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Building Your Own Online Class? – How To Choose the MOOC Platform

by John Swope

MOOC platform

Algogenius via Flickr

In 2012 and 2013, MOOCs took root in the higher education landscape. Today, most top universities offer some sort of MOOC. In 2014, we are starting to see organizations and even individuals build MOOCs. If you’ve ever considered building your own open online class, one of the first steps is determining which MOOC platform will best suit your needs. Luckily, you can build MOOC and MOOC-ish courses using one of several tools that are free and open for anyone to use. The following is a review of of some of those platforms, identifying their strengths and weaknesses and of the type of user each might be most appropriate for.



Udemy is one of the simpler online education platforms that allows individual instructors to build courses that they can either charge for or offer for free. (Some classes have over 10,000 paying students.) Udemy hosts the courses in the cloud and building on the platform requires no coding knowledge. It can be thought of as a presentation platform like Slideshare, but enhanced with voice-over, quizzes and forum capabilities. Courses are very easy to set up. Most teachers upload a PowerPoint and record a voice-over, with multiple-choice questions at the end of each unit. You can also upload video, audio recording and documents.

A Udemy course must be accessed via the site, so branding options are limited. A MOOC cannot be white-labeled or use a custom domain. But Udemy does have 2,000,000 registered users on their site and they often do things to promote popular new courses.


  • Ease of Setup
  • Udemy’s audience of 2,000,000 users


  • Free version is not brandable
  • Limited student analytics

Most appropriate for

  • Individual Instructors who want to monetize their courses

CourseSites by Blackboard

CourseSites is a more full-featured online course platform that is also cloud-based and requires no coding knowledge. CourseSites is more specifically geared toward instructors within educational institutions. In addition to basic MOOC functionality, it offers features like Course Announcements, Awards/Badges and a “Grading Center.” (See this profile of how one state university is converting their existing distance ed infrastructure into open courses using CourseSites.)

CourseSites feels, in every way, like a tool for use in the classroom. From the student’s perspective, a dashboard shows announcements, to-do’s and a calendar. These features seem ideal for a student trying to keep track of multiple assignments across several classes. But it feels overwhelming for a non-classroom audience who is likely only taking one MOOC and less interested in grading or deadlines. Nonetheless, CourseSites provides one of the best combinations of full functionality and ease of setup.


  • Full-featured
  • Easy setup


  • Not brandable
  • Limit of 5 courses

Most appropriate for

  • Individual Teachers who want to build classes online


Versal is still in beta, but it seems very promising. Users can build courses via drag-and-drop with no coding experience required. In addition to the basics, Versal also offers advanced widgets like dynamic graphs and interactive piano widgets. The platform lacks one major feature: discussion forums. Versal seems to be set up more as a tutorial tool than other MOOCs that invite discussion & debate.

Versal is one of the only platforms to allow users to easily embed courses in their personal website or blog. This serves as a quick and easy way to have your own branded course. The technology is just an iframe—similar to embedding a YouTube video—so embedded courses are most suitable for quick tutorials, not multi-lesson courses.

As mentioned, Versal is still in beta and they are adding new features frequently. They are also planning to open the platform up for third-party developers to build widgets. These are guys to keep an eye on.


  • Ease of Use
  • Advanced drag-and-drop widgets (i.e. 3D modeling, virtual piano exercises)


  • No forum capabilities

Most appropriate for

  • Individual Instructors who want to deliver tutorials to existing audiences



Moodle has been around for over ten years and is one of the most popular open-source Course Management Solutions available. As such, it is not specifically a MOOC platform but a competent online course platform which can handle large classrooms, and a lot of the open online classes you may have seen that are not affiliated with the major platforms were built on Moodle.

The great strength of Moodle is its combination of full functionality with extensive customization options. Moodle offers all the basic course elements plus fairly advanced elements like SCORM compliance and group permissions. Because Moodle is open source, users have the ability to customize nearly everything within their implementation if they know where to look.

Moodle requires a self-hosted installation, but building simple courses is fairly intuitive and requires no coding knowledge. Because of its robustness, the advanced options can be daunting at times. Luckily, the Moodle community is extremely active, and most questions can be solved via a quick search in the instructor forums.


  • Open source
  • Highly expandable and customizable


  • Performance intensive
  • Requires setup and maintenance investment

Most appropriate for

  • Schools or small/medium organizations that want a full-featured Learning Management System



You may know edX as the platform where MOOCs from faculty from very selective universities are hosted. But the software behind it, developed by Harvard and MIT, was released as open source in March 2013, enabling anyone to use the full-featured platform, which is dedicated specifically to building MOOCs. EdX’s apparent goal is to become the WordPress of online course platforms, where users can start with a basic framework and then add functionality via third-party plug-ins.

The edX course-building platform is the same tool used by the universities who offer MOOCs on If you’ve taken an MOOC, you have a basic idea of what this platform can offer. Students can watch lectures, take multiple different kinds of quizzes, participate in forums and even work on labs or cooperative essays. Creating basic courses can all be done via edX Studio—a graphical user interface for course creators—and multiple instructors can work on a course together.

EdX does require a self-hosted installation, though they have recently developed a fairly easy to use AWS install. In return for the time it takes to set up and maintain your edX instance, you get full access to your student data and unlimited customization options.


  • Open source
  • Fully brandable and customizable
  • Designed to handle large classrooms (100,000+)


  • Requires setup and maintenance investment

Most appropriate for

  • Organizations that want a sleek, modern online course tool, potentially for very large student audiences


There are a few more MOOC-building tools to consider besides the ones I detail here. For example, Google has a free tool called Course Builder, though since their partnership with edX to launch (date TBA), its future is uncertain.

Choosing your MOOC platform is the first step. After that comes the task of actually putting together your course! Luckily, most platforms rely on content you are already familiar with such as YouTube videos and PDFs. With some effort and patience, you can put out a MOOC that is on par with some the university MOOCs that are available.


John Swope is the founder of and he offers his own open course, How to Build a Custom MOOC. His favorite MOOC is Dan Ariely’s A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior, and his personal blog takes much inspiration from Ariely’s theories around irrational economics. You can follow him on Twitter @j_swope00.




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  1. Very helpful, thanks! Please update this periodically, it would make a great resource page vs. an article that dates.

    I’m talking with someone considering a corporate MOOCs and this will be one of the key decisions…I’d be interested to see a poll that asks what platforms companies are selecting.


  2. Anything to report about Canvas from Instructure as a platform?