First Wharton decided to offer the core of its first year MBA program online. Now Harvard Business School is exploring online options as well.
Increasingly, it’s possible to get an extremely well-rounded business education from the best professors in the world without enrolling in a university or even leaving your house.
While online courses won’t necessarily give you the pay boost of a traditional two-year MBA and probably won’t land you a job on Wall Street, they can give you many of the core skills taught at top universities and business schools.
We’ve found some of the best and most useful free online business courses out there. We’ve noted which courses are self-paced and which are being released more formally and sequentially. The Coursera, Udacity, and EdX platforms all offer the opportunity to complete coursework and earn a certificate for completing the course, but any of these can be taken more casually.
Yale: Financial Markets with Bob Shiller
Length/Start date: The formal, graded course starts in February 2014, though an earlier, self paced version is available from Yale. That version has 23 lectures that are 75 minutes each.
Time commitment: Six to 12 hours a week.
Why you should take it: For one thing, it’s an opportunity to learn from Bob Shiller, the most recent Nobel Laureate in Economics and one of the most important thinkers in finance. Shiller has been essential in helping us understand how bubbles can form in financial markets.
The course is an effort to give an understanding of the theory behind financial markets and “its relation to the history, strengths, and imperfections of such institutions as banking, insurance, securities, futures, and other derivatives markets, and the future of these institutions over the next century.”
The course is a good foundation for people in business to understand the environment they work in and is interesting for econ and finance buffs.
Stanford: Entrepreneurship Through The Lens Of Venture Capital
Length/Start date: A total of 11 self-paced lectures.
Time commitment: Each lecture varies, but the average length is about an hour.
Why you should take it: The idea of getting venture capital backing and scaling a business from nothing to an IPO sounds incredibly intimidating. This course is an effort to explain that process, from the perspective of the people that invest in tiny startups with the expectation of making a massive return.
The course comes from Stanford, which has produced its share of successful entrepreneurs, including Sergey Brin and Larry Page. A variety of guest lecturers, both successful venture capitalists and investors, give advice as part of the course.
Stanford: Game Theory
Length/Start date: Started October 14th, runs for 9 weeks.
Time commitment/prerequisites: Takes five to seven hours a week. Requires basic probability theory, and lightweight calculus (the ability to take a derivative).
Why you should take it: Made famous by mathematician John Nash, the subject of the book and film “A Beautiful Mind,” game theory is the mathematical study of how rational and irrational actors interact in strategic, competitive situations.
It looks at the incentives and behavior driving everything from what we traditionally think of as games to competition among firms, trading behavior on stock markets, and Google keyword auctions.
The University of Pennsylvania/Wharton: Gamification
Length/Start date: Starts January 27, and lasts 10 weeks.
Time commitment: Four to eight hours a week.
Why you should take it: This course was Wharton’s first MOOC offering. Gamification is one of the hottest buzzwords in business. It’s the application of techniques from video games and their design to non-game problems, like managing people or solving business problems.
The best games leverage psychology and technology, just like good managers do, and organizations are increasingly using tools and techniques learned from video games to boost productivity, in human resources, and to engage customers. This course looks at how gamification works and can be used most effectively.
Columbia: Financial Engineering And Risk Management (Part 1)
Length/Start date: Starts October 28, and lasts seven weeks.
Time commitment/prerequisites: Requires seven to 10 hours a week. Students need undergraduate calculus, linear algebra, and statistics. Good Excel skills are helpful.
Why you should take it: This is a more involved and technical finance class, but it’s well worth it for people that want a deeper understanding of how markets work and how to invest.
The class focuses on how to build the sorts of models involved in “financial engineering,” the creation of derivative securities (investments with prices based on other assets). It will also look at the role that some of these assets, particularly mortgage backed securities, played in the financial crisis.
There’s a follow-up course that goes into even more detail.
Duke: How To Reason And Argue
Length/Start date: Started August 26, and lasts 12 weeks.
Time commitment: Five to six hours a week, no prerequisites.
