Getting a degree online is different from studying at your own pace via a Massive Online Open Course or MOOC. You may have found many different types of classes offered for free online through video lectures or other open delivery systems, and wondered “What is the difference between a MOOC and an online degree program?”

According to MOOC.org, massive, open online courses offer the opportunity to affordably learn new skills, pursue lifelong interests, and have a quality educational experience at a large scale. Thousands of people may be taking a MOOC course in a popular subject at one time. In contrast, degree programs offered online pursue a less-open and more structured form of education that confers a specific degree from the associate’s to Ph.D. level, in an accredited process.

How do MOOC Courses Work?

Some of the world’s most prestigious universities, including Harvard, Oxford, McGill and the University of Edinburgh, participate in EdX, the largest online portal for MOOCs. Over 10 million people were enrolled in EdX courses as of 2017. EdX courses are offered in 1,300 different subjects, including math, computer science, current affairs, and the humanities. Courses are frequently offered as self-paced modules. Harvard University’s law school offers an introductory course in contract law, for example. This course covers limits to contracts, contractual performance, and how to read contracts. You can choose to take the course for your own educational benefit, or pay for a certificate verifying that you have taken the course and learned the concepts.

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Online Degree Programs Offered

While there are tens of millions of people enrolled in MOOC’s online, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that about 2.8 million students were enrolled in an online college program as of 2014. The students were all enrolled in a degree-granting college or university that was accredited to award an associate’s or higher degree. Nearly every discipline or area of study has an associated degree program, from accounting to veterinary science. College degree programs are broken down broadly into arts or science-related degrees. Another important distinction is an applied degree as opposed to a theoretical or research degree. Applied degrees include nursing, medicine, law and the applied arts, such as painting, dance or music. Theoretical or research-related degrees include many of the traditional liberal arts degrees, such as history, literature, and philosophy. Some fields, like dance, do not currently have online degrees. Related programs like art education, do offer the ability to get a degree online.

What is the difference between a MOOC and an online degree program? The primary differences are in educational delivery, instructor contact, and formalized systems of education. MOOC’s inform students in specific fields of study, typically through video lectures and follow-up tests that determine whether or not students have understood the concepts that are covered. Instructor contact may not be offered at all, or assistants may work with MOOC students. Some massive online courses such as Code Academy provide free computer coding courses with automated lessons. Degrees offered online use technology to deliver an organized program of education that is divided into classroom hours and educational segments, such as quarters and semesters. Online degrees are awarded based on an established system of learning and skill development determined by each field of study and accreditation body.