An MBA for less than $1,000

January 14, 2014: 1:53 PM ET

Laurie Pickard stands to be the first person to cobble together an entire business program's worth of classes from massive open online course platforms.

By Lauren Everitt

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A Coursera course page.

(Poets&Quants) -- If everything goes according to plan, Laurie Pickard 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 all while 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 sounds too good to be true. But Pickard, 32, 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 has the background to get into an elite program. Pickard's resume includes a B.A. in politics from 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 outside of Poets&Quants' story on the subject, 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.

Pickard developed her program by reviewing B-school curricula 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," she says. Although the courses vary in terms of quality and difficulty, Pickard points out that the same problem affects bricks-and-mortar programs.

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 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.

MOOC critics contend that the massive online format doesn't allow for meaningful interaction with students and faculty. Pickard's largest course had 120,000 students. An assignment to post a comment in a class-wide discussion forum resulted in a jumbled mess of thousands and thousands of messages. "There was too much going on to really engage substantively," she says of the message board. Some MOOC students arrange citywide meetups around particular courses, but an international student such as Pickard may be the only person in a given country enrolled in a class.

Pickard's not particularly concerned about missing the classroom interaction -- something she had as an undergraduate and as a master's student. "Because I've done that before, and I've experienced that, and I can search out experiences that can replicate that in other places, I don't feel that I'm missing all that much from taking courses online," she explains.

But often relationships forged in an traditional MBA program reach far beyond the classroom into the future; for many business students, these networks are the key selling point of a $100,000-plus degree. Pickard readily admits that she's not getting the same connections as a Harvard or Stanford MBA but also asserts that her situation is unique: She's pursuing an MBA primarily to acquire skills, not connections. "My development network is more important to me than a business school network, which is why I was thinking, 'What I really want here are the skills to move into the business end of the development work I'm doing,'" she explains.

The real elephant in the virtual classroom is how employers will perceive a business education that doesn't come with a bona fide degree. Many MOOC courses offer a Statement of Accomplishment (SOA), often for a fee. Pickard is skeptical of their value. Most jobseekers wouldn't bring their transcripts to an interview, much less a stack of course completion forms, she points out. Also, the level of difficulty and quality of courses ranges widely, making it tricky to decipher how much credence to give a particular SOA. "I'm still struggling with how to present it overall," she says. "For me, at this point, it really does hinge on the blog, so I can direct somebody there to explore what I've done...."

For Pickard, the knowledge is more important than the formal credential, anyway. She has no plans to enter finance or consulting, where an MBA is often a prerequisite for top jobs. Rather, building on her experience as an agriculture and food security volunteer in Nicaragua, she plans to work in sustainable supply chain development, with a focus on coffee. She also plans to expand her blog into a resource and community for like-minded students looking to save money without missing out on the B-school network.

Pickard certainly has her work cut out for her. The critics of MOOCs are an active bunch with plenty of fodder to pull from. But the No-Pay MBA argues that these naysayers are missing the potential of an Internet education. "I've seen a lot of articles come out recently talking about the failures of MOOCs and people saying it's not as good as a classroom experience ... it's not the egalitarian revolution in education that people were hoping for, but I see so many positive things about MOOCs," says Pickard.

She's particularly adamant that, for the right person, a MOOC education can be just as effective as classroom-based and online MBA programs. "If you can learn from a book, you can learn from a MOOC, and you can probably actually learn better from a MOOC than you can from a book," she says. Pickard's willing to bet on it with a blog and $1,000 -- if right, she'll come out with a quality business education and save tens of thousands of dollars in the process.

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