Why you should take it: While it might be couched in more business-friendly terms like “negotiation,” “sales,” or “motivation,” a lot of business is about convincing people to do things that they don’t really want to — accept a lesser deal or push through exhaustion to get a project done, for example.
This course gives a detailed tutorial on how to break down someone else’s argument, recognize flawed or vague reasoning, and construct a brilliant argument of your own.
Duke: A Beginner’s Guide To Irrational Behavior
Length/Start date: The course ran last spring and all materials are available. It’s designed to last eight weeks.
Time commitment: Seven to 10 hours a week, and no background is required other than a “curiosity about human nature.”
Why you should take it: People aren’t always rational. They do unpredictable things that are often baffling to those who try to think rationally.
The course is taught by Duke’s Dan Ariely, author of the best-selling book “Predictably Irrational” and one of the most prominent scholars studying this through the lens of behavioral economics. A student who’s taken 36 MOOCs said it was the one he’d most recommend to a first-time MOOC student.
The idea is to introduce students to a range of cases where people make decisions inconsistent with standard economic theory, which assumes rational decision making, and think about how insights about that sort of behavior can be applied.
The University of Pennsylvania/Wharton: An Introduction To Marketing
Length/Start date: Nine weeks long, and started October 14
Time commitment/prerequisites: Requires five to six hours a week. Though no formal prerequisites are required, this is an MBA course, so a business background helps.
Why you should take it: Wharton has one of the highest-ranked marketing programs in the world, and this course is team-taught by three of its stars: Peter Fader, David Bell, and Barbara E. Khan.
Anyone interested in starting a business needs to learn how to relate to customers and sell their products, so this is an absolutely essential course.
The University of Pennsylvania/Wharton: An Introduction To Financial Accounting
Length/start date: Runs ten weeks, and started September 15
Time commitment/prerequisites: Six to eight hours a week, and no background in the area required.
Why you should take it: Learning the basics of accounting and how to read a balance sheet, income statement, and cash flow is incredibly useful for just about anybody. The course is also designed for students with no background in the subject, and the only math requirement is knowing how to add and subtract.
As the professor puts it, accounting is “the language of business.”
The course is also offered by one of the most prestigious business schools in the country, and taught by one of Wharton’s senior and most highly regarded faculty members, Brian Bushee, a 13-year veteran of Wharton and former Harvard Business School professor. Though it’s a bit more restrictive than the entirely self-directed courses, and new material will be released periodically, you get more of a community feel and more resources.
“You will not only better understand what people in the business media are talking about,” the course description says, “you will also be able to notice when they don’t know what they are talking about!”
The University of Pennsylvania/Wharton: An Introduction To Operations Management
Length/Start date: Eight weeks long, and started September 30
Time commitment/prerequisites: Five to seven hours a week. The course is “designed for business students and executives,” but there are no academic or math requirements.
Why you should take it: This is the second course in Wharton’s “MBA Foundation Series,” which teaches a lot of what a first-year student enrolled at the school would learn. Anyone who has hopes to rise from being an employee to managing or running a company needs to learn some of the key principles behind analyzing and improving business processes, boosting productivity, and meeting higher standards.
The professor, Christian Terwiesch, is a multiple award-winner for his teaching at Wharton, and wrote one of the most popular textbooks on operations management.
The University of Pennsylvania/Wharton: An Introduction To Corporate Finance
Length/start date: Runs for six weeks, and starts October 28
Time commitment: Takes six to eight hours a week, no formal requirements, but it’s a course taught to MBA students who have managed to get into Wharton, so it starts at a high level.
Why you should take it: This is an entirely different set of tools than the ones you learn in accounting, helping provide the basics of valuing companies, valuing stocks and bonds, and using other tools to analyze financial decisions.
You can’t do much better for a pure MBA experience, as these are based on lectures given to Wharton students, and you’re learning from one of the acknowledged masters of the subject in Franklin Allen, a 30-year veteran of the school who wrote one of the most popular textbooks available on the subject.
