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Our Favorite Online Learning Platforms of 2021

  1. Best Overall

    Coursera

    Pros

    • User friendly interface

    • Flexible scheduling

    Cons

    • Web design course is a bit slow

    Skip to the full review below
  2. Best for Hard Skills

    LinkedIn Learning

    Pros

    • Offers more than 16,000 courses

    • Caters to people interested in business or tech

    Cons

    • Photoshop course is not for beginners

    Skip to the full review below
A snapshot of the Coursera webpage.
Credit: Coursera / Tara Jacoby

Coursera is a good option for those with busy schedules.

Best Overall
Coursera

Coursera is affordable, easy to navigate, and offers about 5,000 classes. It even hosts classes from top colleges like Columbia University, University of Michigan, and University of California, Berkeley. Coursera nabbed our top spot because it offers a great amount of flexibility thanks to its short instructional videos and reading assignments, making it a great option for those with busy schedules. The interface is also user-friendly and easy to navigate, and the coursework structure is laid out in a way that allows you to follow your progress.

To help review this platform, Valerie Li Stack, a senior staff writer for kitchen and cooking at Reviewed, signed up for the “Web Design for Everybody: Basics of Web Development & Coding Specialization” course. Here’s a summary of her personal experience:

“The class is structured to encourage learning. The coursework structure was clear and allowed me to track my progress. It was nice having a visual track of my strengths and weaknesses at my disposal. The final project is more involved than the small weekly quizzes, which helped me test my real world knowledge on the subject. Each class had videos, reading assignments, and quizzes. I wasn’t ever doing one thing for too long, which is great because I have a short attention span.

This course offers a great amount of flexibility for people who can only find a small amount of time each day dedicated to taking an online class. Thanks to the short video sessions and reading assignments, I can complete the course at my own pace as the elements were all within 10 to 15 minutes. Each class is also accompanied by a transcript, which is helpful for people with hearing difficulties.

The only drawback is that the course itself is a bit slow. I think when people sign up for the HTML class, they want to understand the basics but they also want to get to coding as quickly as possible. I think the history of the development of HTML is fascinating, which could be interesting for me in additional reading but not in the video part of the class.”

Pros

  • User friendly interface

  • Flexible scheduling

Cons

  • Web design course is a bit slow

A snapshot of the LinkedIn Learning webpage.
Credit: LinkedIn Learning / Tara Jacoby

LinkedIn Learning offers up to 13,000 courses.

Best for Hard Skills
LinkedIn Learning

LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda Learning) is a great option for those looking to either brush up on or further hone their professional skills. However, it is only accessible for those who pay for a premium membership to LinkedIn—a professional networking platform.

LinkedIn Learning offers more than 16,000 courses. You can find a wide range of classes that focus on project management, Photoshop, graphic design, HTML coding, and much more. This platform caters specifically to people interested in business and technology. As for the specific course that was taken, the pacing was just right and the coursework was broken down into 1 to 5 minute sections.

To help evaluate this platform, Kate McCarthy, Reviewed’s senior social media manager, took the “Introduction to Graphic Design: Photoshop” class. Here’s what she had to say about it:

“For anyone who has basic Photoshop skills and wants to learn how to make their own designs pop, I’d definitely recommend this course from LinkedIn Learning. The instructor goes through the process at just the right pace and the course is structured in a way where you can pause the videos and rewatch multiple times (without having to rewatch a 20 minute long video). Plus, you come out with a finished product.

The course was a little over an hour in length and was broken down into three separate chapters (creating the content, building the layout, and wrapping up). Each chapter had anywhere between 5 to 10 sections in it. The individual sections were also labeled with how long it would take. The shortest was less than a minute and the longest was just over 5 minutes. I liked this visual representation because I knew what I was going to get in each chapter and how long each section would take. Since I did this course in pieces, (though I could've done it all in one sitting), it was nice to see what was coming up and where a natural place to stop would be.

