You can start at any time or even earn a full degree while working full-time.
  • edX app: It’s free and available for iOS and Android platforms.

What we don’t like:

  • Expensive Master’s programs: Online master’s programs are costly, with tuition costing between $9,900 and $25,300, depending on the degree.
  • Small selection of master’s programs: Most of the master’s programs cover technical disciplines, and there are none for the humanities.

Pricing plans:

You can take all the courses of edX for free, except for professional education courses. Also, you can enroll in a demo course to see how the platform works.

Fees for professional education, which award industry-recognized certifications, cost between $50 and $300.

3. Udemy

udemy online learning platform
source: udemy.com
  • What they offer: 150,000+ online video courses, 5,500+ courses for business users, 6,700+ free courses, courses in 17 languages.
  • Subject areas: Programming, web development, data science, IT and software, business, music, photography, personal development, and more.

Udemy has more than 40 million users around the world. The online learning platform was founded in 2010 and is one of the largest massive open online course markets. They cater primarily to job-related skills, rather than formal education.

What we like:

  • Wide range of professional courses: Udemy is ideal for learning both hard and soft professional skills for career development.
  • Affordable learning programs: There are tens of thousands of cheap courses, with many shorter ones costing less than $20.
  • Free learning options: You will still need to register, but Udemy has thousands of free courses as well.
  • Udemy app: Students can download video courses to watch offline, listen to courses with a podcast or watch courses with Apple TV and Chromecast.
  • 30-day refund policy: If you don’t like a course, you can request an immediate refund within 30 days of signing up.

What we don’t like:

  • No official accreditation: Paid courses offer a certificate of completion, but they are not officially recognized.
  • Lack of quality control: Udemy itself does not create course content, so there may be some issues with quality control.

Pricing plans:

All paid Udemy courses require a one-time payment, which gives you lifetime access to that course. Most courses cost between $20 and $200. However, you will often see large discounts when you sign up.

There are subscription plans for businesses, which give you access to over 5,500 courses for staff training and development. For small teams of up to 20 learners, these cost $360 per user per year plus taxes.

4. LinkedIn Learning

linkedin online learning platform
source: linkedin / learning.com
  • What they offer: 16,000+ courses and learning paths, three subject areas, courses in 24 languages, personalized course recommendations, job training and career development.
  • Subject areas: Software development, design, business, web development, photography, design, and marketing.

LinkedIn Learning started as Lynda.com in 1995, before the social media giant acquired it in 2015. Like LinkedIn itself, it is now owned by Microsoft and is available worldwide.

What we like:

  • Build your career: When you complete a course, you will earn a certification. These are great for sharing on your LinkedIn profile.
  • Free trial: You can access all 16,000+ courses and other learning resources for up to one month for free.
  • Offline viewing: You can download all courses to the LinkedIn Learning mobile app to learn offline at any time you want.
  • Integration with LinkedIn: Many people rely on LinkedIn for building their careers or businesses. As such, having a built-in learning platform can be very useful.

What we don’t like:

  • No accredited certificates: While you can enroll in courses to prepare for formal accreditations, LinkedIn Learning doesn’t provide any formally recognized certifications or degrees.
  • Limited course topics: All courses fall into one of three categories. These are business, creative, and technology. Also, the platform largely caters to career development and employee training.

Pricing plans:

LinkedIn Learning offers multiple payment options. You can pay for a single course or sign up for a monthly or annual plan.

An annual plan is the best value at $19.99 per month. The cost of one-off courses ranges from $20 to $40, which includes tax. If you buy a course, you will have access to the content for as long as you want.

5. Skillshare

skillshare online learning platform
source: skillshare.com
  • What they offer: 35,000+ premium classes, 2,000+ free classes, scholarship programs, team plans for business users, some celebrity instructors.
  • Subject areas: Creative skills, including photography, writing, and music. Business and marketing, productivity, and lifestyle.

Skillshare launched in 2010 with a view to changing online learning with hands-on experiences as opposed to traditional lecturing. They focus mostly on creative skills rather than formal education, but there are also options for career development and business training.

What we like:

  • Focus on creative skills: There are lots of classes that center around creative skills like animation, graphic design and UI/UX design.
  • Become a teacher: Anyone with valuable knowledge to share can start a class on Skillshare, and the top-earning teachers make over $100,000 per year.
  • Offline learning: You can either stream classes or download them to watch when you’re offline. Skillshare has apps for both Android and iOS.
  • Growing community: With built-in social features, you can join groups of fellow creatives and work together to achieve your goals.

