The 10 Best Online Learning Platforms in 2021
(This review contains affiliate links which means we may earn a commission if you sign up — at no extra cost to you. However, it’s an honest review about my personal experience with these education platforms)
With travel and major social events still on hold, learning new things seems to be part of the new normal. What better way to spend all this newly found free time than by expanding your skillset?
Thankfully, there is no shortage of awesome online learning platforms available for hungry learners.
In this list, we feature 10 of the best online learning sites. This list offers a platform for every kind of learner, including:
- Those looking to launch a new career
- Casual learners wanting to pick up something interesting
- Creatives who want to improve their technical abilities
- People who need inspiration
- Students who miss belonging to a community
- Professionals seeking certifications and credits.
Not sure where to get started with online education? This epic list will help you out.
Price: $180 per year
Advantage: Over a hundred classes, all hosted by A-list celebrities
Free Trial: No
What is MasterClass?
There are few online learning platforms more popular than MasterClass, and it’s not hard to see why.
MasterClass has grown over the last few years as the industry leader in online learning by focusing on two elements: the fame of their instructors, and their high production value in each and every course.
MasterClass gives everyone the option to listen to experts and celebrities as they discuss their craft and expertise, or what made them who they are today.
Interested in writing? Learn from Neil Gaiman and Dan Brown. Cooking? Gordon Ramsay and Tomas Keller. Acting and filmmaking? Natalie Portman and Martin Scrosese.
Although MasterClass doesn’t offer a free trial, its base (and only) price is pretty great value. At just $15 per month charged annually (meaning $180 for a year’s access), you get access to their entire library of courses and mentors.
What makes MasterClass different?
The biggest thing that stands out when it comes to MasterClass is the accessibility of the knowledge on the platform. The fact that they have world famous experts teaching almost every course means everyone can benefit from these lessons.
They’re not just the regular class you might get in any other online or physical school. You learn so much more than the basics; you gain insight into the minds of people who have conquered their industry and perfected their craft, and you get an understanding of how their minds work, which is perhaps far more valuable than any basic lesson they might teach.
Many MasterClass subscribers find themselves getting lost in courses that might have very little or nothing to do with their interests, simply because the mentor is someone they can easily admire and respect on merit alone.
You don’t have to want to be a filmmaker to be interested in what Martin Scorsese has to say about filmmaking, and that’s what makes MasterClass and its All Access Pass so unique.
Price: $8.25 USD a month or $99 for annual billing OR $19 USD a month for monthly billing
Free Trial: Yes, Skillshare has some free courses and a 14-day free trial for the Premium version
What is Skillshare?
Creative skills can be pretty tricky to master. Some people might argue that beyond the mastery of technical skills, you also have to be inspired in order to create something beautiful.
Skillshare is the perfect platform for both.
Skillshare is built off of creative skills such as animation, creative writing, web development, and graphic design. Interestingly, there are also courses on leadership and freelancing, making Skillshare one of the most freelancer-friendly platforms available today. It’s a great place to start honing your creative talent or pick up more entrepreneurial skills if you ever wanna scale up your operations. Recently, Skillshare has also added “lifestyle” courses like interior design and self-improvement.
That doesn’t mean the site isn’t welcoming to hobbyists. If you’ve got some free time on your hands and want to finally dust off that paint set or try out baking for the first time, Skillshare is a fun platform to pick up new things from.
For a deep dive into Skillshare, check out my epic Skillshare review here.
What makes Skillshare different?
While MasterClass and Mindvalley are both platforms that are built-off of big names, Skillshare’s approach to skill building is definitely more accessible.
The courses they feature might not be from industry leaders, but they are developed by unique, talented, and inspiring individuals who have gone through the process themselves. Skillshare definitely showcases talent from people who “do what they preach”.
Student Projects and Groups are two unique features on Skillshare. With Student Projects, users can upload their projects and get feedback from site users. It’s a great way to get encouragement on what you’ve done or simply show off your new skills. The Groups tab is composed of multiple communities on different topics, with an active member base extending to upwards of 10,000 users. As a creative or a freelancer, this is a unique opportunity to connect or network with other people in your field, or find future clients, which is something other sites simply don’t offer.
