MBA Alternatives: Business Fundamental MOOCs


Students pursue a master’s in business administration (MBA) for many reasons. Some are interested in on-campus benefits like classmate and alumni networking. Others want to add a certification to their resume for career advancement purposes. Others want to gain access to on-campus interviews for summer internships or lucrative jobs upon graduation.

Regardless the desired outcome, the price of an MBA is the same. On-campus programs can cost upward of $200,000 and all curricula—online, on-campus, accelerated or part-time—require a certain level of professional or personal sacrifice and dedication.

Many entrepreneurs and professionals want to gain the strategic knowledge, professional skills, and business acumen obtained in an MBA program without having to devote so much time and money to a dedicated program. Do folks like these have any options? Absolutely!

Much of the valuable knowledge gained in MBA courses can be found online today. However, those who have not kept up with the rapid changes in graduate education over the past three or four years might be surprised to learn how some of the best alternatives no longer come in the formats or packages they expect.

This guide explores quick and inexpensive alternatives to business school courses and presents a recommended syllabus for the do-it-yourself MBA.

What are MOOCs?

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, can deliver the knowledge foundations that underline graduate management education. MOOCs take an “everything you need, nothing you don’t” approach to learning, allowing millions of students to create a personalized curriculum based on their interest, ability, and time commitment.

MOOCs differ from conventional online classes, which charge tuition, carry academic credit, and limit enrollment to encourage interaction with faculty. Instead, universities offer MOOCs for free or for a small fraction of their standard tuition as they do not usually provide academic credit.

What’s more, MOOCs can scale to serve massive audiences, in the sense that these courses do not limit enrollment like traditional online education. Because anyone connected to the internet can enroll, MOOCs can “scale up” to accommodate hundreds of thousands of students in much the same way that internet startups can quickly scale up to accommodate millions of customers for new online products.

The massive scale of these courses initially led many to worry that they would completely disrupt traditional education—a promise that, so far, has not yet come to pass. Nevertheless, growth seems healthy. MOOC and free class search engine Class Central reports that MOOC students now total 81 million with about 23 million new users enrolled in their first MOOCs each year.

MOOCs diverge from the older open courseware (OC) distance education model, which paired lecture videos with non-interactive textbooks and course readers. OC students often felt like they were auditing classes from the back row but were never allowed to participate altogether. By contrast, MOOCs rely on automated interactivity that can encourage participation much like the best on-campus course experiences.

MOOC professors who suddenly find themselves with potentially huge audiences cannot possibly engage many of those students individually. In MOOCs, effective teaching depends upon interactive course design. The courses also capitalize on Facebook-style social networking to encourage students to interact with each other. Grading often relies on a blend of computerized exam scoring with peer review systems.

Are MOOCs Free?

Initially, universities offered all their MOOCs for free. According to the International Consultants for Education and Fairs (ICEF), “while content varied greatly from course to course, MOOC providers essentially offered a single product: university courses packaged for online audiences and offered free of charge.”

In 2012, that situation quickly changed when three venture-backed MOOC platform providers affiliated with elite universities emerged: Coursera, Udacity, and edX. Today, these providers dominate the industry. Coursera and Udacity are two Stanford University offshoots with 30 million and 8 million users respectively. edX is a consortium led by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that has about 14 million users.

These three major players have introduced products and services that range from free or partially free to hundreds of dollars. As the platforms shifted their focus towards paying students, the “freemium” revenue model evolved rapidly.

Starting in 2015, they transformed their identity-verified certificates that proved student performance from free perks into revenue-generating products. Additional paid options now include course credits, academic degrees, and even corporate training. Coursera reportedly saw its paying members skyrocket by 70 percent between 2016 and 2017. The big three platforms earned more than $100 million combined in 2016.

Interestingly, much of the growth in paying students seems to be driven by learners from outside the typical groups that higher education targets. As Class Central notes, “the real audience is not the traditional university student but what (former Coursera CEO Rick Levin) calls the ‘lifelong career learner:’ someone who might be well beyond their college years, but takes online courses with the goal of achieving professional and career growth.”

This is precisely the type of professional who finds the knowledge and capabilities provided by an elite MBA program to be especially attractive. Although some universities might no longer offer all MOOCs for free, most continue to offer many at no charge for basic enrollment. That said, for the most part, the fees associated with MOOCs typically amount to a fraction of the cost of a comparable for-credit course at a top MBA program.

The MBA Core Curriculum Via MOOCs

At the world’s top business schools, about half of each MBA program incorporates a standardized foundational curriculum. These core classes vary slightly, if at all, between universities. According to The Economist, the compulsory subjects that dominate the first half of most MBA programs amount ground students in business fundamentals.

The BSchools guide What is a Typical MBA Program Curriculum? analyzes the core curricula at some of the most popular MBA programs: Harvard Business School, Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. More candidates apply to these business schools than any others worldwide.

