The 7 Best Online Learning Platforms of 2020

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Our Top Picks

Whether you’re aiming to learn some new marketable skills or just want to explore a topic for fun, online learning platforms are a great and easily accessible resource for learning on your own schedule. As an alternative to online colleges, these platforms tend to be a little more flexible and may even offer more specific or unusual classes you wouldn’t find at a traditional college, but it’s important that prospective students compare their options to find what’s best for them.

From Masterclass to Coursera, here are just a few of our recommendations for the best online learning platforms, so that you can sign up today.

Our Top Picks

Best Overall: Udemy

Udemy

Udemy

If you want to learn something, it’s probably on Udemy. The site is less of a unified “platform” and more of a portal or repository where students can access well over 100,000 courses on every topic imaginable.

Language, arts, music, and fitness courses can be found alongside lessons on programming and IT, business skills, teaching, productivity, and much more. There are even categories for personal development and lifestyle, which cover life skills and other techniques that aren’t necessarily the kind of thing you’d get in an academic setting.

There’s not one standard format for a Udemy course—the platform allows instructors to design multimedia lectures with audio, video, and text elements, plus readings, quizzes, and other activities. Udemy allows students to preview classes they’re interested in and does offer a 30-day refund if you’re dissatisfied.

Because each class is created and taught individually, they’re also priced separately: Lifetime access to a single course can range from inexpensive (about $11 to $15) to pricey (roughly $200 or more).

Best for Creative Fields: Skillshare

Skillshare

Skillshare

While many online platforms basically provide college-style classes, Skillshare is less formal and aimed more at improving creative skills.

There are business and marketing classes on the platform, but the majority are courses in creative fields, taught by practicing experts in those fields: photography, film, animation, visual arts, writing, interior design, and more. The focus is on teaching practical skills that students can then use to create their own projects. Most courses involve a series of video lessons, combined with assignments for students to practice their skills.

Skillshare has a subscription model, rather than a per-course payment plan, so students who sign up can take as many or as few courses as they want while they’re subscribed. The current pricing is about $19 per month, or roughly $99 for a full year (which works out to around $8 per month).

That being said, the platform does offer a set of free classes as well, from short, 20-minute videos to longer tutorials of an hour or more. They’re not as in-depth, but they’re a good way to try out potentially interesting topics.

Best for Celebrity Lessons: MasterClass

MasterClass

MasterClass

Although MasterClass offers more than just creative courses, its marquee offerings are the ones that put A-list actors, writers, artists, musicians, and more in the teacher’s seat.

And, these aren’t just one-off “talk” style classes: Most courses have around 20 lessons, just like a traditional one, so you get to really dive deep into your topic of choice. If you want to learn about these often-opaque professions, there’s no better way than to hear about it straight from the people who have been successful already.

These courses are video-based, with practical advice and demonstrations mixed in with straightforward lectures, workbooks, and class discussions. You can get TV writing advice from Shonda Rhimes, learn to cook from Gordon Ramsey, take a film class from Martin Scorsese, or explore creative leadership with Anna Wintour.

Since MasterClass is a subscription-based platform, you can take as many sessions as you want within a monthly subscription. The price is about $15 per month for unlimited access, but students have to sign up for one year at a time.

Best for College Classes: Coursera

Coursera

Coursera

Coursera isn’t just a place to take classes that are like college courses—it actually offers real academic courses from real professors and universities at a fraction of the cost of getting an online degree.

The platform partners with over 200 universities and companies to provide real learning experiences that can connect to real-world benefits. In some cases, you can even earn certifications or degrees entirely through Coursera, which can then potentially lead to professional benefits like raises, promotions, and more. Even if you’re not looking for professional development reasons, Coursera offers challenging and interesting classes on plenty of topics, so you can explore interests you might not have had before.

The platform allows for multimedia courses, so professors can construct classes, upload videos, assign and grade quizzes and homework assignments, and other elements that would be present in a “real” online college class.

Each course is individually priced (the cheapest start around $30 to $40 and increase from there), although there are some instances where you can purchase a bundle of courses at once (and sometimes at a discount) as a “track” or certification/degree program. It’s pretty much the closest you’ll get to the online college experience without enrolling in college.

Best Pedigree: EdX

EdX

EdX

EdX has a high-end pedigree—it was founded by Harvard and MIT—but an accessible system.

Real college courses, created and taught by real college instructors, are available in a huge array of fields and topics. They do lean slightly toward STEM fields, but there are plenty of languages, humanities, and arts topics, too. Partnering with several universities, EdX offers professional degree certificates, plus “micro” degree programs at the bachelor’s and master’s levels, largely as a tool for professional development.

Through a partnership with Arizona State University, they also offer a “Global Freshman Academy” to earn transferrable undergrad credits for select lessons. Classes are similar to “real” online courses: Lectures, reading material, assignments, discussions, and quizzes are just some of the elements you may encounter.