Price: Different pricing for different kinds of courses:
- Individual Courses
- Professional Certificates
- MasterTrack Certificates
Advantage: Online courses geared towards professionals as taught by institutions and companies. Students have the option to have an official certificate.
Free Trial: Most of Coursera’s baseline courses are free
What is Coursera?
Coursera is like an online version of a university, working closely with brick-and-mortar institutions like Yale and giant companies like Google and IBM. Coursera’s focus is on creating affordable job-relevant content for students looking to get trained on a hands-on project or get job-ready certificates and degree programs.
Coursera has career learning paths, which is a series of curated courses designed to help students launch a specific career. It’s a great way to hone in on a specialization or understand what prerequisites you need when stepping into an entirely different field. Although these courses can be taken in no particular order, Coursera recommends that you follow their suggestions chronologically as each class is built off of the previous one.
Check out my compete Coursera review here.
What makes Coursera different?
Unlike the majority of platforms that feature individual experts, Coursera’s lesson plans are developed and hosted by institutions. Instead of general insights, you get industry and company-specific instructions on how to level up a particular skill.
Coursera is particularly useful for employees looking to apply in specific companies. With Coursera, you get a feel of what certain corporations and brands look for.
They also offer full degrees for a fraction of the price. MasterTrack certificates serve as partial credits that can be accredited on your actual transcript should you decide to move forward with a Master degree in the future. Coursera is built on making degrees accessible. The credentials and certificates you get are fully accredited, and the longer degree courses typically take 2-3 years to finish, similar to a program you’d follow in a brick and mortar university.
4) The Great Courses
Price: Price of individual courses vary greatly, ranging from $19.95 to $500. Subscription packages are available at $49.95 for a month or $360 for the annual option.
Advantage: A comprehensive site to dig into niche topics, from the history of the Beatles to understanding the different kinds of beers
Free Trial: Yes
What is The Great Courses?
Compared to other online learning platforms, The Great Courses isn’t really geared towards honing a specific skill. The site is home to dozens of interesting topics ranging from history to art to lifestyle. The content features the kind of topics you’d hear about in university — art history, WWII, guide to wine around France.
The Great Courses is perfect for people who are looking to expand their knowledge base and just learn more about the world in general.
The Great Courses has 13 categories, featuring niche information on travel, science, courses specifically designed for younger learners, self-development, philosophy and religion, music and fine arts, mathematics, language and literature, hobby and leisure, history, health and fitness, food and wine, and economics and finance.
Think of The Great Courses platform as a collection of every fun elective class you’ve had to take in high school or university.
What makes The Great Courses different?
The Great Courses makes learning fun. Rather than focusing on a specific skill, this platform is all about interesting content you may not know about. In their Philosophy & Religion section, you have titles like Masters and Mindfulness and Philosophy and Humor.
The platform offers different formats to suit each student’s preference: instant video, instant audio, and DVD. The DVD option is great for people looking for a tangible collection.
Price: $499 for the Annual Membership. With this you get full access to almost all of the Mindvalley courses. Each course or “Quest” typically costs $300 to $500 individually.
Advantage: Gamified experience ideal for students who want to belong to a community or need help with accountability.
Free Trial: No. But some classes can be free. You’re asked to sign up with your credit card details and they only charge you if you are unable to complete the course.
What is Mindvalley?
If you’re looking for one platform specifically devoted to wellness, spirituality, motivation, and just general self-improvement, there’s probably no better e-learning site than Mindvalley.
The platform features industry thought leaders including spiritual leader Michael Beckwith, psychologist Marisa Peer, life coaches Jon and Miss Butcher, and productivity expert Robin Sharma.
Aside from the typical courses on habit formation and brain training, Mindvalley is able to showcase alternative knowledge on topics like energy healing and dream projection. What makes the site special is that every single quest is designed so beautifully, with high-quality videos and well-produced audio-only versions, so engagement is never a problem for students.
