App Smart

Via tablet or smartphone, learning with MOOCs

Massive Open Online Courses — or MOOCs — are a snowballing revolution in education.

Thousands of courses from some of the world’s finest institutions are available free online, covering everything from astrophysics to the arts. For each course, students, sometimes numbering in the thousands, take part from home — where they view video lectures, take tests, and submit essays through a Web interface. It’s a digital classroom with no actual “room,” and where you can study more or less when you like.

Nowadays, of course, your smartphone means you can also study when you’re on the move.


Free on iOS and Android


Coursera’s free iOS and Android app is perhaps the very best way to take part in a MOOC through a phone or tablet — maybe during your commute to work or your lunch break. The app gives you limited access to Coursera’s list of available courses as well as any you have already signed up for.

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The app’s “Find Courses” section lists courses available by subject. Each subject has its own summary page with images showing off the individual courses along with their titles, the institutions providing them and their dates.

Tapping a course brings up an introduction video that typically tries to interest you in the content, as well as detailed descriptions of what the course covers, workload requirements, and which languages are available. If you like the look of a course, you can sign up ahead of time.

When you’re already taking part in a course, you can view its lecture videos through Coursera’s app. These can be streamed or, if you plan ahead, downloaded in advance so that you don’t burn through your mobile data allowance while traveling. Because the app is connected to your account, the videos you’ve viewed will be marked as already seen when you log in later through your computer.

The app is limited, though, and doesn’t let you take some of the multiple-choice tests or perform peer-review assignments. This functionality is something the company has hinted will arrive later, undoubtedly pleasing many users. However, I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t be able to focus on a quiz about quantum physics or the history of improvisational jazz while sitting on a rocking train.


Coursera’s app is extremely clearly designed, which makes it easy and lovely to use, and it is free — so try it, and see if there’s anything you’d love to learn.

Khan Academy

Free on iOS

The Khan Academy app, also free on iOS, takes a slightly different approach to MOOC-based learning. In subject matter, Khan Academy courses are a little more traditional than Coursera’s, so you’re more likely to be learning about statistics or economics than Hollywood filmmaking history.

The app’s interface is simple but elegant. You can view a list of subjects, and drill down into each menu to find the course you’re interested in. Course videos then run on the screen with a neat rolling transcript shown beneath them so you can double-check, at a glance, that you heard something correctly.

As on Coursera, watching these videos syncs with your Khan Academy account, so you get credit for watching them and you can download them ahead of time to watch when offline.

Using the Khan Academy app to take part in a MOOC feels very different, much less formal perhaps, than using Coursera’s app. This might be something you like, but I prefer a more structured approach.


There’s also no official Android app yet.

The free, unofficial Viewer For Khan Academy app for Android is pretty well designed, however, and gives you access to 4,000-plus videos.


$2 on iOS

Lastly, if you’re watching a MOOC video on your computer, then why not try using an app like Write, $2 on iOS, to make notes on what you’re learning?

That way you can browse your notes later when you’re out and about.

Write is a minimalistdesign note-taking app that’s particularly good.

If you’re on Android, try taking notes with SomNote instead; it’s great-looking and free.

Kit Eaton writes on technology for
The New York Times.