How accessible are MOOCs nowadays?

This blogpost is an adapted version of a previous blogpost (in Dutch).

December 2019, the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science has published its new strategic agenda for higher education: “Sustainable for the future” (in Dutch). The previous agenda contained two ambitions on openness in education: in 2025 all teachers share their learning materials and in 2025 all institutions recognize each other’s MOOCs. In the current agenda only the first mentioned ambition remained. Even more: where the previous agenda contained the word “MOOC” 9x, the current agenda does not mention MOOC a single time. On the other hand, the current agenda has strong ambitions in realizing more flexibility in education. Availability of sufficient accessible MOOCs can help in realizing these ambitions, by making education and learning more time and place independant. My presumption is that the decreasing openness of MOOCs plays a role in the absence of MOOCs in the agenda. Decreasing openness of MOOCs is in any case what strikes me when I compare the possibilities offered by MOOCs that I took in 2012 with most of the MOOCs that I now want to take.

In order to find out what open opportunities MOOCs now offer to learners, I conducted a small study. Subsequently, I will go into more detail on which aspects of “open” I included, how the study was carried out, what the results were and what the consequences might be.

Characteristics of open

To realize adoption of OER, Cox and Trotter (2017) have formulated their OER Adoption Pyramid. In this pyramid, several factors influencing adoption of OER are identified. The first factor is Access, described as (p.156):

The first factor determining lecturers’ or institutions’ engagement with OER is access. This refers to having access to the appropriate physical infrastructure and hardware – such as electricity, internet connectivity and computer devices – necessary for engaging with digitally-mediated OER. It is the factor that lecturers have the least control over, in that it tends to be determined by state resource capacity and provision (for electricity and connectivity) and institutional resource allocations (for computers).

This description of access presumes availability of OER that by definition meet the (5R) requirements of openness. In the case of MOOCs, openness is looked at beyond the context of OER, thus not necessarily meeting the 5R requirements.  This means that in the description of access also “sufficiently open access is provided for the goal the MOOC is needed” should be mentioned. Put in other words: when this factor is not met, adoption will not take place, whatever the other characteristics of the MOOC will be.

Ben Janssen pointed me to the difference between “access” and “accessibility”. In a blogpost (in Dutch) he has elaborated on this. Inspired by a blog of Rick Anderson, Ben distinguishes between three layers of access, where each higher layer can be reached when the lower layers are addressed:

  • Layer 1: Access to (educational) resources. This is comparable with the Access layer in the OER Adoption Pyramid, extended with access free of charge
  • Layer 2: Access of (educational) resources. This refers to the extent the resources can be freely used. This is comparable with the Permission layer in the OER Adoption Pyramid
  • Layer 3: Access to content of the (educational) resources. This refers to the extent the content of the resources is open and inclusive. This is comparable with the Availability layer in the OER Adoption Pyramid

In order to maximise the potential use of a MOOC by both instructors and learners, at least layers 1 and 2 should be addressed sufficiently. I have translated these two layers into the following three characteristics:

  1. Open access: the MOOC is accessible to anyone who wishes to do so
  2. Free of charge: access to the MOOC does not require payment
  3. Open license: the materials used in the MOOC are available under an open license which permits adaptation and reuse

In my study, I am particularly interested in the openness of MOOCs for learners. For them, characteristics 1 and 2 are particularly important (layer 1). The availability of MOOCs that meet characteristics 1 and 2 of openness is particularly valuable in the context of the flexibility ambitions in the strategic agenda. Characteristic 3 (layer 2) will be of little importance to learners: he or she will in general not feel the need to apply the adaptation rights associated with an open license to the learning resources used. However, based on the results of the study, I will indicate why, in some cases, the open license may also be of interest to a learner.

Structure of the study

For the study, I took a sample of 100 MOOCs. That sample was determined by the Top 100 courses of the Class Central platform on 1 January 2020. According to Class Central these courses are: “The highest rated online courses and MOOCs of all-time from top universities around the world. Based on thousands of reviews written by Class Central users.”

