Online Learning Platform Comparison: Coursera vs. Udacity 2020

The half-life of technical skills is rapidly falling. This is placing huge demands on accessible continuous learning and development in the digital age. The democratization of online education has helped break down the traditional barriers of access to education like high costs and physical location. Especially, the emergence of online learning platforms and MOOC (Massively Open Online Courses) has paved a way for learning enthusiasts to upskill and stay engaged and relevant.

Online learning has come a long way since MOOCs started to emerge around 2012. At the time, they were generally offered free with unlimited enrollment - hence the "massive" and the "open". Nowadays, however, each platform offers courses with varying degrees of content coverage, difficulty, instructor engagement, and time commitment. As of 2019, technology-related courses are the dominating subject area within MOOC.

Online Course Distribution by Subject

With the sheer number of online learning platforms, comparing them individually and choosing the right fit for your interests, preferences, and availability can be a challenge. To help with those often-confusing choices, I will attempt to summarize key information that should give you the low down on all the comparative details between Udacity and Coursera – two of the giants in the world of online learning platforms. Some of the aspects that I will cover for each are course variety, certification reputation, fee structure and subscription plans, and student support, before rounding off with a comparison summary between the two. 

Coursera Review

With its origin roots in Stanford University’s Computer Science department, Coursera’s early offerings focused totally on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), and one of the first offered courses was actually Andrew Ng’s Machine Learning! 

Now, Coursera offers over 4,000 courses in total in almost every subject area imaginable. With over 45 million users, it is the largest MOOC platform worldwide. Its subject areas range from Arts and Humanities to Business to Computer Science.

Coursera Certifications

One of the main features of Coursera is that its courses/degrees are offered and certificates issued in partnership with renowned higher educational institutions, including:

Duke University
Stanford
Johns Hopkins University
Imperial College London
UC San Diego
University of Virginia

 Additionally, some of Coursera's courses are offered through tech giants such as Google, IBM, and Microsoft. Those Coursera courses do, however, tend to primarily focus on teaching on a given company's own platform e.g. IBM Watson for IBM’s AI courses. That being said, each of their platforms are widely adopted in the industry – so you can’t really go wrong in your choice in that regard.

Coursera Program Options and Structure

Coursera offers everything from individual courses to Master’s degrees – most of them in collaboration with universities and companies. To be exact, there are 5 learning options:

Individual Courses
Specializations
Professional Certificates
MasterTrack Certificates
Degrees

The exact structure of these learning programs varies in length, difficulty, and cost.

The smallest units are the individual courses on Coursera, offered by top universities and organizations around the world. For each course, you will need to complete peer-reviewed assignments and quizzes. Individual courses can take anywhere between 4-12 weeks to complete. That being said, these completion timelines are suggested by Coursera based on a part-time commitment of 10-15 hours a week, meaning you have the freedom to pace yourself faster or slower as you prefer. 

Next up are Specializations on Coursera, which are a combination of the individual courses within the same knowledge area provided by the same institution or organization. They can comprise of as few as two courses to as many as eight. The time commitments scale according to the number of courses – so you are looking at between a few months to a year in length depending on the Specialization at hand. They are a great option for individuals with a specific career goal who want to demonstrate proficiency in a particular field. 

There are many Professional Certificates on Coursera, which are offered by organizations like Google and IBM. These programs, such as the IBM Data Science Professional Certificate, typically involve completing hands-on projects to build your portfolio and are designed to help you carve a pathway towards industry-recognized technical certifications.

Taking another step up, MasterTrack Certificates involve working through online modules with practical projects from an accredited Master’s degree program from top universities such as the Machine Learning for Analytics MasterTrack Certificate by the University of Chicago. Given the hands-on, intensive nature of these programs, you would be looking at approximately 4 to 8 months to complete each one.

Finally, the online degrees on Coursera are similarly structured to traditional on-campus Bachelor or Master’s degrees. The degrees are granted by various accredited institutions that have partnered with Coursera, ones like Imperial College London through their Master of Machine Learning and Data Science. In most cases, the degrees and the courses therein are almost the same as the ones offered in their on-campus counterparts. Just like a regular university degree, you will have to go through the admissions process - the key advantages of them being online/remote, self-paced and offered at lower tuition fees. If you’re extra motivated, you can complete the degrees fairly quickly given that you are not limited by the speed limit of a traditional curriculum. 

Coursera Pricing

Many of Coursera’s courses can be taken for free, which is what makes it such an attractive platform. You can simply create an account, enroll, and jump right into the course. This option is referred to as “auditing” a course on Coursera, where you get access to all the learning materials. You can also pay to enroll in the individual courses, which provides you additional access to:

Graded assignments
More content (additional video lectures or bonus materials)
A certificate of completion

For most, as you may imagine, the main difference between auditing a course for free and paying for it is the certificate of completion, which you can feature on your LinkedIn profile and add in your resume. The payment, or fee structure, is a bit convoluted and depends on the program option. Following is a quick summary:

Individual Course Pricing on Coursera: They usually cost between $49 and $99 as a one-time payment
Specialization and Professional Certificate Pricing on Coursera: These run on a monthly subscription basis, typically between $39 and $79 per month. Alternatively, you can pay for the individual courses within the Specialization/Professional Certificate program and build up to your final certificate. But if you pace it right, the monthly subscription could provide better value as a bundle. 
MasterTrack Certificate Pricing on Coursera: The starting prices are $2,000.
Degrees Pricing on Coursera: Degrees can cost $15,000 and up.
Coursera Plus Pricing: This is a new feature introduced in 2020. Through this, you get unlimited access to over 3000 courses for an annual subscription costing $399. Included in Coursera Plus are the most of the individual courses, Specializations and Professional Certificates. However, you don’t get access to MasterTrack Certificates or the degree programs through Coursera Plus. Also, some specific Certificates and Specializations are excluded from Coursera Plus too. Make sure to check out Coursera Help that has an updated outline of what is included and what is not.

