Brushing up your mobile & digital skillset with online learning (aka the MOOC)

The beauty of the MOOC (massive open online courses) is threefold: there are thousands of courses, a good proportion of them are mobile or mobile-related, many from top Universities; they’re affordable and you can fit them in around your work.

So it’s no wonder that many digital/mobile businesses are welcoming them with open arms.

Following up on the previous column on recruitment and training, we are going to take a closer look at the MOOC business which has grown phenomenally fast.

In its December 2016 MOOC Report, Class Central estimates the market has now grown from almost nothing in 2012 to 6,850 courses (N.B. some of these may not still be available), from 700 universities, studied by 58m students.


The top five MOOC providers by registered users, according to Class Central are:

  1. Coursera (USA) – 23m users; 1,700 courses.
  2. edX (USA) – 10m users; 1,300 courses.
  3. XuetangX (China) – 6m users; 300 courses.
  4. FutureLearn (UK) – 5.3m users; 480 courses.
  5. Udacity (USA) – 4m users; 180 courses.

XuetangX is the first non-English MOOC provider to make it into the top five. But there are big players, including Miríada X which has 350 courses in Spanish.

How many MOOC courses are mobile?

There is no data to show how many of these 6,850 courses are mobile-related. But you can get an indication by searching on Class Central (CC) or MOOC List (ML) which both aggregate courses listed on the MOOC providers’ sites.

Of the two aggregators ML brings up more results, possibly because it includes both paid courses, while CC just concentrates on free or freemium courses, possibly because it uses Google Search. But CC’s search is more sophisticated, allowing results to be filtered by e.g. start date, self-paced, courses with certificates (these usually cost extra) and by subject area and shows CC user ratings in the results. CC also has a lot less ads. Both sites deliver an acceptable mobile experience.


A search on the following queries on the two aggregators delivers:

  • Mobile web development – CC: 334 results; ML: 923 results
  • Mobile app development – CC: 189 results; ML: 1,580 results
  • Mobile user experience – CC: 169 results; ML: 3,710 results
  • Mobile user interface – CC: 121 results; ML: 412 results
  • Mobile design – CC: 91 results; ML: 3,840 results
  • Mobile marketing – CC: 17 results; ML: 213 results
  • Internet of things – CC: 84 results; ML: 1,130 results

Caveats: Not all of these results will be relevant. Plenty will be courses that just cover mobile or the relevant aspect of mobile, as part of a bigger subject area. Some are just irrelevant. There is lots of duplication between the results for the various search terms.

Some of these courses should also be discounted, because they have start dates so far in the past that they look unlikely to be repeated. Why these haven’t been moved to a self-paced paced course is one of the biggest bugbears with the entire MOOC system.

But even with all these caveats taken into account shows there’s no shortage of mobile MOOCs out there.

Breakdown of MOOC courses by type:

While Class Central does not reveal the proportion of mobile courses, it does reveal the huge proportion of MOOCs that are Computer science and programing (17.4%) and Business and management (19.3%) into which mobile courses will fall.

As well as web, digital and tech courses being prolific on all the general platforms, such as Coursera, edX and FutureLearn, there are also plenty of MOOCs focused solely on tech – including Udacity, Codecademy, Udemy and Treehouse.                            


Choosing a mobile MOOC

Navigating the plethora of different courses at different providers can be daunting. While aggregators such as Class Central are a big help, finding the right course when you want it can be tricky.

There is no standard model, across MOOCs:

  • Prices differ considerably, from free to a few $100s or even $10,000s (for a Master’s degree). Some providers e.g. Coursera, do not make it immediately clear how much a course costs.
  • Many courses are uncertificated, others offer certificates for a fee.
  • Some are self-paced, others are timed, with differing (random) start dates.
  • Course lengths vary – from a few hours a week for a month to cut down masters’ courses, e.g. EdX’s MicroMasters or Udacity’s Nanodegree, which combine multiple courses and take several months, or much longer for a full-blown master’s course.

Assessing if any course will be any good, especially for courses that only have a handful of reviews, or do not come with a personal recommendations from a peer, can involve as much luck as detective work.

The MOOC mobile web experience

The mobile experience on the MOOC providers’ websites is varied.