Some characteristics of this sample:

  • The courses cover 13 subject areas. Humanities (15), Business (14) and Science (13) contain the most courses.
  • Regarding the language of the courses: 93 English, 4 Spanish, 2 Italian and 1 Dutch (Introduction to Dutch from the University of Groningen).
  • Three courses come from the Netherlands. In addition to the aforementioned course from the University of Groningen, they are Understanding the GDPR (also
  • from the University of Groningen) and EU policy and implementation: making Europe work! (from Leiden University)
  • The courses are available on the platforms Coursera (43), EdX (25), Futurelearn (17), Kadenze (4), Complexity Explorer (2), Swayam (1) and Udacity (1). Of seven courses, the platform in Class Central is described as Independent. This refers to specific platforms of the institute offering the course (e.g. University of Tasmania and University of Helsinki). Class Central has an overview of MOOC providers where more information can be found about these and other platforms.
  • 91 courses offer the possibility of obtaining a certificate.

As can be seen, 85 courses are offered by the “big three”: Coursera, EdX and Futurelearn. In addition to individual courses, these three platforms also offer trajectories consisting of several courses with a common denominator. Access to these trajectories (with names such as MasterTrack Certificates, Degrees, MicroMasters, Microcredentials and programs) is not free of charge. They have therefore not been considered in this study.


All courses meet characteristic 1: Open access (accessible to anyone who wants to). This is what one can expect for “Massive” courses.

With regard to characteristic 2 (free access to the course), the following table provides an overview of the platforms included in the Top 100. The “Experiences” column contains additions that have been obtained, among other things, by taking a closer look at some of the courses listed in the Top 100.

PlatformAvailable free of chargeExperiences
CourseraHundreds of free courses give you access to on-demand video lectures, homework exercises, and community discussion forums. Paid courses provide additional quizzes and projects as well as a shareable Course Certificate upon completion. (Source)Sometimes more elements are offered free of charge, such as an interactive programming environment for a programming course, discussion forums, peer grading, graded quizzes (multiple choice). However, this usually only becomes clear after registering for the course.
EdXIn the course information: "Audit This Course (No Certificate): Audit this course for free and have access to course materials and discussions forums. This track does not include graded assignments, or unlimited course access."Course dependent. Sometimes a Statement of Accomplishment is also offered if the course is completed with a certain minimum result. EdX also has a (paid) Verified Track access. This includes Unlimited Course Access: "Learn at your own pace, and access materials anytime to brush up on what you've learned". This wording suggests that Audit access to course materials is not unlimited.
FuturelearnAccess to the course for its duration + 14 days, regardless of when you join. (Source)Some (video) content is downloadable.
KadenzeFree: video lessons and participation in the discussion forumOnly part of the course catalogue has access free of charge.
Complexity ExplorerAll elements in the courses listed in the Top 100 are available free of charge, including a certificate.Not all courses on the platform are available free of charge (these courses are not part of the Top 100). Afterwards the materials will be made available free of charge, but it is not possible to obtain a certificate.
SwayamAll course elements are accessible free of charge, but no certificate. (Source)Most courses on the platform mention one or more books (not free of charge) as learning material. It is unclear whether the course can be followed without purchasing that book.
UdacityAll course elements are accessible and downloadable free of charge, but no certificate.Sometimes a link is made to content on the provider's site. For the courses I have viewed, that content was also accessible free of charge.
IndependentCourse dependent, ranging from only access free of charge to learning materials to access fere of charge to all course elements and a certificate of completion at the end of the course.Sometimes the materials are only available during the run of the course.

With regard to characteristic 3 (availability of the learning materials under an open license), the following table provides an overview.