Note that the prices are at the time of writing this article. Do check the website for updated prices and offers before you take your decisions. 

Coursera Support

At Coursera, support comes in the form of fellow learners, peer assessments, and teacher forums. Through their peer support network, you can connect with others who may have a better handle on the material than you do. While this can be useful, it is not quite as having an actual mentor or instructor whom you can directly connect with. However, the support system for the degree programs is on par with a traditional degree program. 

Udacity Review

Where Coursera’s structure and teaching style more closely resemble academic institutions’, Udacity tends to be more skills-based and focusses more on hands-on projects.

Udacity’s course offerings emphasize all things tech – deep learning, machine learning, artificial intelligence, computer vision, computer science, cloud computing, and computer vision.

Udacity Certification

Udacity was born out of Silicon Valley—and it shows through and through. A lot of their more popular Nanodegrees programs are delivered in partnership with tech giants like Uber, Google and Intel and they also bring along instructors and subject matter experts from the companies whose tools you would be using such as Altertyx and Tableau.

Udacity's Nanodegree programs provide learners with focused coursework developed with industry partners, who, according to Udacity, hire many of the programs' graduates!

Udacity Program Options and Structure

Udacity’s courses, referred to as Nanodegrees, are designed and developed by industry experts, and taught through immersive exercises, videos, projects, and mentoring. Duration wise, they are estimated to take students 3 months on average assuming 10-20 hours of weekly commitment from your end.

A Nanodegree is organized into building blocks, referred to as either modules or courses. A typical Nanodegree may include around 8 courses for example, each centered around a particular topic area and usually ending with a real-life graded project. Each course is further sub-divided into a few lessons covering particular topics. The Nanodegrees focus heavily on projects and building your portfolio along the way.

Beyond their diverse tech-focused course offerings, Udacity delivers comprehensive career support services as part of their Nanodegrees. This includes personalized job coaching, resume writing guidance, and LinkedIn best practices. You also receive detailed personalized feedback from Udacity’s project reviewers for each project submission and 1-on-1 support from Udacity mentors, which really helps gauge how much you are learning and retaining from the course materials.

Udacity Pricing

At Udacity, you can enjoy a few one-off courses for free. But these are much less in-depth than their Nanodegrees offering, which are known for their content depth and focus on projects. Nanodegrees are paid programs, and generally run at around $300-$400 per month for a fixed-term program – meaning you will have a specified time to complete the Nanodegree. This also means that you will end up paying the same even if you complete the program earlier than the designated term length. At the time of writing the article, most of the Nanodegrees were priced at $337 per month for the fixed-term option.

Alternatively, you could opt for the pay-as-you-go option which is $529 for most courses. If you think you are up to take the challenge of finishing the program earlier than its usual term length, this option does provide a better value.

The Nanodegrees often have promotional offers and discounts, so do check the website for updates. At the moment, Udacity is offering one month of free access for both the fixed-term and pay-as-you-go Nanodegree options to promote learning from home during COVID-19.

Udacity Support

When it comes to direct one-on-one support, Udacity has an edge. As part of the Nanodegrees, you will have personal access to technical mentors who offer 1-on-1 mentorship consultations, progress tracking, advice, and weekly learning plans. Additionally, each of your projects will be reviewed by course graders and will provide you personalized and detailed feedback. This is extremely helpful in validating what you are learning. 

Udacity vs. Coursera

Now that you have some of the details, let’s compare Coursera and Udacity side-by-side.

COURSERAUDACITY

Subject Area(s)

Wide Variety - Virtually Any Topic

Primarily Tech; Some in Business

Program Option

Multiple: Short Courses to Full Accredited Degrees

Nanodegrees

Time Commitment

Min: Courses – 2+ Weeks

Max: Degrees – 1+ Years

2-4 Months

Certification

In Conjunction with Top-Tier Universities or Tech Companies

Udacity

Instructors

From Top-Tier Universities or Tech Companies

Most Nanodegrees are Taught by Industry SMEs from Partner Organizations

Pricing

Courses: $49 and up

Specialization and Certificates: $39-$79 per month

MasterTrack: $2,000 and up

Degrees: $15,000 and up

Coursera Plus: $399 per month

Fixed-Term: $300 and up per month (3-4 month terms)

Pay-As-You-Go: $529 per month

Career Support

N/A

LinkedIn Review;

Resume Review;

GitHub Review

Student Support

Peer Support Forums

1-on-1 Mentorship;

Personalized Feedback on Projects

Course Assessment Method

Peer-assessed assignments; Pre-set quizzes

Degree programs’ assessment methods are similar to traditional degrees

Graded Real-World Projects

Coursera is the clear frontrunner in terms of variety of courses and depth of program offerings. You want access to the minds of the world's top universities without having to pay for the costs of traditional higher education. Their breakthrough introduction of the Coursera Plus annual subscription plan this year is definitely a great value for money for continuous and flexible learning.

While Udacity’s Nanodegrees sure seem to cost a fortune compared to similar scale counterparts on Coursera, all their courses are taught by industry professionals and equip students with industry relevant tools through in-depth real-world projects. You also get personalized feedback on course projects as well as 1-on-1 mentorship which will help show where your strengths and weaknesses lie.

Coursera and Udacity each have their own strengths and which one you should pick depends on what exactly you are looking to accomplish as well as the resources you have at your disposal – both in terms of budget and time.

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