While there’s a lot I liked about this course and learning platform, the instructor mentioned that it’s not a class for Photoshop beginners. I would’ve been able to follow along better if I had more basic Photoshop skills and it would’ve taken me less time fooling around with the settings and just familiarizing myself with it in general. Even though this was explicitly stated at the start of the course, maybe LinkedIn could do a better job with making that apparent in the title.”

Pros

  • Offers more than 16,000 courses

  • Caters to people interested in business or tech

Cons

  • Photoshop course is not for beginners

Related content

A snapshot of the MasterClass webpage.
Credit: MasterClass / Tara Jacoby

MasterClass is a fantastic online learning platform for creative thinkers.

Best for Creatives
MasterClass

Whether you’re looking to learn more about the art of storytelling or pick up a new musical instrument, MasterClass is a fantastic learning platform for artists and creative thinkers. There’s more than 100 high-quality courses in its catalog and the production value of the instructional videos are high quality. However, the biggest draw to this platform is the celebrity instructor. It offers interesting courses such as voice acting classes from Nancy Cartwright (aka the voice of Bart Simpson), acting lessons from Academy Award winning actress Helen Mirren, writing lessons from Dan Brown, and much more. The only downfall is that it’s not very interactive, so you won’t actually get to talk to the celebrity instructor.

To help review this platform, Melissa Rorech, Reviewed’s video producer, took “Margaret Atwood’s Creative Writing” because she wants to become a better writer. Here’s what Rorech shared about her experience:

“Overall, I found the course to be interesting and beneficial. Margaret Atwood had a lot of good tidbits of information about writing from her many years of experience. There weren’t any assignments in the video class itself, but there were in the accompanying workbook. Margaret never mentioned the workbook, so I barely looked at it until the end. The accompanying workbook has a lot of good websites and tips for getting started with writing whereas Margaret herself has a lot of functional tips on how to get in the right mindset.

Margaret challenges you to think of things in different ways. She suggested imagining scenes from different points of views, narratives, locations, and so on. She talks about where you need to get inspiration from and how you need to write if you want to be a writer. The simplest advice she gave was to sit down and start writing. Most people don't write until they have an idea for the next great American novel, but that may never come, so you've just got to start writing anything. Experiences, short stories, poetry, anything. A fairy tale flipped around. A traumatic memory from another's perspective. Once you get in the habit of writing, then you can move onto bigger works.

As someone who wants to become a better writer and maybe someday write a book, this class was really helpful. It motivated me to start writing outside of work for myself, not for money or anyone else. It's a lot easier now to sit down and let the words flow because I have the confidence of Margaret Atwood's advice backing me up.”

Pros

  • Fantastic production value

  • Celebrity instructors

Cons

  • No interactions with celebrity instructor

How We Tested Online Learning Platforms

The Testers

I’m Ashley Barry-Biancuzzo, editor for Reviewed’s product roundups. I’m a naturally curious person that values learning, so I decided to round up the most popular learning platforms available today and put them to the test. After coming up with the testing scoresheet, I asked my coworkers to take classes they were personally interested in.

A team of nine Reviewed staffers helped evaluate these platforms by taking different classes which matched their personal interests.

The Tests

To test learning platforms we asked our team of expert reviewers to each take a full course and then write about their experiences and answer specific questions related to using the service.

We asked questions about the clarity of the course, whether or not the testers received a certificate at the end, if there were any live sessions with experts, how easy it was to navigate the website, and how they’d rate their confidence level with the knowledge they gained.

Once we received their results, we analyzed each platform in comparison to the others in this guide to create our rankings.

What are Online Learning Platforms?

A woman using  a laptop.
Credit: Getty Images

Online learning platforms are great for those with busy schedules.

While no two educational platforms are exactly the same, a majority of them share some commonalities. To put it simply, they’re online spaces for helpful resources and educational content. It’s also a place where students and instructions can interact and have discussions. The content is usually divided into a variety of topics. Most of the online course platforms feature a wide variety of classes, but others are more specific.

