Laurie Pickard wanted an education from a world-class business school, but she didn't want to pay $168,000 for an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. So she found a way to get the education - though without the sheepskin - for next to nothing.
Pickard is the creator of the No Pay MBA, a pioneer in efforts to pursue a complete business education through massive open online courses (MOOCs) on the Internet. During the last year, she has taken free courses from Harvard, Yale, MIT, and the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, as well as the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton.
She has a blog and a website, Nopaymba.com, where, she said, 8,000 similarly minded students track her progress every month, learn from her mistakes, and follow her lead. (Pickard makes no money from the site.)
A former Philadelphia schoolteacher, Pickard discovered online courses in early 2013 while with the Peace Corps in Nicaragua.
"A friend with an M.B.A. was taking a MOOC finance course just to brush up on it," she said. "He suggested I look into it. The first thing I thought was, 'This is how I could get my M.B.A.' "
Many of the best U.S. business schools have produced online courses, and they are free and open to anyone. The schools do not award degrees to MOOC students, but several offer certificates of completion, usually for a small fee.
When Pickard started to build a complete M.B.A. curriculum for herself, she was unsure there would be enough B-school offerings.
But soon, business schools began aggressively releasing courses, primarily via online education platforms such as Coursera.com, edX.org, iTunes, and Udacity.com.
"Now, I'm swimming in a sea of courses," she said. "There's too much now to ever do it all."
Pickard said Wharton classes have been among the most valuable. Last year, the highly ranked business school made its core curriculum - four courses including accounting and marketing - available free on Coursera. Some of the coursework, customized to her interests, is rigorous, she said.
"I've also been taking a few MIT classes on edX. Those are very challenging, and you have to have a lot of math going in."
The convenience of MOOC classes is a top draw for Pickard, an entrepreneurial specialist for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She is posted in Rwanda. Commuting to a school in University City or Cambridge from Africa would have been a bit difficult.
In an interview last month, Pickard offered some insights. (See the complete interview on Philly.com.)
Question: Which online M.B.A. offerings would you recommend to someone starting out?
Answer: I'd recommend taking a course in finance, an NYU class through iTunes with Aswath Damodaran. That was one of my favorites. Also "Foundations of Business Strategy" from the Darden School at the University of Virginia.
I loved "Introduction to Financial Accounting" with Brian Bushee from Wharton. Accounting has a reputation for being boring, I suppose - Professor Bushee adds animated cartoon characters to the lectures - but I loved learning how to read a balance sheet and how financial reporting works.
The other course that was so useful was "How to Build a Start-up," taught by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank on Udacity.
Q: How much time do you dedicate each week working toward your No Pay MBA?
A: I try to spend about 10 hours, but that includes coursework and my blog and writing reviews of courses for Poets and Quants, a website community devoted to business school education.
Q: How would you recommend including online M.B.A. coursework on a resumé?
A: I think that a package of courses says more about you than listing individual courses. If I took one course on ancient Greek poets, that doesn't tell you much. But if I were to tell you, "I took 25 business courses equivalent to what someone would do as an M.B.A.," that's more interesting.
Q: How much would you have paid in tuition so far if you were attending a traditional business school?
A: Having taken about a dozen courses, that would put me at around $50,000.