What we don’t like:

  • Quality control: While there is a growing number of original courses, most classes are created by third parties. As such, quality may not be consistent.
  • Only available in English: While Skillshare welcomes classes in other languages, almost all of them are in English only.

Pricing plans:

You can join Skillshare for free, but the free version is ad-supported. A premium membership costs either $19 per month or $99 per year, but this unlocks all courses on the platform.

Businesses can open a Teams account, which costs $99 per year. These plans are for teams of up to 20 people, but larger teams can contact Skillshare for a quote.

6. FutureLearn

futurelearn platform
source: futurelearn.com
  • What they offer: 3,000+ online courses, 50+ online degrees, 18+ academic certificates, 77+ expert tracks, 39 micro credentials, and 250 partnerships with top educational institutions.
  • Subject areas: Business and management, healthcare and medicine, teaching, it and computer science, creative arts and media, and more.

FutureLearn launched in 2012 by 12 founding partners, all of which are universities based in the UK. Since then, the MOOC also works with universities and other institutions based in the US and elsewhere. They now have more than 12.5 million learners.

What we like:

  • Great choice of online degrees: Having partnerships with dozens of the world’s top universities means FutureLearn is ideal for earning a widely recognized degree.
  • Active learning communities: There is a strong sense of community on FutureLearn, with highly active forums and opportunities to learn together.
  • Flexible learning: You can enjoy learning at your own pace with on-demand learning and training at any time you want.
  • Specialist courses: If you want to get a promotion or change career, there is a large selection of specialist training programs to choose from.

What we don’t like:

  • Lack of mobile apps: There are no apps for iOS or Android, and not all courses allow learners to download content. This makes offline learning or learning on the go difficult.
  • Lack of content from US experts: The platform still caters mostly to learners in the UK, since that is where most of its partnerships are located. There is not a lot of US-focused content.

Pricing plans:

You can audit most FutureLearn courses for free. This gives you access to all the course materials, including videos, readings, and discussions. However, a few courses still offer free certificates.

The FutureLearn Unlimited plan offers the best value for money. It costs $279.99 per year, and provides access to hundreds of online courses. There are special plans for businesses and healthcare companies.

7. Pluralsight

pluralsight platform
source: pluralsight.com
  • What they offer: 7000+ courses, including 2500+ in the core library, 280 free assessments for skills, 42+ certification preparation courses, hands-on learning, and virtual labs.
  • Subject areas: Software development, information security, data science, machine learning, cloud computing, and IT ops.

Pluralsight started as a classroom training company in 2004, shifting its focus to online video training courses in 2007. It is one of the biggest online learning platforms and training services in the IT field, with around 700,000 users in 150 countries.

What we like:

  • Specialized training: Catering to the demands of the tech sector, Pluralsight is ideal for career training.
  • Great customer support: Users have access to 24/7 email support, as well as support by phone or live ticketing during business hours.
  • Certification preparation: Courses are ideal for preparing for globally recognized accreditations in the technology sector.
  • Offline training: Pluralsight has a wide range of apps, which you can use to download training materials on iOS, Android, Windows, or macOS. There are even apps designed for Apple TV, Android TV and Fire TV.

What we don’t like:

  • Limited topic coverage: All of the courses focus on technology-centric subjects. The platform is not suitable for other subject areas.
  • No free courses: While there is a 10-day free trial, there are no free courses available. That said, the trial does provide access to the entire course library.

Pricing plans:

Pluralsight has plans for businesses and individuals. Plans for individual skills development start at $199 per year for access to the core course library. However, the $299 Premium plan gives you access to the entire course library, as well as expanded courses and mock exams.

Plans for business users start at $399 per year per user for access to the core library. The Professional plan costs $579, while the full-featured Enterprise plan costs $779.

8. MasterClass

masterclass platform
source: masterclass.com
  • What they offer: 100+ celebrity-lead courses across 10 categories, new classes every month, PDF workbooks to download for each course.
  • Subject areas: Arts and entertainment, home and lifestyle, business, food, music, design, sports, wellness, community and government.

MasterClass is a US-based online education platform founded by a Stanford University student in 2014. It is now an award-winning platform known for its focus on celebrity classes.

