The Difference Between Free and Paid Online Programs, Explained!

Disclaimer: I refer to paid programs as a standardised product. I am painfully aware that there is a huge fluctuation in the quality of paid online program offerings, but I commit this transgression to simplify and broadly establish the differences between paid and free online programs.

Mainstream awareness of online education was built via MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and hence, a lot of people assume online education = free. When making a purchase decision, they struggle with understanding the cost-benefit analysis of paid online education.
While attempting to explain the difference between paid and free online learning, I will simplify for the sake of brevity.

The key difference between free and paid programs is the following:

Enrolling in a free program is like buying a library membership vs. enrolling in a quality paid program is like getting admitted to a top-class university.

The Difference Between Free and Paid Online Programs, Explained! UpGrad Blog
The purpose of academic learning is to build your confidence and help your career progress. When you get a library subscription (free online course) you will buy access to a large pool of materials, but to achieve your objective you need to do the following:

    1. Have the self-discipline to go to the library


    1. Have the self-awareness to know what books you want to read – why and how?


    1. Have the self-discipline to complete the books you have picked up


    1. Rely on self-guidance (Google!) to resolve all your queries


  1. Create the self-image of having credible skills when you meet someone
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When you have to rely so much on yourself, without social support or inspiration, you know that it is not going to end well, 99.9% of the times.
The Difference Between Free and Paid Online Programs, Explained! UpGrad Blog
When you get admitted to a top class university (quality paid online program), you have access to:

    1. A structured curriculum and tangible learning outcomes


    1. Experienced faculty teaching you academic concepts


    1. Hands-on application projects


    1. Amazing peer network


    1. Industry mentorship and career assistance services


  1. A reputed certification/credential with broad acceptance
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Our commitment, within all UpGrad programs, has been to provide our learners with all of the above, via our academic and industry partners. This has helped us achieve >90% completion rates and successful career transitions for many UpGrad learners. Hence, UpGrad learners compare the programs with other Post Graduate/Masters programs and not free online programs.

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Are all online courses free?

Online education is often assumed as a learning option through the Internet without paying anything out of pocket, though the verity is different. Online courses come in both forms. Paid as well as free of charge. As per the marketing tactics adopted, the initial classes of a course are kept free for users to analyse the quality of content, and the later lessons are payable. Free courses are accessible through an online streaming platform like YouTube, while the paid classes are conducted on specific applications or a third-party platform. The content quality of free and paid courses differs. But while assiduously trying to find better, such difference reduces.

What are MOOCs?

MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Courses. This model offers a multitude of courses to be pursued digitally with the use of the Internet, without creating a barrier for the learner to be struck with only one course or the compulsion of attendance. Certificates are issued to the candidate upon completing the course, which adds tremendous value to a person's resume. Depending on the source from which one chooses to pursue the course, it may be paid or free. There are government-initiated websites that offer free learning, like and the SWAYAM portal, and paid websites like upGrad.

What factors should be considered before buying an online course?

Money spent on online learning is no less than an investment, and investments ought to be profitable only if made wisely. Therefore before purchasing an online course, check out for a few points. Foremostly choose the topic or course wisely. The course should be of your interest and not because it was being offered at a low price. After selecting the one, analyse the content provided, whether it matches your preference and the needed knowledge. The lectures should be involving and engaging. It being an online course should offer the advantage of flexibility, and before finalising, check the competitors' prices also.

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