Some educational platforms specialize in business-oriented and offer classes on HTML or resume writing. These platforms are great for gaining hard skills and other skills you’d utilize in a workplace environment. Meanwhile, other platforms may be more focused on self-improvement or creative pursuits. MasterClass, for example, offers courses on acting and scriptwriting. It really depends on what you’re looking to learn.

How to Use an Online Learning Platform

Most, if not all, of the websites we evaluated, require you to sign up with a username and password. It’s no different than logging into your email or social media account. However, you’ll want to check and see if the course offers any live sessions. Some platforms will record the session, so you can watch it at your leisure. Other platforms may require you to attend the live session at a specific time.

When it comes to the coursework, these websites will structure it in bite-sized sections somewhere on the interface. This is a great way of tracking your own progress throughout the length of the course. You’ll be able to review quiz results, reading assignments, instructional videos, and so on. Deadlines for assignments should be featured somewhere on the platform as well.

Who are These Programs for?

Online classes are great for people who want to pick up a new hobby or beef up their resume. They’re an especially good fit for people with busy schedules.. You can take a course from your home and learn at your own pace. Although some platforms may be more business-oriented, many of them feature a massive pool of topics. You can learn anything from DSLR photography to Search Engine Optimization.

Some of these platforms only provide a certificate of completion, while others will allow you to receive professional certificates, college credit and ultimately online degrees. However, in our testing, we didn’t evaluate these educational platforms for these opportunities.

Pricing and Free Trials

The pricing model varies greatly. Some platforms charge per class while others offer annual memberships. Udemy, for example, allows you to pay per class. MasterClass, on the other hand, is $15 a month but is billed annually. That said, most if not all learning platforms offer a free trial of some kind.

When it comes to selecting a service, it’s important to take the free trial into consideration. A lengthier free trial period will give you more time with the platform, which better informs your decision. Shaw Academy, for example, has a pretty generous free trial period. There’s a four week free trial with live educator support and 20+ hours of learning per course. Coursera, on the other hand, only has a seven day free trial.


Other Online Learning Platforms We Reviewed

Product image of Shaw Academy
Shaw Academy

Shaw Academy is a good option for those looking to gain some practical skills. There are classes on data analytics, computer science, Excel, cryptocurrency, and financial planning. It features more than 100 classes in its catalog, interactive sessions, globally recognized diplomas, and flexible scheduling. As for the course the tester took, the information is presented in a systematic way that’s easy to follow. While the tester liked the pre-recorded lectures and the detailed text and visuals on each slide, he found that Shaw Academy sent him too many text messages and emails and the interface was cluttered.

James Aitchison, Reviewed’s international editor, took the “Digital Marketing and SEO” course from Shaw Academy. Here’s what his experience was like:

“In general, the course materials were well put together. The information was easy to follow and understand and the person leading the course seemed fairly knowledgeable about the topic. However, I found the actual web interface of the course module to be a bit busy and clustered. I was also unsure of what materials were available and which required an additional purchase. Clicking on various items would often result in pop-ups and screens asking for additional payment.

If you find a Shaw Academy class that interests you and you are willing to jump through some hoops, it might be worth a try. I can’t speak to the general quality of the courses, but I was satisfied with sections of the course I attended. However, the general approach to communication, upselling, and payment structure prevents me from recommending it without serious caveats.”

Pros

  • Flexible scheduling

  • Offers globally recognized diplomas

Cons

  • Too many advertisements

Product image of Skillshare
Skillshare

Skillshare offers classes catered to freelancers and entrepreneurs, including how to help you develop creativity or equip you with skills to start your own business. The 30,000 course catalog is huge and diverse. You’ll find classes on anything from iPhone photography to personal branding. The videos are high-quality and short enough to keep the student engaged.There’s even a note-taking plugin that allows you to record important information, which is great for those with hearing difficulties. While there’s a lot of positives, the one shortcoming we discovered is a lack of worksheets or written resources.