What we like:

  • Famous celebrity instructors: While the course selection might be small, the instructors include world-famous names like Gordon Ramsey and Stephen Curry.
  • Very high production value: The video lectures are high quality and offer a great combination of binge-worthy entertainment and education.
  • New classes every month: An annual membership gets you access to the entire class library, and that includes at least one new course every month.
  • Watch classes on any device: You can watch the training sessions in a browser or download the app for your smartphone or even your TV.

What we don’t like:

  • Small course selection: With only around 100 classes, MasterClass is one of the smallest online learning platforms, but it does make up for this with its celebrity production value.
  • Lack of professionalism: Many courses feel more like TV shows rather than professional training programs. However, that shouldn’t be a problem for those interested in informal learning.

Pricing plans:

There are two pricing plans available. The cheapest option is to buy a single class, which costs $90. Most of these include several hours of video and various extra materials.

The best value for money is the all-access pass, which costs $180 per year and gives you access to the whole catalog. An annual membership also comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee.

9. Udacity

udacity platform
source: udacity.com
  • What they offer: 70+ paid courses (nanodegrees), 189+ free courses, 10 scholarship programs, plans for individuals, enterprises, and government.
  • Subject areas: Business, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, cloud computing, IT security, programing and development, and data science.

Founded in 2011 in California, Udacity is one of the world’s leading MOOCs for business and technology-focused subject areas. It has more than 11.5 million users in more than 25 countries.

What we like:

  • User-friendly design: The simple design helps learners stay focused on the task at hand without any unwanted distractions.
  • Technology-focused courses: By specializing exclusively in the business technology area, Udacity offers high-quality courses that cater to specific interest groups.
  • Wide range of plans: Udacity caters to individual learners as well as businesses and governments. Teachers can also create and submit their own courses.
  • Career development: The platform offers a wide range of extra services to help people advance their careers and land their dream jobs.

What we don’t like:

  • No mobile apps: Although Udacity did have apps for offline learning, they were taken down from the app stores in 2019 and a no longer supported.
  • Only available in English: Even though Udacity supports individuals, businesses, and governments outside of the US, their course content is still exclusively in English.

Pricing plans:

With programs costing $399 per month, and each one lasting between two and six months, Udacity is one of the most expensive online learning platforms.

For example, a six-month nanodegree costs $2,154. That said, many programs offer a one-month free promotional campaign. Udacity also offers tailored plans for enterprises and governments, but you will need to contact them for a quote.

10. Datacamp

datacamp platform
source: datacamp.com
  • What they offer: 357 courses, 52 skill tracks, 13 career tracks, 271 instructors, hands-on learning experiences, interactive exercises, and short video tutorials.
  • Subject areas: Data science, data engineering, database management, programming, statistics, reporting, machine learning, and more.

Datacamp was founded in 2013 to meet the fast-growing demand for data science and related specialties. It now works with over 1,600 companies and 8 million learners in 180 countries.

What we like:

  • Focus on data skills: Whereas most online learning platforms cater to a far wider range of topics, Datacamp’s rigid focus on data skills means it offers very high quality courses in this area.
  • Hands-on learning: All courses focus on interactive learning with hands-on virtual labs and short videos. These include real-world projects and use cases.
  • Renowned expert instructors: People who teach on Datacamp include world-famous experts from companies like Activision, Nike, and Facebook.
  • Very clear and transparent pricing: Datacamp has a clear pricing structure with three plans for individual users and two for businesses.

What we don’t like:

  • Subscription issues: There are reports that people are still getting billed after they canceled their yearly subscription.
  • Lack of subject areas: Datacamp’s focus on data science and related subjects make it an excellent choice for those areas, but the platform doesn’t cover any other topic areas.

Pricing plans:

You can try Datacamp for free. Although the free plan only offers a very small number of courses, it does give you access to the first chapters of all paid courses too. The Standard plan for individuals costs $25 per month, while the Premium one costs $33.25 per month.

For small business teams, there is a business plan that costs $25 per user per month. There are tailored plans for enterprises too, but you will need to contact Datacamp for a quote.

How to choose an online course, class, or program

It is very important to find the right online course for you. After all, even though online learning is there for everyone, it still demands you put in your time. With thousands of courses to choose from, it isn’t an easy choice to make.

