Browse your online options for free and fee-paying courses

Shola O’Dowd, who graduated with a BA in Humanities from DCU’s Oscail

Shola O’Dowd, who graduated with a BA in Humanities from DCU’s Oscail


Distance learning is not a new phenomenon. The Open University (OU) was founded in 1971 as a print-based distance teaching institution with four multi-disciplinary foundation courses in the arts, social sciences, science and maths. Internet access has transformed paper-based distance learning into an online revolution which is reshaping education at all levels.

There are two distinct models. The first is where both bricks-and-mortar institutions, and wholly online providers, offer students traditional fee-paying degree programmes that are delivered almost exclusively on-line. The second is where course providers can deliver elements of their programmes, up to and including degrees, free online to learners.

Fee-based online education


For several years, Dublin City University (DCU) had a range of third-level degree programmes online through Oscail. Once students have paid-up and registered, they interact with their tutors online. Students can ask questions through online forums in DCU’s virtual learning environment and interact with tutors in real-time through live online tutorials. These tutorials are recorded and archived so students can revisit them. DCU’s online students have access to up to 30,000 academic journals, stretching back to the 1950s.

For each module, students are allocated a tutor to guide their studies, as well as face-to-face tutorials on campus. Students can interact with each other online and the formation of study groups is encouraged. Oscail’s programmes are modular so students can vary the number of modules each year to suit their circumstances and build up credits towards their qualification.

Students over 23 can enrol on Oscail’s undergraduate programmes without previous qualifications. Oscail’s BA degree has fees of €9,900. See

Sligo IT
More than 600 students registered this year for online degree and certificate programmes at IT Sligo, bringing the online student population at the institute of technology to almost 1,300. There has been a 15 per cent rise in the annual intake of online students, reflecting its growing popularity.

Most courses are two-year part-time, from certificate to postgraduate level, including a one-year, Springboard-funded special purpose award and minor award programmes targeted to transition the unemployed back into education. Science courses, such as biopharmaceutical programmes and engineering courses, such as mechatronics, are popular.

Fees vary for a two-year, 60-credit programme from between €4,000 for a level 6 certificate to €9,000 for a post grad. See .

Hibernia College
Hibernia College is Ireland’s first and largest fully-accredited, wholly on-line provider of traditional third-level degrees. Founded in 2000, it initially made its mark as a provider of post-graduate opportunities for aspiring primary-school teachers. It now trains more primary teachers than all of the traditional Irish bricks-and-mortar institutions put together.

Hibernia has expanded into teacher training in the UK and further afield, as well as now offering post-graduate training in second-level education. In partnership with the University of London, it offers on-line degrees in business and computing. Students pay €9,950 in fees for their teaching qualifications and receive a range of supports similar to students in bricks-and-mortar institutions, but without the expense of living away from home.

Hibernia is now offering its first Mooc (Massive Open Online Course), in exploring Irish identity. See

Trinity College
Trinity College took its first step into online learning this January with a single three-month course, Ireland in Rebellion 1798-1916, delivered by Dr Patrick Geoghegan, associate professor in history. It is delivered under the Semester Online brand which is offered in partner institutions including Notre Dame in the US and the University of Melbourne.

Semester Online courses include self-paced content that students can access at any time as well as mandatory live weekly classes in an online, face-to-face format. Completed courses earn students three credits and as each course is only available to current students of participating institutions there are no additional fees. See

Study online for free

A Mooc (Massive Open Online Course) is a free online courses open to anyone in the world with internet access; they cover a vast range of subjects from flower arranging to nuclear physics. They reach millions of learners who would never have considered engaging in formal education in the pre-internet era.

Most Moocs offer certificates of completion but do not assess student performance. Where a student wants accreditation, Moocs providers charge fees for assessment and providing certification.


One of the very earliest providers of M

oocs is Irish company Alison, founded in 2007 by Mike Ferrick in Galway. It offer free courses in workplace skills. A prospective employer may ask students with an Alison course on their CV to sit a flash test which is devised by Alison to test the level of competency in the relevant skill.

It has more than 500 courses and 35,000 subjects available, with everything from how to explore Google Earth and how to use Twitter to basic courses on Microsoft programmes and a diploma in nursing. The company’s business model is based on advertising revenue attracted by the huge volume of traffic on the site. See

In 2011 Stanford University launched a course called Introduction to Artificial Intelligence by Sebastien Thrun and Peter Norvig. Enrolment quickly reached 160,000. Only a fraction completed the programme, although those that did out-performed traditional on-campus students. In January 2013, Udacity launched its first Mooc-for-credit in collaboration with San Jose State University.

Students pay nothing for access to course videos and exercises and to view and manage progress. You pay for the full courses, which also include in-class projects, feedback and reviews, personal guidance and pacing support and the all-important verified certificates. The course fees vary, are on the website and paid monthly.

Last May, the company announced the first entirely Mooc-based master’s degree, a collaboration between Udacity, AT&T and the Georgia Institute of Technology, costing $7,000 (€5,000), a fraction of Georgia’s normal tuition fee.

Udacity’s Introduction to Computer Science has an enrolment of 314,159 students, and is the largest Mooc to date. See

Coursera is a for-profit company offering Moocs, founded by computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from Stanford University.

It works with other universities to make some of their courses available online, and offers courses in physics, engineering, humanities, medicine, biology, social sciences, mathematics, business, computer science and other areas.

The contract between Coursera and participating universities has a list of ways to generate revenue which vary widely depending on courses.

Fee-paying services include certification, introducing students to potential employers and recruiters, tutoring, sponsorships and tuition fees.

Last September Coursera announced it had earned $1 million (€730,000) in revenue through certificates that authenticate successful course completion. As of December 2013 the company had raised $85 million (€62m) in venture capital. See

The MIT OpenCourseWare site launched in 2000 and presents the core academic content, including lecture notes and exams from most of MIT’s undergraduate and graduate curriculum, freely, to support learning around the world. Many of the site’s more than 1,900 courses also include media resources such as video lectures, simulations, and animations.

By November 2007, MIT completed the initial publication of virtually the entire curriculum covering over 1,800 courses in 33 academic disciplines. MIT covers the $3.5 million (€2.5million) annual cost through donations from sponsors. See

EdX offers interactive online classes and Moocs from some of the world’s best universities, including MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, the University of Texas, and many others. Topics include biology, business, chemistry, computer science, economics, finance, electronics, engineering, food and nutrition, history, humanities, law, literature, math, medicine, music, philosophy, physics, science, statistics and more.

EdX is a non-profit online initiative created by founding partners Harvard and MIT. Many courses can be taken without fees, but again, certification can cost. See

How do I find a M
ooc to interest me?
There are a number of portals which give access to tens of thousands of totally free Moocs around the world.

OpenupEd is an open, non-profit partnership drawn from 11 countries who joined forces to launch the first pan-European Mooc initiative, with the support of the European Commission.See

Skilledup is US-based portal of online courses from a range of online course providers. The site currently has links to 103,000 courses, 67,000 of them free. See

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