Udacity: How To Build A Startup
Length/Start date: Self paced
Time commitment/prerequisites: Students are free to pace themselves, and Blank suggests that they have at least some idea of the business they want to create.
Why you should take it: This course is a bit unusual, in that it’s not produced in partnership with a university or traditional professor, and it’s not about a traditional academic subject.
It’s a practical and thorough guide to how to create your own company by successful serial entrepreneur Steve Blank, based on an approach he’s been using and teaching for years. It takes would-be entrepreneurs through everything from developing a viable product to figuring out how they’re actually going to make money.
MIT/UC Berkeley: Introductory Macro And Microeconomics
Platform: MIT OpenCourseWare / UC Berkeley on ITunesU
Length/Start date: Self paced
Time commitment/prerequisites: The course is taken entirely independently. Some basic, single variable calculus is required, but no more than you’d learn in a high school calculus class.
Why you should take it: Economics has a bad reputation, but it’s absolutely vital.
This introductory microeconomics class is one of the most popular that MIT has made available, and is taught by Jonathan Gruber. He’s been teaching there for 20 years and is an extremely prominent economist who helped design Massachusetts’ groundbreaking health-care reform.
Economics, and microeconomics in particular, are about how we make the best decision given scarce resources like money or time. That’s useful in itself, as is this course as background for more advanced work.
Berkeley also offers its introductory micro class online, along with introductory macroeconomics, and intermediate courses in both. Also worth checking out is international economics for those who take a more global angle.
MIT: Innovation And Commercialization
Length/start date: Runs for 13 weeks, and started September 16
Time commitment/prerequisites: 12 hours a week, and no prerequisites required other than an interest in the subject.
Why you should take it: It’s one thing to talk about coming up with an innovative product, but it’s another thing entirely to do it. The same goes for making an existing company more agile and quicker to come up with new ideas.
This course takes an intelligent look at how innovation happens in the real world, rather than how people talk about it in meetings. It’s taught by Eugene Fitzgerald, who came up with important innovations in his own right during his time at ATT’s Bell Labs and later; and Andreas Wankerl, who runs the Innovation Interface at MIT and Cornell.
Columbia: Economics Of Money And Banking
Length/Start date: Lasts seven weeks, and started September 1, though material will remain available. Part two starts October 13.
Time commitment/prerequisites: Five to seven hours a week. Students who take the course at Barnard and Columbia have completed intermediate macro and microeconomics, but students have also done fine without having taken those courses.
Why you should take it: For the last five years, the economy has been front and center in the news as our banking and economic systems all but collapsed, were rescued, and are slowly coming back.
Behind the crisis and behind the recovery is an enormously complex system that relatively few people understand. This course is an effort to explain how money markets work, which is essential for anybody who truly wants to understand how everything moves in the economy.
MIT: Introduction To Lean Six Sigma Methods
Platform: MIT OpenCourseWare
Length/Start date: Self paced
Time commitment: Taught in three eight-hour sessions to students.
Why you should take it: Lean Six Sigma principles are used throughout the business world to control quality and constantly improve manufacturing.
The strategies originated at Toyota and Motorola respectively and have been widely adopted throughout the business world. This course aims to teach people how to apply the core principles to boost quality, customer satisfaction, productivity, and financial performance.
The course focuses on the aerospace industry, but the principles can be applied anywhere.
BONUS: Ben Bernanke on the Federal Reserve and MIT’s Andrew Lo on Financial Theory
The Bernanke Lectures
Before joining the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke was an academic economist and professor at Princeton University. Last year, he returned to his roots with a series of four very thorough and valuable lectures on the history of the Federal Reserve, the conduct of monetary policy, and the financial crisis.
Financial Theory with Andrew Lo
Andrew Lo is one of the leading minds in the world when it comes to hedge funds and financial engineering. His course for MBAs at MIT’s Sloan School of Management on financial theory is definitely worth a look for those interested in the field.