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Free online university courses – would you enroll?

Student using a laptop

A group of leading UK universities have launched free online courses to students over the internet. With degrees now costing up to £9,000 a year, how do the freebie courses compare?

They’ve been a hit over in the US, and now British universities including Bristol, Leeds and Warwick are getting in on the act by now offering free online uni courses (or Moocs – Massive Open Online Courses).

The idea is to make higher education more accessible to more people. Moocs are open to anyone in the world via the internet, you don’t have a £9,000 price tag and most don’t require any qualifications or experience.

Instead of physically attending lectures, university materials and resources are posted online and students are able to fit the short courses around their everyday lives. And you can even complete them on-the-go on your tablet or smartphone.

While the courses aren’t designed as a replacement or equivalent to university degrees and aren’t accredited, could they tempt you back into study?

Back to the ‘classroom’

The UK pilot courses include ‘Causes of War’ from King’s College London, ‘Climate Change’ from the University of Exeter and – one I’ve just signed up for – ‘The Secret Power of Brands’ from the University of East Anglia.

Coursera, EdX and Udacity are three of the leading US Mooc providers, offering more than 200 courses between them.

According to the UK’s online provider, FutureLearn (set up by the Open University), the aim is ‘to connect learners from all over the globe with high-quality educators, and with each other’. Interaction with fellow students via online forums and discussion boards is key and forms an important part of the learning process.

Enrolling for a Mooc – do or don’t?

Mooc pros:

  • No tuition fees!
  • No entry requirements or prior experience needed (in most cases), so you could pick any course that grabs your eye.
  • You could learn from experts on the other side of the world.
  • You can get a feel for what degree study is like before you apply to university.
  • Courses are often short and flexible.

Mooc cons:

  • It won’t replace a university degree, as most courses aren’t accredited.
  • US course providers have seen very high drop-out rates.
  • You won’t experience the face-to-face student and tutor interaction that comes with classroom-based courses.

Do you think higher education can work online? Are there any Moocs that have caught your eye?


I have just signed up for one about the Higgs Boson. If you are not concerned about gaining qualifications these can be an excellent way to dip into subjects that interest you.

I like the idea. I looked at OU courses when I was made redundant but having a degree already I would have had to fund that myself. Can’t wait to see what the astronomy courses look like (assuming they do them in the future).

Is it true the Student Loans Scheme do not apply
to the over 60s(?).. as there is NO legal obligation to repay.

I suspect the exclusion or exemption clauses will look
into that or any loophole.

Alexander Hanff says:
24 September 2013

I have being doing MOOCs on Coursera and NovoEd for some time – currently studying Python, Introduction to Systematic Program Design, Cryptography & Technology Entrepreneurship.

I really enjoy doing them as they allow me to extend my knowledge base or refresh on subjects I studied many years ago. I find studying online to be very comfortable and easier to manage than classroom based courses.

I would love to see full degree’s offered online with reduced fees (due to economies of scale) – if the price was right I would sign up for the right course in a heartbeat.

I ‘d been privileged to learn a former Lord of Appeal
in Ordinary started to read a Maths degree at 82 completing
at 86 at OU. Not long thereafter, he passed away.

‘Mooc’…. personally wd not enrol on one.

Personally I thought some of the OU programmes on TV were among the most interesting of the TV schedule – but then I always did prefer factual books and TV to fiction. Just a pity they were on at anti-social hours.
I would then be interested in Moocs in principle – must look at what is on offer. Shortish courses can introduce you to a topic that you may want to pursue in more depth – just the job for older people fed up with soaps.

Whatever happened to the OU programmes on TV?

Here is an explanation for why the OU programmes that Malcolm and I enjoyed more than much of the ‘ordinary’ TV programmes:


Some of them were decidedly dated but still made interesting viewing.

I miss the OU programmes on TV – the BBC is the only channel that still delivers anything broadly educational to the general public but so much of its output hoves from the Blue Peter style of presentation in which the smiley chap in the anorak goes on a jolly up a mountain/down a mine shaft/out in a herring smack/over a stile, trying his hand for 30 seconds at some menial task, gurning and grimacing throughout the “ordeal”, just so we might acquire some miniscule nugget of knowledge, Thank heavens for Simon Schama’s “The History of the Jews” that brought back the Jacob Bronowski and Kenneth Clark standard of scholarship tempered by a more accessible approach and the use of modern technology to bring history to life.

I’ve signed up for “The mind is flat: the shocking shallowness of human psychology”. It’s about decision making and the “fact” we don’t think as deeply about decisions as we think we do. I’m intrigued by the topic, have enjoyed online learning with OU, and have time on my hands this winter, being retired. So Future Learning couldn’t have come along at a better time !

Sounds a great idea! I would certainly enrol if I found something of interest. In fact, I’m going to stop writing here and go and have a look!