PlatformOpen license
Coursera You may download content from our Services only for your personal, non-commercial use, unless you obtain Coursera's written permission to otherwise use the content. (Source)
EdX Unless indicated as being in the public domain, the content on the edX Site is protected by United States and foreign copyright laws. (...) All rights in the edX Site and its content, if not expressly granted, are reserved. (Source)
FuturelearnUnclear. Open provision of learning material is stimulated, but not enforced (Source). But the Terms of Use state: You agree not to distribute all or any part of the Website or Online Content and Courses in any medium without our prior written consent, unless such distribution is offered through the functionality of the Website and permitted by these Terms including, without limitation, under section 6.11; (Source)
KadenzeNo information to be found
Complexity ExplorerAll materials are shared under CC BY-NC-SA and are downloadable. (Source)
SwayamAll rights reserved. (Source)
UdacityNo information to be found
IndependentCourse dependent (all rights reserved; all rights reserved, but reproduction without modification is permitted)


From the overview of access free of charge it can be deduced that there are restrictions on most of the platforms that have been viewed. These restrictions range from access to only part of the content to only access for a limited period of time.

What struck me when compiling this overview was that it is not always immediately clear what is possible free of charge. Often the various options are only shown when you register for the course. The “big 3” do offer an option to get access to (almost) all courses on the platform for a certain amount of money. This option is not always easy to find; only Futurelearn shows this option on a central place on their website.

From the overview of the availability of the learning materials under an open license, it can be deduced that there is a wide variety of options, often even course-dependent within a platform. This variety ranges from no statements to all rights reserved to available under an open license. A number of platforms (e.g. Coursera) allow the content to be downloaded for personal use without stating which open license is valid. Especially when access free of charge to the course is limited in time, this download option allows learners to have longer access to the course materials, albeit separately (usually videos) and not in the context offered by the course. For example, interactivity in the learning materials will then be lost.

A quick check on a few other platforms from the overview of MOOC platforms shows that the diversity of characteristics 2 and 3 of openness in particular is even larger. For example, in a tweet (in Dutch) Willem van Valkenburg (Delft University of Technology) indicated that all learning materials in their MOOCs are available under an open license and all MOOCs are archived on their Open Courseware site.

As a learner, if there is a choice between courses offered by different providers, it is worthwhile exploring the possibilities that each course offer, if necessary by registering for that course (registration is always free of charge and can be terminated when the possible cost options are shown).

The Complexity Explorer is the most open of all platforms I have looked at. It offers free, unrestricted access to a large part of their course offerings and shares the materials under a Creative Commons license. This platform is sponsored by the Santa Fe Institute.

What has not become clear to me is whether institutions offering courses on a platform are free to deviate from what has been formulated as the open policy of that platform and, if so, what deviations are allowed.

All in all, these experiences show that finding an open course in which the degree of openness matches with what a learner desires is not an easy matter. In my previous blog (in Dutch), I already indicated that Open Educational Resources are often (semi)products for instructors, and an open license gives them the right to share and reuse the materials. However, more is needed for education and self-study, for example: structure in the learning materials, interactivity, and feedback. Open courses can provide this, but open and access free of charge to the entire course is required at the very least. The availability of such open courses can help achieve the flexibility ambitions set out in the strategic agenda. This argues in favour of more publication of open courses with easy to find information about the degree of openness.

However, for many higher education institutions in the Netherlands (particularly the universities of applied sciences), access to existing platforms to publish their open courses is very difficult, if not impossible, for example because the “big three” mainly focus on research universities with an international focus. In addition, my study has shown that the degree of openness offered by most of the existing platforms is limited. Maintaining a platform for publishing open courses as an institution is a possibility, but it requires an investment that will probably be too high, especially for the smaller institutions. This would argue in favour of a national MOOC platform, where educational institutions (not necessarily only higher education) can publish open courses and where learners can take those courses free of charge (i.e. a platform with both a publication and a play function). Such a platform could be created using Open EdX, for example. This would be an excellent addition to the national Wikiwijs platform for open sharing and reuse of learning resources. Very recently in Europe, Austria has decided to realize such an open platform. There is no doubt that lessons can be learned from the experiences of the French national MOOC platform, FUN.


Cox, G., & Trotter, H. (2017). An OER framework, heuristic and lens: Tools for understanding lecturers’ adoption of OER. Open Praxis, 9(2), 151-171. doi:

Posted in Open Educational Resources and tagged .

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