  • FutureLearn, Udacity, Udemy all have mobile-friendly sites, with FutureLearn, possibly edging it on the UX. But they all fit the screen size, no pointless large images, easy sign-up (keeping form-filling to an absolute minimum) and searching for a course is fairly straightforward. The process from sign-up to getting started on your first lesson takes less than five minutes.
  • Coursera is also mobile-friendly, but the sign-up to first lesson takes slightly longer, because it takes you through an interactive program to help it recommend suitable courses – all the courses suggested were paid.
  • The sign-up process for edX is less straight-forward than rivals and the site is inconsistent in its mobile-friendliness.
  • Codecademy is perhaps the most disappointing – considering that its courses promote web best-practice – the site was not mobile-friendly and flashes up a pop-up saying programming is best done on a PC.

Many of the providers have mobile apps, which we did not sample. Ironically Codecademy has an app, but no responsive site. Presumably, the main advantage of a native app is that it will facilitate offline use (handy for commuters) that would not be available via the website – unless it is cutting edge mobile site/app. But even with this advantage students may not be persuaded to download an app to follow the occasional course, which makes mobile web essential.

MOOC format

The format for courses sampled is similar on different platforms:

  • Snack-sized video lectures with subtitles and text underneath. Video is a convenient way to consume content on mobile, assuming it does not consume too much data or there are no issues with the connection that would make the video run badly.
  • Courses often include quizzes at the end of the section, practical work (certainly with the development courses) and a bigger test at the end.
  • Timed courses usually restrict you moving onto the next module/section, until the allotted time, which can be frustrating.


MOOC for business

For agencies and businesses, MOOC’s are an attractive way to improve employee skills, without them needing to leave the office or shelling out on hiring in a trainer. The any-time availability and snack-sized format, means employees can learn on their own time, for example while commuting.

Belgium-based mobile agency Tapptic has built its in-house training program around MOOC courses. As Wendy Penot Rousseau, Tapptic’s marketing manager, explains:

Recently we have created a new department, called Tapptic Academy. It enables our staff to choose different courses. Most of the time, we do work with Udemy and Coursera. Staff can take between three and six courses within a year. We also run English classes at lunch times in our offices. We launched this program at the beginning of January and so far, the staff are very satisfied.

Several providers have started to cash in on this interest from business with offerings tailored to corporate training schemes, including Udemy for business and Coursera for business and Udacity for business. Interestingly, Udacity also offers a recruitment service, where businesses can hire people who have passed the requisite courses, at no cost.

MOOCs for mobile design and UX

At global mobility agency DMI chief innovation officer Magnus Jern, is also a big fan of MOOCs:

There are lots of great online courses available for free from Stanford, MIT and other top universities. For example, Stanford’s Introduction to Human-Computer Interaction Design or Design Thinking; or MIT’s User Interface Design courses. The best free one for up to date tools, tips and tricks is Springboard UX design.

All of these are great in terms of understanding the background, principles and methodology of human interaction design. But for better support, I would recommend paying for a newer addition by Coursera or Udemy that offer lots of great human interaction design, UI, coding, mobile development, etc.

I cannot point out the specific best ones as there are so many, but we recently had a few members go through the User experience course from UC San Diego (which is a top ranked school for design).

Better to study in groups

Magnus Jern:

As most people who study on their own fail to finish or get the full potential. We recommend study groups with clear milestones and goals for the individuals and the team.

Subscription based-MOOC

One of many MOOC providers, we’ve not previously mentioned, is Lynda, which is owned by Linkedin. It claims to offer over 5,000 courses in business, technology and creative skills. But the model is different to the norm: all courses are included in the membership fee that starts at around $16.

Ginny Keegan, a US-based business analyst, explains: has been a valuable resources as a business analyst in mobile, agile as well as for my development teams. Lynda is a paid subscription, however you can give it a test drive for free with their 10 day free trial. I would recommend checking out the online courses available. With a premium subscription you can access courses off-line.

The shared playlists are useful, such as the one for business analysts.

Professional certifications

Many professional certifications/qualifications remain offline, classroom affairs, for example this PMPO certification for in Agile project management or the digital marketing qualifications from the IDM.

But increasingly these qualifications are moving online. For example the IAB’s Certification Program for digital advertising executives is available online, with optional in-person classes.

Do such certifications count as MOOCs? At US$600 for the IAB certificate, it is considerably more expensive than the vast majority of MOOCs and requires prior industry experience which most MOOCs do not. But it has been taken by thousands of practitioners, which is bigger than many MOOCs.

So probably not, but as the MOOC providers gradually move towards certification and qualification we could find the borders between the online industry qualification and MOOC gradually blur.

Andy Favell is ClickZ columnist on mobile. He is a London-based freelance mobile/digital consultant, journalist and web editor. Contact him via LinkedIn or Twitter at Andy_Favell.

Related reading

Man fly fishing