Quests are highly addictive and only take anywhere from 20-30 minutes a day to complete. These quests include an introductory stage so you never have to feel like you’re diving off the deep end with a completely new topic. Lifetime access to the quests you completed means you’ll be able to revisit courses if the mentors decide to add new content in the future.
What makes Mindvalley different?
Of all things, Mindvalley is a site dedicated to personal development.
One of the more popular series of courses on the site is designed by Jim Kwik, a prolific brain training expert who has worked with celebrities and powerful CEOs including Elon Musk and the cast of X-Men. The rest of the mentors featured on Mindvalley have a similar experience working with high-status individuals; signing up on the platform saves you money from personal consultations typically costing thousands of dollars.
Another unique thing about Mindvalley is their focus on community. As convenient as it is to do e-learning, one of the best things about being in a traditional class is that you get a sense of belonging. Mindvalley replicates this with their own pockets of private communities, bringing together both students and mentors.
As a student, you’ll feel closer to the course material because you have other people to talk with. Mindvalley gives students the opportunity to meet like-minded people who may be on the same path as them. Some courses also give access to mentors where you could ask them questions regarding the course.
Price: $399 a month for a Nanodegree; prices vary depending on the time-limited access
Advantage: Practical classes replicated from traditional university courses
Free Trial: No
What is Udacity?
Udacity is an e-learning platform focused on digital skills including artificial intelligence, programming and development, and data science. Udacity’s courses are focused on honing technical and analytical skills like programming and its more specific aspects like AI and machine learning.
Interestingly, the site also features courses on career building specifically for developers and similar professions. Its founders created Udacity out of the success of its first two courses, Building a Search Engine, and Programming a Robotic Car. Since then, Udacity has become one of the biggest online platforms for all things IT and AI.
Although Udacity doesn’t offer a free trial, the course details are thorough enough that you know what you’re getting into. Designed by university professors and actual field experts, Udacity courses are meant to feel like a smaller version (hence nano) of an actual university class. Prerequisite skills and knowledge are also outlined on the course page, allowing students to figure out whether the class is right for them before committing to enrolling.
What makes Udacity different?
Udacity’s primary goal is to create courses that give students employable skills and knowledge. Students range from university students to actual working professionals (including C-level executives) who want to expand their knowledge and learn from the best.
One of the best things about Udacity is that the course program is well-detailed. Udacity recreates the feeling of being in a university class, for a fraction of the cost. Without miscellaneous expenses, students of the platform can focus on building their knowledge base at the comfort of their own homes.
Unlike other platforms that are projected towards a general audience, Udacity’s courses are specifically geared towards engineers, data scientists, and professionals in similar fields. The end-goal of every nanodegree is to give students employable skills they can actually use in their careers.
7) LinkedIn Learning
Price: All Access Pass at $29.99 per month
Advantage: A focus on career-related skills and education
Free trial: Yes, free month
What is LinkedIn Learning?
If you remember Lynda, one of the first online learning platforms on the Internet, then you’ll be somewhat familiar with LinkedIn Learning. LinkedIn Learning is the rebranded version of Lynda, after LinkedIn acquired Lynda for $1.5 billion in 2015.
LinkedIn decided that the best way to add value to their social network for professionals was to offer businesses and interested professionals a single platform to acquire and develop skills and knowledge relevant to their career.
Simple and easy, with a mix of free and paid courses in a library of over 16,000, LinkedIn Learning focuses on courses that are directly related to modern work and professions. They have courses on personal development, critical thinking, diversity in the workplace, building professional resilience, customer service, web and software development, design tips, and more.
What makes LinkedIn Learning different?
In many ways, LinkedIn Learning is an employer’s best friend. You might have an applicant who is perfect in all ways but one, or you might be looking to pivot your team to doing something similar but different from their current responsibilities. LinkedIn Learning is a simple and effective platform to ensure your new applicant, entire team, or anyone else has the skills you need them to have.
With technology moving at a blistering pace, it has never been more important — and more difficult — to keep your skill set updated and your knowledge relevant. LinkedIn Learning gives both employers and individuals access to proper courses and instructors that can quickly update their expertise at an affordable price, at just $29.99 per month.