To help evaluate Skillshare, Amanda Tarlton, Reviewed’s shopping editor, took the “Modern Leadership: Give and Get Honest Feedback at Work” course. Here is her feedback:

“For starters, I like how personable, professional, and inspiring the instructor was. She's the CEO of a major organization so I felt I could trust her expertise—I like that she's someone who has real-world experience in the topic that she was teaching about. She was well-spoken and all of her lessons were easy to follow and understand. She gave plenty of examples of how to apply the knowledge in the workplace, so I felt prepared to implement some of her ideas in my own life. I like that she responded to comments in the Discussion section as well—it's nice to have such an interactive platform.

In terms of user experience, I appreciated that there's a note-taking plugin where you can record important information as you listen to the lectures (which are available in video, audio, and written transcript format). The videos were high-quality and short enough that they were digestible—they didn't drone on and on. I like that I was able to complete the course at my own pace as well so it didn't feel cumbersome or tedious.

There were a few negatives, however. I wish there were more action items, worksheets, or written resources. There's nothing besides the written transcripts in terms of visual aids. I'm a visual learner so these types of files would've been helpful, especially to refer back to after the course was completed. I also think the course was a little short and it would've been nice to have different speakers and lecturers to get a different perspective or a range of opinions and insights.”

Pros

  • Offers 30,000 courses

  • High quality videos

Cons

  • No written resources

Product image of Udemy
Udemy

If you’re looking for a wide range of courses, look no further than Udemy. You’ll find classes on JavaScript, Microsoft Excel, drawing, and web development. It’s a good option for those looking to change careers or gain new skills. Udemy has 155,000 classes in its catalog, so there’s plenty of content to dive into and explore. As for the course the tester participated in, the instructor was easy to follow and the instructions were broken into short videos that were bite-sized and easily digestible. However, this format was unique to this particular class. That said, the tester disliked the way in which the coursework was organized, as she felt it was disjointed.

Amy Roberts, Reviewed's managing editor for lifestyle , took the Udemy course, "How to Write a Resume and Cover Letter." Having written resumes on a professional level in the past, she was curious how this course would be taught. Here’s a summary of her experience:

“Overall, someone who doesn't know how to write a resume or cover letter will end up with better documents than whatever they started with by using this program. The presenter is easy enough to follow and the instructions are broken into bite-sized videos, so you can do it all in about three hours. I could see it working for someone who prefers lecture learning ove reading a book.

The course presentation was made up of short videos and seemed weirdly out of order to me, specifically in terms of how one might approach a resume. Sections 1 through 10 cover the basics, from resume to cover letter to interviewing and how to negotiate salary once you have an offer. Sections 11 through 14 backtrack and focus on the application process and managing your online presence, which seems weirdly out of order.

As for the resume portion of the course, the order was similarly disjointed. The instructor first talked about writing an objective, which was odd because that’s what the cover letter should focus on. When he gets into the meat and potatoes of resume writing, he starts with the skills section before the experience section. Why not take people on the journey of writing a resume from the top down?

The presenter included just one design template suggestion. It’s fine, but it means that most people who take this course are going to have identical-looking resumes. And, if you don’t like that specific style, you’re left to your own devices to find something else.”

Pros

  • Offers 155,000 courses

Cons

  • Coursework felt disjointed

Product image of Mindvalley
Mindvalley

Mindvalley is one of the more unique learning platforms out there, as it focuses more on self-improvement and personal development. There’s over 60 courses (they’re called “quests”) to choose from and they’re divided into the following categories: mind, body, soul, career, entrepreneurship, relationships, and parenting. They range from classes like beginners yoga and chakra healing to mastering authentic networking and the power of boldness. We like that Mindvalley is easily accessible through an app and a website with an easy-to-use and intuitive interface, but our tester had mixed feelings about the specific course she took.

To help evaluate this platform, Betsey Goldwasser, a Reviewed photographer, took the “The Mindvalley Yoga Quest.” She occasionally practices yoga in her free time and was interested in trying the class to improve her form. Here’s how she describes her experience:

“The platform has many courses with different options for yogis at all levels. The course consisted of video modules, some short blurbs about the poses you learned, and a discussion section where you can communicate with other students.

