Menachem Wecker

Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., recently announced a $10,000 undergraduate degree with a curriculum that draws largely from other institutions' free online courses. Such news may prompt resourceful graduate students to try to piece together a degree for free, but current or prospective M.B.A. students shouldn't see free courses as a replacement for a full paying degree, business professors say.

What students can do, professors say, is use free courses to supplement or prepare themselves for their degrees. Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of its OpenCourseWare project, which an estimated 100 million people have used to view free materials from more than 2,000 graduate and undergraduate courses. And students of all levels can enroll in thousands of courses on the website Udemy -- the "Academy of You" -- which is funded by Lightbank, the same venture capital firm that backs Groupon.

Most of Udemy's courses are free, but some cost between $5 and $250. Although just about anyone can create a Udemy course, the instructors in the website's Faculty Project are the "best professors from the world's leading universities," according to Udemy.

That claim is not just a for profit website hawking its wares. In the project's business courses, students can listen to video lectures -- which are not for credit -- and interact on message boards with instructors from top business schools, such as Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business .

The Udemy professors and students say that an online message board isn't the same as an interaction in a brick-and-mortar classroom. But the courses seem to be anything but watered-down versions of business courses that are part of much more expensive on-campus M.B.A. programs. Some of the professors say they plan to incorporate their Udemy courses into their M.B.A. courses, and others say their Udemy courses are inspired by courses they've taught in traditional colleges and universities.

Some of the business professors even recommend Udemy courses to current or prospective M.B.A. students. "I think my video lectures could be useful to someone who is considering applying to business school to advance their own business acumen and to give them some exposure to topics that they will learn about in an M.B.A. program," says Michael Lenox, a Darden professor whose Foundations of Business Strategy course on Udemy has more than 2,750 students.

Current M.B.A. students can also use the video lectures on Udemy to supplement their courses, much like they would use a textbook or other written materials, Lenox says.

Gad Allon, an associate professor at Kellogg who is teaching Operations Management on Udemy, agrees. "I would definitely recommend current [M.B.A.] students to use such a course to reinforce what they learn in class," he says. "As for students applying to business schools, this can be used to get a glimpse as to what they will learn."

Lee Nagy, an associate dean at Southern Technical College in Brandon, Fla., chose to take Allon's Udemy course even though she already holds an M.B.A. and a master's degree in education and human resource development from University of Findlay . She's hoping to use the class to prepare herself for a deanship role at Southern Technical, she says.

"This will be a good review -- my M.B.A. feels dusty," she wrote on the Udemy course message board.

Business school students and applicants should consider taking online courses such as those through Udemy and the MIT OpenCourseWare, but not in lieu of an M.B.A., according to Nagy. "It all comes down to balance," she says. M.B.A. students "shouldn't become so busy with these courses ... that they miss out on the meat of the courses they are actually paying for."

"It's definitely not a replacement [for an M.B.A.], because you of course don't get a degree," agrees Valerie Wilson, a student in the Udemy business strategy course taught by Lenox, the Darden professor. Wilson, the marketing director at RightStar Systems, a Vienna, Va.-based IT company, says it's been a long-term goal of hers to get an M.B.A., and the Udemy course won't affect that ambition.

Benjamin Ho, an economics professor at Vassar College who is teaching Economics of Energy and the Environment on Udemy, also sees the free courses as supplements, rather than substitutes for traditional courses.

Free courses provide enrichment and application, rather than fundamental knowledge, so they can be useful for students who don't have room in their schedules to take a course on campus, according to Ho. "But for students who are interested in working in this area, the course might inspire them to take a more formal course."


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Free Online Classes May Help MBA Students