MBA Alternatives: Business Fundamental MOOCs, the "DIY MBA" Approach

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 of the desired outcome, the price of an MBA is the same. Forbes (2023) reported that according to Education Data Initiative data from November 2022, the average cost of an MBA is $61,800. On-campus programs can cost upward of $200,000 (including living expenses) 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 devoting 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 interests, 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 reported that MOOC students had reached 220 million learners in 2021. In 2021, 40 million new users signed up for at least one MOOC, compared to 60 million (fueled by the pandemic) in 2020.

MOOCs diverge from the older open courseware (OC) distance education model, which pairs 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 129 million and 16.9 million users, respectively. edX is a consortium led by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with about 78 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.

Interestingly, much of the growth in paying students is 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 in the foundational curriculum vary slightly, if at all, between universities.

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 by some of the best business schools in the world. The example syllabus below 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 12 modules. 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.

This course is offered as part of the following three programs: the introduction to finance and accounting specialization; the finance & quantitative modeling for analysts specialization; and the business foundations specialization.

  • Faculty: Michael R. Roberts, the William H. Lawrence professor of finance
  • Cost: $79 per month
  • Additional recommended reading: Financial Management: Theory & Practice by Eugene F. Brigham and Michael C. Ehrhardt

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.

This course is part of the business foundations specialization where students learn about new concepts from industry experts, develop job-relevant skills with hands-on projects, and earn a shareable career certificate. The five modules of this program include branding: marketing strategy and brand positioning; customer centricity: the limits of product-centric thinking & the opportunities and challenges of customer centricity; go-to market strategies: communication strategy and fundamentals of pricing; branding: effective brand communication strategies and repositioning strategies; applied marketing.

  • 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 Jagmohan Raju, vice dean of executive education and the Joseph J. Aresty Professor of Marketing
  • Cost: $79 per month
  • Additional recommended reading: Marketing Management by Philip T. Kotler and Kevin Lane Keller

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.

This course is part of the following programs: the introduction to finance and accounting specialization and the business foundations specialization. The four modules covered in this course are introduction and balance sheet; accrual accounting and the income statement; cash flows; and the ratio analysis final exam.

  • Faculty: Brian J Bushee, the Gilbert and Shelley Harrison professor of accounting
  • Cost: $79 per month
  • 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 introduces the discipline, this class focuses on accounting-based decision-making. Students learn how to recognize and leverage organizational opportunities through accounting best practices. This course is part of Gies College of Business’ suite of online programs, including the iMBA and iMSM.

The four modules covered in this course are overview and introduction to managerial accounting; costing systems: elements and design; costing systems: activity-based costing; and cost-volume-profit (CVP) analysis.

Students in this course will learn how to use accounting to align and facilitate decisions made by managers, employees, and owners. They will learn how accountants organize, create, communicate, and interpret information that allows organizations to identify and leverage opportunities and improves internal processes to create value with customers and within the supply chain.

  • Faculty: Gary Hecht, professor of accountancy
  • Cost: $1,332
  • Additional recommended reading: Cost Accounting: A Managerial Emphasis by Charles T. Horngren, Srikant M. Datar, and Madhav V. Rajan

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. By the end of this course, students will have the skills they need to start organizing, rewarding, and motivating people in their organization so that they can thrive as a social organization and as a business.

This course is part of the business foundations specialization. The four modules covered in this course include motivation and reward; tasks, jobs, and systems of work, making good and timely management decisions; and designing and changing the organization’s 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: $79 per month
  • Additional recommended reading: First, Break All The Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman

DIY Economic Statistics and Operations

Introduction to Statistics, Stanford University

The introduction to statistics course by Stanford teaches statistical thinking concepts to students that are essential for communicating insights and learning from data. Upon completion, graduates will be ready to understand key principles of sampling, select appropriate tests of significance for multiple contexts, and perform exploratory data analysis. They will be provided with the foundational skills to pursue more advanced topics in machine learning and statistical thinking.

Topics covered in this course include sampling and randomized controlled experiments, descriptive statistics, sampling distributions and the central limit theorem, probability, common tests of significance, regression, multiple comparisons, and resampling.

  • Faculty: Guenther Walther, professor of statistics 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.

The four modules covered in this course are introduction to operations management and process analysis; flow management and lean operations; little’s law; and quality.

  • Faculty: Christian Terwiesch, Andrew M. Heller Professor, a professor in Wharton’s Operations and Information Management department, senior fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute for Health Economics, and co-director of the Mack Institute of Innovation Management
  • Cost: $79 per month
  • Additional recommended reading: Quantitative Analysis for Management by Barry Render, Ralph M. Stair Jr., Michael E. Hanna, and Trevor S. Hale

DIY Business Accountability and Ethics

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. This course is part of the global challenges in business specialization.

The four modules covered in this program are: is ethics part of business?; stakeholder theory: Bayer CropScience in India; in Rome should we do as the Romans do?; and why do good people and good organizations do bad things?.

  • Faculty: Patricia Werhane, visiting professor
  • Cost: $79 per month
  • 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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