How Does Coursera Work?

Coursera is an online learning platform providing courses on various subjects from universities and well-known companies around the world. There are over 2500 courses on the platform, catering for undergraduate and graduate-level students. Platforms like Coursera, and more accurately the courses they offer, are often referred to by the acronym MOOCs - Mass Open Online Courses.

Coursera's courses are entirely online, accessed through an Internet Browser or via the Coursera app for mobile and tablet. If a course requires the use of software, it may need to be installed on your computer, if freely available. Otherwise, applications are made available in a virtual lab environment and through the Coursera platform. Other than that, students are free to study wherever they have access to the Internet. There is no requirement to attend a campus or class in person.

Classes on Coursera are in video format, taught by university lecturers or (in the case of courses offered by companies) qualified instructors. The majority of videos are pre-recorded and accompanied by readings, course notes, quizzes and assignments. Online forums allow students to interact, ask questions, discuss problems, and collaborate on work.

You can enrol in a class on Coursera and start studying immediately, except for MasterTrack and Degree programs, which are term based and a hybrid of recorded lecturers and live classes.

Enrollment options on Coursera

There are five types of course on Coursera which students can enrol in - Individual Classes, Specializations, MasterTracks, complete Bachelor and Master Degree programs and Professional Certificates.

  • Individual Classes - One of the significant differences between Coursera and traditional on-campus courses is the ability to enrol in a class, without the need to commit to a more extensive degree program. A class consist of lectures, quizzes, discussion forums and assignments. On completion, students who have paid receive a verified Coursera certificate. The certificate displays the student's name, the course title, university logo and is signed by a university representative. 
  • Specializations - Specializations are a combination of four or five related individual classes from a university culminating in a final 'Capstone' project. Capstone projects are typically an assignment that utilises the concepts and principles learned in the Specialization program. This can be in the form of a case study or a paper based on a real-life scenario. 
    As with individual classes, students that have paid receive a Coursera certificate on completing a Specialization. If a class in a Specialization was taken before enrolling in the Speciaization, the grade is carried over.
  • MasterTrack - Master Tracks are designed to be mini degree programs or a means of gaining entry to a Bachelors or Masters degree. If a student doesn't have the required GPA, they can take a MasterTrack course and apply for the degree program on completion of the MasterTrack, assuming they achieve the required grade. MasterTrack and Degree programs are more closely aligned with traditional college and university degree programs. They are term-based, and enrollment is only available at specific times during the year.
  • Bachelors & Master Degrees - Finally, Bachelors or Master degree programs are the online equivalents of their on-campus siblings. As with MasterTrack courses, students can only apply to enrol at specific times during the year and acceptance into the program is determined by the university. Degree programs may also include classes from related MasterTracks. Students who have completed an associated MasterTrack course may be awarded credits towards the degree.
  • Professional Certifications - Professional Certifications are slightly different since these are created by leading companies rather than universities and, thus, are sometimes structured differently. Students who complete a PC, receive a similar certificate as offered on completion of individual classes and Specializations.

How to Enroll in a Course and Start Studying

Enrollment is fairly straightforward. You first need to create an account, if you do not already have one. Then search or browse the catalogue for courses. Each course has a home page with an Enrollment button except for MasterTrack and Degree programs where you must apply before enrolling.

Image showing how to enroll in a course on Coursera

How to enroll in a course on Coursera

Once enrolled, the course will be displayed on your dashboard. The dashboard is an overview of the active and completed courses and accomplishments achieved to date. From the dashboard, you can click to continue with a class or un-enroll.

Image of the Coursera dashboard

The Coursera Dashboard

Image shoing how to unenroll from a course in Coursera

How to Un-Enroll from a Coursera Course

Coursera's Pricing Models

I find Coursera's pricing structure unnecessarily complicated. They offer three pricing models: one-off payments, subscriptions and audit mode.

  • One-Off Payments - Classes that are not part of a Specialization can be purchased individually for $49. This provides full access, feedback on assignments and a Coursera certificate on completion. MasterTrack and Degree programs are also one-off payments. These are substantially more expensive than individual classes or Specializations but they are also significantly cheaper than their equivalent traditional on-campus degree.
  • Subscriptions - Enrolling in a Specializations or Professional Certificate requires a subscription. The cost of a subscription is anywhere between $39 and $89 per month, depending on the Specialization or Professional Certificate. Choose to enrol in multiple specializations, increases the monthly fee. The subscription ends when the course or courses have been completed or if you choose to unsubscribe.
    New students receive a 7-day free trial when first subscribing.
  • Audit mode - Audit mode allows students to review the course material of individual classes for free. When you click to enrol in a class, a pop-up box asks you which payment option you prefer.
    If the class is not part of a Specialization or Professional Certification, you have the option of either paying the one-off payment or reviewing / auditing the content for free.
    If the class is part of a Specialization or PC, you can either subscribe or choose to audit the course.
    Auditing a course provides complete access to all the course material, effectively allowing you to learn for free. You can watch all the tutorials, answer the quizzes questions and engage in the forums. However, you cannot submit assignments for assessment, and you will not receive a certificate on completing the course.
Diagram showing how to audit a course on Coursera

How to Audit a Course on Coursera

Financial Aid

​Students wishing to enrol in a course but can't afford the fees can apply for Financial Aid. Financial aid is available for most individual classes and Specializations. Scholarships are also offered to MasterTrack and degree programs.

You apply for financial aid by clicking a link on the course's home page. Applicants must fill out a form detailing their educational background, career goals and reasons for applying. The more detailed the application, the more chance of being accepted. Applications must be at least 150 words.

Coursera recommend taking the course in audit mode while waiting for a financial aid application to be reviewed. The review process is usually quick, but Coursera's help pages state it can take up to 2 weeks. You should bear this in mind if you are enrolling in a MasterTrack or Degree course that has a deadline for enrollment. The deadline will not be extended because you're waiting for your application to be approved.

Applicants that are accepted to receive financial aid will be automatically enrolled in the course and then have 180 days to complete unless the course has a fixed schedule.

You can reapply for financial aid if your application is initially denied.

Coursera for Business

​Coursera for Business was launched in 2016 and has since expanded to cater for organisations of all sizes. There are two pricing models, based on the number of users.

Smaller companies can pay $400 per user per year. This option is effectively the same as a standard user subscription, providing full access to classes and Specializations.

For larger companies, who opt for the 'Enterprise' model, the cost is negotiable. The 'Enterprise' model allows companies to curate their own learning programs by picking a collection of classes from Coursera's catalogue.

Coursera for Business enables companies to effectively outsource staff training, assuming the training required matches the classes and courses available on Coursera. This is particularly useful for smaller companies who are too small to have an in-house trainer or training department, or simply can't afford to train staff individually.

Key Takeaways

  • Coursera is an online learning platform offering under and postgraduate courses from universities and leading companies from around the world.
  • Coursera offers individual classes, Specializations, Professional certificates, MasterTrack and full Degree programs.
  • To receive a certificate on completion of a course, students must either pay a one-off fee or subscribe. Otherwise, individual classes can be 'audited' for free. Financial support is available via application.
  • Coursera also offers a pricing model for businesses, enabling companies to outsource staff training by curating courses from Coursera's catalogue.
>