These tips should set you on the right path:

1. Compare courses on your chosen subject

There are online courses for just about every subject you can think of. Once you choose a subject, the first thing to do is shortlist some platforms that cover that topic area. Then, look through the courses that they offer, and compare them side-by-side.

2. Read reviews from other students

3. Find out how graduates are doing in the job market

This one needs a little more research, but LinkedIn can be a great place to start. Search through social media sites to find out where the alumni of online learning platforms end up in their careers. Many platforms don’t offer formal accreditations, but they can make up for this by having a strong brand.

4. Research ranking and review websites

It is also a good idea to read pro reviews of the platforms and courses you’re interested in. There are several websites that focus on online learning to help you make a more informed decision. Compare the various pros and cons to see how they might impact your learning experience.

5. Research instructor’s experience and credentials

Once you’ve homed in on a course, be sure to look up the instructor. Most MOOCs don’t create their own courses, which means the quality of courses can vary a lot between instructors. However, you should generally expect to pay much more for a course created by a famous instructor or celebrity.

6. Find info about academic requirements

Some courses have prior academic requirements. This is most likely to be the case if you want to earn an online degree. More technical certifications may also require some experience, although they are often recommendations rather than strict requirements.

7. Find out if you can transfer credits

If you want to get an online degree, but don’t meet the requirements, you may be able to transfer credits from a previous course. This might be the case if you started learning at a college or university, but decide to move to online learning instead.

8. Estimate the actual cost of the course or program

Pricing plans vary widely between platforms. Some offer monthly or yearly plans, but others charge per course. Online degrees are always paid in one. Make sure you know how much it will cost to complete the course, and don’t forget to factor in any extras, such as textbooks.

9. Find out about employer incentives or partnerships

Some online learning platforms provide career guidance, while others partner with large businesses. Most also have pricing plans for businesses too. As such, it might be worth checking with your current employer to see if they themselves offer any online learning programs.

10. Apply for financial aid if required

Online learning is a lot more widely recognized than it once was. Some of the best-known platforms offer financial aid programs, such as scholarships. Lenders might also offer student loans or personal loans for online learning.

Online learning platforms FAQs

How does online learning work?

Online learning programs are available to all. While each one works a little differently, most offer hands-on learning. This might include live video sessions, quizzes, and virtual labs. Some platforms also have user forums where students can share their ideas and experiences.

What features do online learning platforms have?

While every platform is different, here are some must-have features to look out for:

  • Responsive design for learning on the small screen
  • A mix of training materials, such as videos and written content
  • Social learning tools, such as user forums
  • Expert teaching and strong quality control

Here are some other features to think about, depending on what sort of course you’re interested in:

  • Online degrees or preparation for industry certifications
  • Scholarships and other funding programs
  • Plans for access to multiple courses
  • Plans for business teams

What are the best online learning platforms for free courses?

Most learning platforms have some courses that are completely free. Other platforms offer a money-back guarantee or a free trial. However, for the largest range of free courses, we suggest Coursera, edX, Udemy, or Skillshare.

What are the best online learning platforms for accredited certificates and degrees?

Online learning is also an option for people who want to get a proper degree from a good university. If that’s your main priority, we suggest edX or Coursera. You can audit many courses for free, but you will still need to pay for real exams and degrees themselves.

Which online learning platform has the largest library of courses?

With more than 130,000 courses spanning hundreds of topic areas, Udemy has by far the biggest library of online courses in the e-learning industry.

Who teaches at MOOCs?

While some MOOCs might create their own courses in-house, they mostly rely on third-party instructors. Platforms like MasterClass, for example, are well-known for their celebrity instructors. By contrast, Udacity has many teachers who are famous in their respective industries.

What is an accredited course?

Most online learning platforms are private companies that do not offer formal degrees. Some make up for this with a strong brand image that many hirers will recognize. Others can help you prepare for an industry certification, but they don’t offer the exams themselves. Accredited courses are available from platforms that have partnered with well-known colleges and universities.

Final thoughts on online learning platforms

Online learning is ideal for those who like to learn from the comfort of home and at their own pace. There are platforms and courses that cater to almost any subject you can think about. Some are best-suited to lifelong learners, while others focus more on formal education, career development, or job training.

The best option will depend on your needs. That said, we recommend Coursera for most users. It has a very large choice of courses, and it partners with 200+ leading universities and big companies. Moreover, 87% of their users report career benefits after completing a course there.

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