The MOOCs (massive open online courses) are becoming a common thing, yet there are some doubts about them. To date, I’ve fully—with all assignments and exams—completed three courses. Yes, I finished another great course called Introduction to Computational Thinking and Data Science from MIT (on edX). But how to choose suitable courses? And is it worth taking them? And should we purchase the certificates from them?

MOOC - online course learning

Markus Spiske /

To Take or Not to Take?

Before we can discuss the advantages and disadvantages of MOOCs any further, we have to know why to take them in the first place. For me the big difference between searching content on the Internet and taking MOOC is the completeness and structure of information. The fact that somebody thought about the structure, prerequisites and goals of the course can speed up learning and prevent self-learners gaps. Moreover, you can join a community of learners and even make some friends with the same passion. On the other side, it can be very time-consuming and you have to spend the next months studying one course. Sadly, some courses are getting outdated pretty quickly and you may waste time setting up your environment just to make things work.

Nevertheless, taking MOOC is effective when you are completely new to the topic. It builds on prerequisites and guide you through clear path. I personally view it as reading a book. When you read an educational book you have to dedicate quite some time to work through it. But the people behind the book tried to provide the best learning resource.


Suppose that you find the course which you want to take. Then another hard decision occurs: should you purchase the certificates? Most sites don’t provide certificates for free and the prizes may even vary quite a lot.

So far I purchased only one certificate and I was a bit disappointed. Because all I get for $50 was a PDF with certificate same as every other. You may argue that I successfully finished the course with grade 99% and I wouldn’t be so motivated without putting my money into it. But did it have any other value?

The main reason why people buy these certificates is probably the progress in their careers. And it should work as proof of their knowledge. But if you try cheating, you will find it so easy that my grade 99% looks suspicious even to me (DISCLAIMER: I didn’t cheat in this course). You may even come across the solutions unintentionally in official discussion form. Not only does shearing solution lower credibility, but it also destroys learning experience. It’s like spoilers! And everybody knows that spoilers are bad.

The good news for all project based learners is that the problem sets are usually dealing with real and interesting problems. That may help you to create some side project, which will represent learned knowledge. I actually won 2nd place in the national round of high school science competition thanks to the Machine Learning course from Andrew Ng.

Some learners also take the purchase of the certificate as a way of supporting the course creators. The problem with this approach is that you often have to pay at the beginning of the course.

Useful Resources

In order to provide at least something valuable in this blog post, here are some of my favorite learning resources. I go through all these links whenever I’m learning something new.

The biggest MOOC providers:

I would also like to include Khan Academy because I still use it for learning Math.

Some Universities provide courses or materials on their own (for example, Stanford courses or Intro to AI from Berkeley) but that requires more searching.

There is also a big repository of free tech resources: EbookFoundation/free-programming-books with the huge list of ebooks.


Don’t be afraid of MOOCs because they can help you start in new fields. And the most importantly, do not skip the problem sets! The value of the certificates is controversial. Side projects are best and don’t forget to join other course takers on Facebook, Slack or whatever.

BTW, I will continue working on my Machine Learning project during the summer. Hopefully I will manage to write new blog posts about my progress and solutions.