The internet, for all its faults and flaws, has done a great deal to broaden our horizons. It’s introduced us to new experiences, new sights, and new sounds; things we’d probably never have come across otherwise. One of the ways in which it’s expanded our horizons is through online courses, which have proven incredibly popular.

It’s never been easier to undertake online learning. During the Coronavirus pandemic and ensuing Covid-19 lockdowns, too, many more people have had the time to do so. Whether you’re looking to learn out of sheer curiosity or with a view to a career change, you can sign up for distance learning online courses and gain new qualifications.

Some of the world’s most prestigious learning institutions have joined the online learning revolution. You can take a course in just about any area you care to name – from data science and digital marketing to machine learning and computer science – potentially opening doors to new career opportunities as well as personal satisfaction.

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One of the best-known providers of free online courses is Coursera. Here, you’ll find a vast selection of free courses to undertake, providing you with all sorts of routes to a brighter and more fulfilling future. Whatever subject arouses your interest, and whatever reason you want to learn for, the possibilities Coursera offers are quite remarkable.

In this guide, we’ll introduce you to Coursera and explain a little more about what it is and what it does. We’ll also take a look at online learning in general, discussing some of the major benefits it offers. We’ll then go on to explain how to sign up for Coursera and provide some tips to make the most of your learning experience. Finally, we’ll list five of the most popular Coursera courses to provide you with some cool ideas.

Hopefully, by the time you’ve finished reading this guide, you’ll have a much clearer idea about Coursera and what it can do for you. Let’s get started.

What is Coursera?

In short, Coursera is an online education provider. It offers thousands of online courses, known as massive open online courses (MOOCs). It has hundreds of partners in some 48 countries, including some of the world’s most prestigious universities. Among Coursera’s partners are elite US higher education institutions including Stanford, Duke, and Princeton, as well as highly respected business schools.

As well as linking up with leading universities, Coursera has also entered into partnerships with a number of the biggest and most innovative firms on the planet – including such world-famous names as PwC, IBM, and Google. 

With more than 45 million people have taken its courses, Coursera is by some distance the world’s most popular MOOC provider. Its catalogue of course numbers over 3,800 and is expanding all the time, while it offers some 16 online degrees. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re a complete beginner or are looking for guided projects at a higher level.

But at this point, you might be wondering – what is a MOOC? Perhaps you’ve never encountered the term before. A MOOC is an online course open to an unlimited number of participants, wherever they happen to be in the world. The point of MOOCs is to encourage lifelong learning and make it more accessible to a larger number of people.

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MOOCs offer the possibility of undertaking a course in a particular topic (often quite a niche subject, like coding an Android app or learning about personal branding) to people who might otherwise lack the opportunity to study it. They thus allow people to expand their knowledge in a subject that’s of special interest to them. 


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These courses are taught by regular academic experts and are often offered by top universities like Johns Hopkins or those mentioned earlier. They are delivered entirely online, but they make use of a variety of different methods. These include streamed or pre-recorded lectures and prescribed reading or course material (i.e. books, ebooks or articles), as well as user forums, quizzes, and social media activities.

Usually, MOOCs are provided free of charge, and provide free access – i.e. there are no entry requirements involved. They’re also relatively short courses, typically lasting between two and 10 weeks in duration, and requiring between two to six hours of study time each week. That kind of workload is better for student’s mental health, as well as their time management.

Benefits of Online Learning

As outlined in the previous section, there are various benefits to undertaking an online learning course. Obviously, the type of course you take will depend on your particular interests and what you want from them – perhaps you’re working towards a new career or general personal development, or alternatively, you might just be doing it out of curiosity. You may need a professional certificate to take the next step in your job. You might simply feel you’re weak at problem-solving or another life skill.

Benefits of Online Learning

Whatever your reasons for taking Coursera courses, the upsides are numerous. For a start, they offer immense flexibility. We’ve already noted that MOOCs are fairly short courses, generally lasting no more than two-and-a-half months and taking up no more than six hours weekly. This makes it very easy for you to fit these courses around your everyday routine.

If you’ve got a busy working schedule or a young family to look after, your options in terms of studying can be limited. Taking a full course might not be an option – not least as it may require relocation or lengthy commutes to in-person seminars and lectures. As a more mature student, too, the life of a full-time college student may simply not appeal to you. You may feel no course certificate is worth giving up your life of happiness.

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MOOCs, on the other hand, are entirely online courses and as such allow you to study in a way that fits your daily routine. They also let you study in your own environment, in the place where you’re most comfortable. A lot of people feel happier (and less distracted) studying from home than on campus, so it can be good for your personal well-being, too.

But if you can’t study effectively from home for whatever reason – and it’s not always easy when there are young children running about – you can always relocate yourself to a local library or even a cafe for a more relaxed environment.

Another major advantage of online learning is that it’s good for your career development. Employers are always looking for evidence that job applicants are prepared to be flexible and learn new skills. Taking an online course and picking up a qualification is a good way of demonstrating that flexibility and willingness to learn. If you’ve been out of work for a spell, taking an online course also helps you prove you’ve not spent the time just sitting around. Instead, you’ve chosen to learn Java, LinkedIn marketing, or something similarly useful.

