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An MBA For Under A Grand? Seriously!

Laurie Pickard aims to earn her MBA through free or low-cost MOOC courses

Laurie Pickard aims to earn her MBA through free or low-cost MOOC courses

If everything goes according to plan, Laurie Pickard, 32, will earn her MBA in three years for less than $1,000. She’ll take classes from Harvard, Wharton, and Yale, among other top-tier schools. And she’ll tackle it with $0 opportunity cost by keeping her full-time job as a rural enterprise development and entrepreneurship specialist at USAID. She’ll accomplish all of this from Kigali, Rwanda.

It’s a premise that sounds too good to be true. But Pickard is determined to pull it off. If successful, she’ll arguably be the first person in the world to cobble together an MBA program from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), free or low-cost classes accessible to anyone with Internet access.

Pickard didn’t plan to pave the way for earning a dirt-cheap business education. In fact, she initially had her sights set on a more conventional path–and she boasts the background to get into an elite program. Pickard’s resume includes a B.A. in politics from prestigious Oberlin College, an M.A. in geography and urban studies from Temple University, and stints with the Peace Corps and the International Finance Corporation in Nicaragua.

“I was looking at traditional, U.S.-based, high-end, expensive MBAs, and then I kind of dropped that idea in favor of shorter, European-based MBAs … that take half the time and cost a quarter as much,” she says. By her own admission, Pickard was “not an early adopter” of the MOOC movement. But after a friend enrolled in a finance course with MOOC provider Coursera, she reconsidered the traditional MBA. “I was thinking, ‘I could do that.’ And so I started looking into what was out there, and that’s when I got this idea that I should just do an MBA out of free courses,” she says.

Pickard scoured the internet to find other MOOC MBAs but came up dry. She uncovered a few articles that discussed the subject from a speculative standpoint, but aside from Poets&Quants’ story, none suggested ways to actually do it. Pickard decided she would document her own journey in a blog, The No-Pay MBA, so other like-minded students could use her path as a resource. So far, five to 10 students attempting the same thing have reached out to her.

Only a year ago, it would not have been possible to even consider getting the equivalent of an MBA via MOOCs. But in the space of just nine months in 2012, from February to November, the number of institutions offering free online business courses has doubled to 51 from 26, according to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) International. The number of business faculty teaching MOOC courses has more than doubled in the same timeframe to 83 from 39.

‘YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHEN THEY’LL BE OFFERED AND IF THEY’LL EVER BE OFFERED AGAIN’

Pickard developed her program by reviewing the B-school curriculums at Wharton, Harvard, Stanford, and MIT. She designed it to be flexible because MOOC courses are not guaranteed: “You have no idea when they’ll be offered and if they’ll ever be offered again,” she points out. Rather than setting a strict course list, she organized her degree path by themes. Her first semester tackles three topics generally found in a standard MBA core curriculum: management, business ethics and leadership, as well as finance and accounting. The courses range from An Introduction to Operations, taught by Wharton’s Christian Terwiesch, to International Organizations Management, led by a group of professors from the University of Geneva. Pickard selects her classes from a variety of MOOC platforms, including Coursera, Open Yale, iTunesU, and Udacity. So far, she has been most impressed with the variety and quality of Coursera’s offerings and Udacity’s practical-skill approach. But she’s eagerly awaiting the release of Harvard Business School’s MOOCs–the official launch date remains unknown.

Four months in, Pickard has completed five courses. Initially, she planned to complete 16 courses over two to three years, but she’s enjoying the process so much, she’ll likely keep going and exceed the credits required by most MBA programs. “There are so many course offerings out there, that it’s like a choose-your-own-adventure story,” she says. “I loved school, so it’s kind of like that excitement you get when you first get the course catalog for the semester, and you’re looking through it like, ‘Oh, I want to take that, I want to take that, I want to take that course,” she says. Although the courses vary in terms of quality and difficulty, Pickard points out that the same problem affects bricks-and-mortar programs.

‘MY MIND IS CHANGING, AND MY THINKING ABOUT BUSINESS IS REALLY EXPANDING AND GROWING’

Pickard also doesn’t seem to mind the virtual component. Given that her husband, a foreign service officer, is stationed in Rwanda for the next four years, the online aspect is actually a boon.  “My mind is changing, and my thinking about business is really expanding and growing,” she says.  “I feel the same way that I felt at other times in my life when I was really immersed in an education experience. So from that standpoint, there’s a true benefit to MOOCs.”

But the MOOC MBA certainly isn’t for everyone. For starters, maintaining the drive to actually “attend” and complete online classes for two or three years can be tricky. A University of Pennsylvania study of 1 million MOOC users found that only 4% actually completed the courses. Pickard describes herself as very motivated and disciplined. She dedicates Saturday and sometimes Sunday mornings to coursework and spends 30 minutes each workday reviewing lessons. But it can still be challenging, which is why she created a blog, she says. “I’ve made a public commitment, so it doesn’t matter how many readers I have, even if it’s just me and a few of my friends. It motivates me to know that there’s some kind of external evidence of whether I made good on my commitment,” she explains.