The lessons are well organized. They provided written details of what was learned in class, which I haven’t seen with other online yoga and workout classes that I’ve taken. The range of instructors was impressive and many of them seemed to be important in the yoga community. Some of the classes were really rejuvenating and left me feeling relaxed, stretched, and present.

I didn’t love that the classes were not consistent with instructors or format. It felt as though this wasn’t a cohesive program, but a smorgasbord playlist of random yoga classes. The difficulty in classes really ranged and the instructors did not take that into consideration. I didn’t feel like I was learning anything new about yoga.

As someone who does yoga occasionally, I don’t feel like it improved my form. The pace was a little overwhelming, too. Having people try headstands on the first day of the second week was a bit much. There are plenty of free options on YouTube that do the trick.”

Pros

  • Intuitive interface

Cons

  • Not many courses

  • Classes weren't consistent

Product image of edX
edX

If you’re interested in taking university level classes, you’ll want to check out edX. It’s partnered with top schools like Harvard, MIT, University of Oxford, Columbia University, and much more. From architecture and art to engineering and social sciences, edX offers a pretty diverse range of content from its 3,000-course catalog. The interface is easy to navigate and the instructional videos are clear and professionally recorded. However, the amount of advertisements on the site proved to be distracting for the tester.

To help review this platform, Jon Chan, Reviewed’s senior manager of lab operations, took the “IBM Analyzing Data with Excel” class. Here’s what his experience was like:

“The course was very easy to navigate. The text was easy to read and the videos were clear with professionally recorded sound. I also appreciated that each video had an accompanying transcript. The Core Foundations course included a workbook in Excel that synced up with the instructional videos.

My major complaint about edX revolves around the amount of advertising there is in the learning modules. Every time I loaded up a lesson, there would be an ad on the side suggesting I upgrade to the paid service. During lessons, certain slides would remind me that I was not using the paid service so therefore I would not get a certificate.”

Pros

  • Videos are professionally recorded

  • Wide array of courses

Cons

  • Too many advertisements

Product image of Codecademy
Codecademy

Codeacademy is great for those interested in designing a website or video game, as most of the 1,000 courses are geared towards learning how to code (hence the name). The platform offers both beginner-friendly and advanced courses. The interface is intuitive and the specific class our tester took found the exercises to be chock-full of details. The course the tester took really guides you through each step of the coding process. While there were many things we liked about this course and platform, the assignments could get repetitive at times.

To evaluate this platform, Jim Ryan, Reviewed’s manager of business intelligence, took “Learn HTML.” As his job involves looking at a lot of code, he wanted to see how an online course would simplify a rather complex task. Here’s what his experience was like:

“This course helped me understand HTML in a way I never thought I could in 9 hours. The user interface was basic but well thought out. The exercise instructions were to the left of the screen and the coding interface screen was right beside it. This was very helpful, as many of the exercises became progressively more detailed with more steps. If you made an error when you tried to run the script, it would highlight the area you made the mistake in to assist you in finding the right area to correct.

The exercises were very detailed but could get slightly tedious with the amount of repetition. However, as the coding got more complex, I appreciated the amount of repetition that I found tedious in the beginning of the course. When you’re doing something over and over again, it really sticks in your brain. Within the space of 9 hours, I was able to turn a jumble of lines into an understandable code.”

Pros

  • Offers beginner and advanced classes

  • Intuitive interface

Cons

  • Assignments can get repetitive

Meet the testers

Reviewed Staff

Reviewed Staff

Contributors, Writers, Editors

@revieweddotcom

The Reviewed staff is based in the heart of Cambridge, MA. Backed by our knowledgeable writers and rigorous test labs, we're working hard to make sure you can make the right decisions about what to buy.

See all of Reviewed Staff's reviews
Ashley Barry-Biancuzzo

Ashley Barry-Biancuzzo

Editor

@awitchdidit

Ashley Barry-Biancuzzo is a valued contributor to the Reviewed.com family of sites.

See all of Ashley Barry-Biancuzzo's reviews

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