Finally, there’s another benefit of online learning and MOOCs that we should talk about – namely that it’s generally free. Of course, full degree courses (undergraduate or postgraduate) will be subject to tuition fees where they apply, even if most of the studying is done remotely. MOOCs, however, are usually entirely free of charge.

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Reasons to Take Advantage of Coursera Courses

So, having outlined just some of the potential benefits of Coursera courses, it’s also worth discussing a few specific reasons why you might want to sign up for one. The most obvious one is that it offers you a new opportunity to learn new things and explore new topics.

It might be that you’ve always had an amateur or personal interest in a particular subject, but you’ve never taken it any further than perhaps reading about it every so often. A free Coursera course allows you to pursue that interest further, delving into the topic without it costing you a penny. You could, for instance, learn more about marketing analytics or the IoT. Alternatively, you could explore social psychology or psychological first aid. Such is the variety offered by Coursera.

Going back to university might not be an option for a lot of people, for reasons we’ve already outlined – work and family commitments, in particular. Taking an online course from an educational institution is therefore likely to be far easier and more practical.

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Online courses also don’t take up anywhere near as much of your time. An undergraduate or postgraduate degree could take years to complete (a part-time undergrad degree could take six years), as well as being quite time-intensive. You can complete a MOOC, by contrast, within a matter of weeks and still have the vast majority of that time to yourself.

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Online learning courses can open up the possibility of taking an entirely new career path, too. Perhaps you’ve been in your current line of work for a while and you’re frustrated at the lack of opportunities it offers you. Alternatively, maybe you just don’t get enough personal satisfaction out of the job, or you’ve always secretly hankered after doing something else.

By signing up for a Coursera course, you could put yourself on the road to the job you’ve always dreamed of. You may need to take additional courses and seek extra qualifications as well, but these courses can serve as useful primers and introductions.

How to Sign Up for Coursera

Signing up for Coursera courses is very easy. All you have to do is enroll in one; that starts by browsing the Coursera catalogue to find the course that’s most suited to your needs. If you’re looking for a course in cloud computing or social media management, for example, explore the catalogue and find the course that’s relevant to you.

Once you’ve decided which course you’re going to sign up for, simply click ‘Enroll’ and follow the instructions on the site. You should find that the whole process takes you no longer than a few minutes. You can also check to see which courses you’re enrolled in by clicking the ‘Enrollments’ option on the left sidebar, and then going to ‘My Courses’.

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Top Online Coursera Courses

Here are some of the most popular Coursera courses, to provide you with some inspiration:

  • Machine Learning: For the uninitiated, machine learning involves getting computers to ‘learn’ by themselves – in other words, to draw conclusions based on data from the previous usage and apply these to future usage. This course from Stanford University provides an introduction and an overview of machine learning.
  • Learning How to Learn: It’s one thing deciding to take an online course, but how about taking an online course that’ll help you get the most out of online courses? Learning How to Learn, from the University of California at San Diego, provides lots of useful insights – including tips and learning techniques – to help you in your efforts to master tricky subjects.
  • What is Data Science?: There’s been a lot of hype in recent years about ‘big data’ and its potential uses. This course from IBM offers an overview of the field of modern data science and includes various insights from data science practitioners about how their work has shaped the discipline.
  • Financial Markets: If you know your hedge funds from your high-frequency trading (or even if you don’t), the Financial Markets course from Yale University could be perfect for you. By taking this course, you can learn about the modern role of financial markets, how risks are managed, and how the sector – despite its somewhat negative public reputation – can be harnessed to play a more responsible social role.
  • Programming for Everyone: Have you ever fancied your chances of becoming a hot-shot programmer? This University of Michigan course could be a great place to start. It provides an introduction to programming with Python, and should be accessible to anyone with good mathematical knowledge and moderate understanding of computers.

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Tips for Online Learning

If you’ve never taken online courses before, you might be a bit apprehensive in terms of how to go about it. The experience of online learning can take some getting used to, particularly for those accustomed to learning in more traditional settings. Learning online requires good self-organisation and real self-motivation. You have to be genuinely engaged.

Tips for Online Learning

There are a few steps you can take to get the most out of the process, however. For a start, make sure you have a dedicated, quiet study space set aside. Make sure everyone else knows that this is where you go to study, and when you’re in there you don’t want to be disturbed. This should provide you with the privacy and the peace that you’ll need.

Also, you must make sure that you have everything you need to study properly. Do you have the right reading material? Make sure you have pens and notebooks to hand because you’ll need them. If you have access to a local library, it’s well worth taking advantage of it so you can read around the topic in more depth.

Finally, don’t overwork yourself by taking too much studying on. The great thing about online courses is that you can do them in your own time. With Coursera, you can enroll in new courses whenever it’s convenient for you. There might be some trial and error involved, but make sure you don’t leave yourself with too little time for other day-to-day commitments.


Hopefully, this guide has provided you with a useful introduction to the wonderful world of Coursera, and whetted your appetite for learning. The rest is really up to you – which courses you take, why you take them, and what your overall objectives are. But learning with Coursera is a great way of appreciating more about the world around you, and it could well open up opportunities you hadn’t previously anticipated. Good luck, and happy learning!

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Originally published Sep 15, 2020, updated Jan 16, 2023

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