World's Most Popular Online Courses

Massive open online courses exploded in 2020. With lockdown returning, at least in the short term, is it the right time for you to sign up to one of these...?

Coursera, an American market leader in so-called 'massive online courses', struck streaming gold with its online iteration of Yale University’s most popular class of all time: The Science of Well-Being. Professor Laurie Santos explores the science-backed origins of happiness, as well as the transformative powers of mindfulness and day-to-day rituals. When the class was reconfigured to serve digital students - for free and with subtitles - for online learning platform Coursera, it quickly became their top performer. In fact, it was the most popular course worldwide for all of 2020.

“The course has been popular as long as it has been offered,” said Betty Vandenbosch, Coursera’s chief content officer. “But this year, it had a surge in demand with more than 2.5 million enrollments.” And, happily, almost all Coursera's courses are free, including the #1 Science of Wellbeing course.

Pandemic-related curriculum - including John Hopkins University’s COVID-19 Contact Tracing course and Imperial College London’s Science Matters: Let’s Talk About COVID-19 - also reigned in popularity. A certificate of completion from the John Hopkins course even became a prerequisite to becoming a contract tracer in New York state. And according to Vandenbosch, more than 580,000 people have completed the six-hour class.

“Our sense is that learners are keenly aware of the evolving nature of work and the need for future-proof skills to remain professionally competitive,” explained Vandenbosch. “One interesting change on this year’s list was the increased demand for courses that relate more to personal pursuits. For example, First Step Korean from Yonsei University and Introduction to Psychology from Yale University made the 2020 top course list.” Still, hard skills, such as Machine Learning and Programming for Everybody (which came in at #3 and #4, respectively, in global popularity), dominated learning and in 2020 Vandenbosch estimates a “nearly 500 percent increase in demand for Professional Certificates,” compared to 2019.

Into the new year, Coursera anticipates continued enrollment growth across business, tech, and data science - including those that hit close to home, such as Financial Markets from Yale University and Finanzas Personales from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. “[Those have] become popular as learners grapple with economic recovery,” explained Vandenbosch “This will likely continue in 2021 as countries across the world rebuild their economies.”


But if you are just interested in learning and seeing if online education suits you, Vandenbosch’s answer for what you should take is pretty meta. “Millions of learners around the world have taken the highly-rated Learning How to Learn course from McMaster University and UC San Diego,” she said. “Dr. Oakley flips the phrase ‘work smarter, not harder’ to ‘learn smarter, not harder’ and provides learning techniques applicable to any subject.”

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