Price: Individual courses priced anywhere from $13.99 to $200 each
Advantage: Cheap course prices and an incredibly huge library of courses, with over 130,000 courses
Free trial: No
What is Udemy?
One of the original players in the online learning space, Udemy has grown to become a behemoth of a platform with over 130,000 courses to choose from. With over 35 million users, 57,000 expert instructors, and courses in over 65 languages, Udemy is most used by employers looking to give their employees the extra specialized training they need to get up to speed.
If you’re looking for a simple platform that does what it says, with none of the extra frills that other online learning platforms have these days, then Udemy might be what you need.
It can be hard to imagine how a platform can make over 130,000 courses, but it starts to make sense once you go through the platform: they have tons and tons of niche, specialized courses made for people looking for exact pockets of knowledge and expertise.
With larger categories like Design, Development, Marketing, IT and Software, Personal Development, Business, Photography, Music, and more, you can then dive into more specific topics for detailed and exact courses on whatever you might need: Python, web development, machine learning, cyber security, AWS certification, SQL, financial analysis, and so many more.
What makes Udemy different?
Udemy understands that not everyone is looking to subscribe to a learning platform on a monthly or yearly basis, which is why they don’t offer All Access Passes like other platforms, and instead sell niche and individual courses at affordable rates.
This makes Udemy perfect for something a lot of other online learning platforms fail to achieve: the go-to place for when you need a specialized course in an exact niche of knowledge or expertise. Need to brush up on your Python? Udemy’s your place. Looking for a detailed course on Premiere Pro CC? Udemy’s got it.
Udemy’s not the place to go if you’re looking for accredited certifications to help advance your formal education or career, something to put on your resume. Udemy’s the perfect option for practical knowledge you need right now.
Price: Various price options, including:
- All Access Pass to over 600 courses at $249.99 per year
- Individual Premium Courses priced anywhere from $75 to $400 each
- A free “Audit Option”
- Microcredentials available from $579 to $1549
Advantage: Quality online university-level courses with mostly free access for any student who signs up
Free trial: Yes
What is FutureLearn?
Based in London, FutureLearn was first founded in 2012 to keep students in the United Kingdom competitive with students from countries around the world. With now over 10 million students and nearly 200 education partners, FutureLearn is one of the biggest platforms for students looking for an accessible and comprehensive online education.
FutureLearn now has over 600 courses available on the platform, with dozens of courses in Business and Management, Healthcare and Medicine, Science, Engineering and Math, Teaching, and more. FutureLearn is uniquely useful for students of Healthcare and Medicine, with various courses specifically in nursing, dementia, healthy lifestyles, and genomics.
An interesting aspect of FutureLearn is the quality of their courses, with students typically giving the platform great feedback. One reason why FutureLearn “works” is the community that exists around it: with an active social network of students, instructors, co-learners, and more, all working with each other on various forums and platforms.
What makes FutureLearn different?
The best part of FutureLearn is how easily accessible it is, even if you don’t want to pay a single dollar. FutureLearn is free for all students who sign up: if you sign up for a course, you gain access to all course materials for the duration of the course, plus an additional two weeks after. This means anything relevant to the course’s lessons — videos, forums, reading materials, and more — can be accessed by all free students.
But if you’re looking to access their premium courses, online degrees, mico-credential programs, or even get certificates of completion for the free courses you complete, you’ll have to pay the relevant fees.
Another unique aspect of FutureLearn is in its micro-credential programs, which are the first online courses that are built around the new Common Microcredential Framework in Europe. This framework standardizes these programs, ensuring that all courses stick to the highest standards of consistency.
Students who pay for micro-credential programs gain:
- Valuable certificates for their education and career
- University credit which can be pushed towards an undergraduate or graduate degree
- Considerable one-on-one interaction between the instructor and the student.
Price: Unverified courses are free; verified courses cost anywhere from $50 to $300 each
Advantage: Perhaps the most complete online platform for college-level courses available to anyone
Free trial: No
What is edX?