According to the above analysis, every student must complete six types of classes during the core portion of their school’s program. These disciplines include finance, marketing, accounting, leadership and organizational behavior, economic statistics and operations, and business accountability and ethics.

Fortunately, these topics are available through MOOCs offered some of the best business schools in the world. The below example syllabus includes recommendations for some of the best business core courses available.

In compiling this syllabus, BSchools editors noticed that some of these classes cover topics at dramatically accelerated paces compared to traditional on-campus courses. For example, Stanford University’s introduction to statistics compresses a semester of undergraduate statistics topics into just six lessons. For that reason, in most cases, we supplemented the below MOOC selections with additional textbook recommendations to ensure the complete and balanced topic coverage conscientious students appreciate.

DIY Finance

Introduction to Corporate Finance, The University of Pennsylvania

This Coursera course is intended to introduce the fundamentals of finance through a variety of case studies on real-world applications across personal finance, corporate decision-making, and financial intermediation. Students learn fundamental concepts, such as the time value of money, the risk-return tradeoff, the cost of capital, interest rates, mortgage financing, and capital budgeting. The course also explores asset valuation methods such as net present value (NPV), internal rate of return (IRR), hurdle rate, payback period, and discounted cash flow (DCF) analysis.

  • Faculty: Michael R. Roberts, distinguished professor of finance
  • Cost: $39 to $89 per month for a Coursera subscription
  • Additional recommended reading: Financial Management: Theory & Practice by Eugene F. Brigham and Michael C. Ehrhardt

Finance for Everyone: Smart Tools for Decision-Making, The University of Michigan

This introductory edX course comes with quick and practical applications for its students, teaching them the frameworks and tools necessary for understanding and making everyday financial decisions. Starting with the concept of Time Value Money (TVM), students will learn how to think in a financially sound manner as they work through real-world issues like student debt, basic investment evaluation, and when to rent versus when to buy. Once basic frameworks of decision making have been taught, the course branches out into more advanced topics like stocks, bonds, and the allocation of scarce resources in a value-add way.

  • Faculty: Gautam Kaul, distinguished professor of finance, special counsel for digital education and innovator in residence at University of Michigan
  • Cost: Free, with the option of adding a verified certificate for $49
  • Additional recommended reading: Introduction to Finance: Markets, Investments, and Financial Management by Ronald W. Melicher and Edgar A. Norton

DIY Marketing

Introduction to Marketing, The University of Pennsylvania

Taught by Wharton’s top marketing professors, this Coursera class covers three core topics in customer loyalty. Students learn essential principles in branding, customer centricity, and go-to-market strategies. They study the critical elements required to retain customers and the drivers that influence customers.

  • Faculty: Barbara E. Kahn, professor of marketing and director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center; Peter Fader, professor of marketing and co-director of the Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative; and David Bell, distinguished professor of marketing
  • Cost: $39 to $89 per month for a Coursera subscription
  • Additional recommended reading: Marketing Management by Philip T. Kotler and Kevin Lane Keller

Marketing Analytics, UC Berkeley Extension

Part of a four-course MicroMasters program that can be taken for institutional credit, this class focuses on modern marketing’s biggest trend: quantitative analytics. Taught by an industry professional who’s written two textbooks on the subject, students will learn how to analyze competitive trends and apply analytical tools to real-world scenarios in the interests of boosted ROI. The course also covers topics like budgeting for multiple campaigns, conjoint analysis, decision trees, market segmentation, and competitive analysis.  

  • Faculty: Stephan Sorger, distinguished professor of marketing
  • Cost: Free, or $796 for the MicroMasters credential
  • Additional recommended reading: Marketing Analytics: Strategic Models and Metrics by Stephan Sorger

DIY Accounting

Introduction to Financial Accounting, The University of Pennsylvania

In this Coursera course, students learn financial analysis best-practices, accounting standards, and managerial incentives that affect the financial reporting process. Upon completion, students know how to accurately analyze the three most common financial statements: the income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statement.

  • Faculty: Brian J Bushee, distinguished professor of accounting
  • Cost: $39 to $89 per month for a Coursera subscription
  • Additional recommended reading: Essentials of Accounting by Leslie K. Breitner and Robert N. Anthony

Managerial Accounting: Cost Behaviors, Systems, and Analysis, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

While the above accounting course provides an introduction to the discipline, this class focuses on accounting-based decision-making. Students learn how to recognize and leverage opportunities within an organization through accounting best-practices.

  • Faculty: Gary Hecht, associate professor of accountancy
  • Cost: $39 to $89 per month for a Coursera subscription
  • Additional recommended reading: Cost Accounting: A Managerial Emphasis by Charles T. Horngren, Srikant M. Datar, and Madhav V. Rajan

Introduction to Accounting, University of British Columbia

This intro edX course combines the fundamentals of accounting with hands-on experience. In addition to gaining a basic understanding of financial accounting’s key principles, students will analyze financial reports from major corporations like Lululemon, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Nestle, and Adidas. Students will learn how to recognize what counts as good financial information, how to evaluate a business’s liquidity, solvency, and inventory management, and how to use financial statement analysis to make better business decisions.  