The big selling point for EdX is that the majority of their courses are free—but there’s a catch. If you’re just taking the class for your own learning experience, the free version will probably work, but if you want to have formal verification for professional reasons, the “verified certificate” option costs about $49 per class.

Each course does have an official “start date,” cycling over and over again, but once the session begins, students can proceed at their own pace.

Best for Tech: Udacity

Udacity

Udacity

Tech skills are among the most marketable classes you can take on your own time, and Udacity has courses in all of the most in-demand fields.

The platform is designed as a variation on the “coding bootcamp” style of learning, with programs focused on coding, web development, programming, cloud computing, and data science. Whether you’re a total newbie trying to develop a new skill set, or you’re looking to expand your knowledge of a certain topic, there’s probably a course at the right level for you.

Each program includes hands-on practice, real-world applications and examples, individual code reviews, and real instructors and career coaches who can address your individual needs.

Udacity’s platform is a little different than some of the others on the market. Rather than focusing on individual classes, their primary offering is a “nanodegree”—a bootcamp-esque program designed to take approximately four months of part-time study, which includes multiple lessons, projects, personalized reviews, class discussions, and one-on-one technical mentoring by experts.

All these features do come with a price tag, though: It's about $399 monthly, or roughly $359 for students who buy the full four months at once.

Best for Data Learning: PluralSight

PluralSight

PluralSight

Designed with working professionals in mind, PluralSight offers courses in subjects like software development, data science, information and cybersecurity, and more.

Students can take individual courses, but PluralSight strongly encourages you to take one of its “paths.” These programs are like mini-degrees: a series of connected courses in a specific area of expertise, such as individual programming languages, security certifications, creative skills in particular software, and so on. These preset paths take the guesswork out of learning—plus, you can do a quick pretest to set your skill level, which adds more customization.

The course library includes more than 7,500 individual classes across hundreds of paths, and even if you’re not ready to tackle a full-length pack, you can dip your toe in with individual courses that are only a couple hours long.

Regardless of how few or how many classes (or paths) you want to pursue, the price is the same about $29 per month for a personal plan (or roughly $299 for a complete year at a slight discount). There’s a premium option, too, for around $449 per year, which includes all the regular features and courses, plus additional interactive courses and industry-standard practice exams for several professional certifications.

How We Chose the Best Online Learning Platforms

There are more online learning platforms than ever before, so it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of options. We’ve selected the categories that we think will be the most useful to adult, professional learners, as opposed to children or teenagers (college students may find these selections useful, but they may already have access to similar resources through their schools).

This means that the platforms here are particularly aimed at adults looking to either explore a personal interest or gain measurable skills for professional advancement—that’s why we’ve focused on creative and tech platforms as the “specialties” featured here among the platforms with broader offerings.

Udemy earned our title of best overall for its variety of options, while Masterclass was our top pick for best celebrity lessons since there are lessons available from a range of directors, writers, and actors.

Since learning online is typically a very personal experience, we’ve featured several platforms that allow for self-paced learning, interactivity, and/or learning tailored to a particular skill level. We’ve mixed in some informal options along with more traditional academic-style courses, but all of the platforms recommended here have top-notch instructors who are experts in their fields, regardless of the structure of the courses themselves.

What Is an Online Learning Platform?

An online learning platform is a website and/or app that allows students to study some topics of interest wholly online and remotely. They’re typically geared at adult professionals who have already finished their traditional schooling, and while some will offer full certificate or even degree programs, most focus on teaching individual courses.

How Much Do Online Learning Platforms Cost?

Online learning platforms come with a pretty big range of prices, but in general, the one thing they all have in common is that they’re usually cheaper than similar courses at traditional colleges and universities.

There are two main types of platforms: per-course platforms, where you pay by the class or course package, or subscription platforms, where you pay a flat rate (usually monthly or annually) to access an unlimited number of individual courses within the given time.

What Kind of Features Do Online Learning Platforms Have?

Like any other type of class, every online learning platform will structure its courses a little differently, but there are a few things they’ll usually have in common.

Online platforms are usually video-based in some way, with audio and video lectures forming the backbone of the classes. For classes teaching hands-on topics, such as creative courses or computer science, the top platforms will usually have a built-in way for students to practice their new skills and get instructor feedback.

Other features you might find are discussion boards, supplemental readings, and even quizzes or exams. Most classes on these platforms are self-paced, either in part or in full, so there won’t be as much simultaneous work with other students as you’d have in a typical class, and you probably won’t have to tune in to live lectures or meetings—although, a few platforms do offer one-on-one tutoring or coaching for some courses. The key is finding a platform whose style works for you in terms of how independent of a student you tend to be and what you’re hoping to get out of a given class.

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