Founded by a partnership between MIT and Harvard, it’s easy to see why edX is regarded by most in the online learning industry as the go-to platform for high-quality, college-level online courses, although the course can fall on the pricier side if you’re looking for specific courses. But with over 2500 classes on the platform, you can probably acquire a comprehensive education without paying a single cent.
edX offers two “tracks” of enrollment for students: the Audit Track and the Paid Track.
Students enrolled in the Audit Track can take the unverified courses and receive all the education in the class, while students enrolled in the Paid Track can take the courses while also receiving a certificate of completion after they’re done with it (however they’d still have to pay for access to the individual courses with a price tag).
What makes edX different?
Some people find the prices on edX off-putting, but they justify this by emphasizing the high-quality, university-level experience of its courses. With courses on Computer Science, Language, Data Science, Business & Management, Engineering, Humanities, and more, edX might be the perfect place for curious students to gain what they might have missed in college, or supplement existing knowledge to further advance their personal education.
But what makes edX truly different besides the university-level quality of their courses is the various programs students can sign up for on their site, including:
- One-off courses that students can take whenever they wish
- The MicroMasters Program, which is meant for current professionals who want to advance their skills
- The Professional Certificates available for people who need specialized training in a tough job market
- The Global Freshmen Academy aimed at first-year university students in need of an extra push
- The XSeries Program for students looking for deeper understandings of subjects they might be majoring in.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about online education
Here are the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about online education more generally.
What is an online learning platform?
An online learning platform is an online platform — in the form of a website or app — that offers an e-learning experience for students and learners who sign up. Online learning allows students and learners to experience classes and acquire knowledge through the convenience of the internet, in a remote environment through their computer, tablet, or phone.
Why are online learning platforms becoming more popular?
Online learning has grown significantly over the last decade, particularly over the last year due to the global pandemic. With fast internet and computers and smartphones becoming more widespread, more learners than ever before now have access to e-learning experiences.
Students can acquire knowledge and experience classes that may not have been available locally in the past, at affordable costs and on their own schedule. Online learning has become central to the way we learn today, and will continue to grow in popularity for the foreseeable future.
What should I expect from an online learning platform?
Online learning platforms should have a variety of classes or courses available around their topic or theme. While most online learning platforms now offer video courses, it isn’t a rule. E-learning can be present in various modules or forms: texts, books, documents, audio recordings, and of course, video lessons.
Courses usually offer a certificate of completion, although some platforms charge an extra fee for this. Some courses will also offer direct instructor-to-student interaction, as well as active online communities.
How do I choose the best online learning platform for me?
It’s important to know what you are looking for. Some online learning platforms focus on practical, everyday skills; others focus on career-related practical skills. Some students are in need of certain certifications to fill out their resume or credits for their degree, while other students search for personal development classes.
There are different kinds of online learning platforms, for different situations. Choose the e-learning platform that best fits your current needs.
How much do online learning platforms usually cost?
Online learning platforms can range in costs, with some offering free courses, others offering limited free trials, and some with monthly or annual rates at a few hundred dollars per month or annum. With various packages and price points, there are e-learning options available for everyone.
Are online learning platforms and traditional education the same?
Online learning has grown significantly over the last ten years, and while it might not exactly replace traditional education yet, it’s best thought of as a supplement to it. It can be difficult if not impossible to replace the in-person, in-class experience, but online learning is a great way to expand your current knowledge and work alongside traditional learning.
There are also now online courses and programs that can be considered formal degrees or used as credits for formal degrees.
Verdict: What education platform is best?
While I did rank these education platforms from 1 to 10, it’s difficult to say which is the “best online learning platform”.
Certainly, there are some better performers than others. For inspiration and learning general life skills, MasterClass and Mindvalley are best.
If you want to learn some harder skills and boost your career prospects, Coursera and Skillshare come out on top. EdX is also popular because they have courses from top schools like Harvard and Wellesley.
At the end of the day, I mostly hope I showed you how much education is available online — most are very affordable prices.
In 2021, there are fewer barriers to quality education than ever before.