  • Faculty: Jeff Kroeker, distinguished professor
  • Cost: Free, with the option of adding a verified certificate for $150
  • Additional recommended reading: Warren Buffett Accounting Book: Reading Financial Statements by Preston Pysh and Stig Brodersen

DIY Leadership and Organizational Behavior

Managing Social and Human Capital, The University of Pennsylvania

Managing people is crucial to the health of any organization, which is why managers need to be properly trained. This course examines why people are a company’s most valuable asset and most unpredictable. Students learn how to manage employees, motivate and optimize teams, and make design sound organizational architecture.

  • Faculty: Michael Useem, professor of management and director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management; Peter Cappelli, professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources
  • Cost: $39 to $89 per month for a Coursera subscription
  • Additional recommended reading: First, Break All The Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman

Leading in the Digital Age, Boston University

This edX course, part of a MicroMasters series in digital leadership, teaches students the skills necessary to lead, innovate, and build relationships in the digital age. The class focuses on five key capabilities: leading beyond the edge, building deep trust relationships, forming and leading virtual teams, collaborating and co-creating the future, and learning dynamically. Students will learn to work and lead across borders, leverage a portfolio of relationships for responsive innovation, lead change through experimentation, and form their own personal development plan.

  • Faculty: Lloyd Baird, professor of management; Kristen J. McCormack, professor of organizational behavior; Darrell Griffin, CEO and President of PerformancEdge; Sandra Deacon Carr, professor of organizational behavior
  • Cost: Free, with the option of adding a verified certificate for $200
  • Additional recommended reading: The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle

DIY Economic Statistics and Operations

Introduction to Statistics, Stanford University

This course covers visualization, probability, regression, and other topics that help students learn the primary methods of understanding data with statistics. The course is broken into six lessons and a final exam. Lesson topics include visualizing relationships in data, estimation, and outliers and the normal distribution, among others.

  • Faculty: Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity, fellow and vice president at Google, and research professor at Stanford University
  • Cost: Free, additional cost to complete a nanodegree
  • Additional recommended reading: Statistics, Data Analysis, and Decision Modeling by James R. Evans

Introduction to Operations Management, The University of Pennsylvania

Students who take this Coursera class learn how to analyze and enhance business processes, increase productivity, and deliver higher quality standards. They study core operations concepts, such as process analysis, bottlenecks, flow rates, and inventory levels.

  • Faculty: Christian Terwiesch, distinguished business professor, senior fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute for Health Economics, and co-director of the Mack Institute of Innovation Management
  • Cost: $39 to $89 per month for a Coursera subscription
  • Additional recommended reading: Quantitative Analysis for Management by Barry Render, Ralph M. Stair Jr., Michael E. Hanna, and Trevor S. Hale

Macroeconomic Forecasting, edX

Developed and delivered by the International Monetary Fund, and produced with support from the Government of Japan, this edX course is a dense but meaty exploration of macroeconomic analysis. Students will learn to create and assess forecasting models that can predict macroeconomic variables such as inflation and economic growth. Through hands-on demonstrations of policy analysis and model-building, students will analyze data sets from a variety of countries, learning how to utilize the vector auto-regression models (VARs) and error correction models (VECMs) that calculate economic movements at the largest of scales.

  • Faculty: Adolfo Barajas, senior economist at the IMF’s Institute for Capacity Development; Adina Popescu, economist in the IMF’s strategy, policy, and review department
  • Cost:Free, with the option of adding a verified certificate for $25
  • Additional recommended reading: A Concise Guide to Macroeconomics by David A. Moss

DIY Business Accountability and Ethics

Ethical Leadership: Character, Civility, and Community, Boston University

This edX course approaches accountability and ethics as a cross-disciplinary subject, with the emphasis on leaders’ personal narratives and socio-historic contexts. Built on a thesis that ethics in leadership is the intersection of a multitude of different life systems, students learn ethical leadership principles and practices, narrative and dramaturgical methods to develop character and leadership style, and a conceptual model for ethical decision making. The course includes video interviews with esteemed members of Congress, ambassadors, professors, charity presidents, and conservationists.

  • Faculty: Walter Earl Fluker, professor of ethical leadership and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Initiative for the Development of Ethical Leadership (MLK-IDEAL)
  • Cost: Free, with the option of adding a verified certificate for $50
  • Additional recommended reading: The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind

Global Impact: Business Ethics, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Global business ethics covers business ethics from an international perspective. Students in this Coursera class learn about the social and moral dilemmas of global commerce and understand how to respond appropriately.

  • Faculty: Patricia Werhane, visiting professor
  • Cost: $39 to $89 per month for a Coursera subscription
  • Additional recommended reading: Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia
Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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