How free online classes can prepare you for an MBA

BY Rich GrisetMarch 17, 2023, 1:22 PM
William Rainey Harper Memorial Library at the University of Chicago, as seen in October 2022. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel—NurPhoto/Getty Images)

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, massive open online classes—also known as MOOCs—saw an explosion of interest. New enrollments in online MOOC providers saw millions of new enrollments, with Coursera seeing a 644% increase compared to the previous year and EdX seeing a 161% increase. In 2022, online class aggregator Class Central reported it had cataloged at least 59,000 MOOCs. 

These online courses allow open access to educational materials—at little or no cost—and often are repackaged college classes taught by professors. MOOCs were first introduced in 2008, and as of 2021, business courses made up almost 21% of all MOOCs, more than any other subject, according to a report by Class Central.

“They’ve exploded in popularity,” says Anne Trumbore, chief digital learning officer of the Sands Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “It’s a really fantastic way, when you think about it, to learn about a new field.”

For learners who are considering a full-time MBA program, Trumbore says these courses can give them a taste of what to expect: “They’re a tremendous tool for people who want to dip their toe into the water, but without forking over a ton of money, and, also, possibly two years of their lives.”

So what are the benefits of business-focused MOOCs, and how can they prepare you for a full-time MBA program? Here’s what you need to know.

What is a MOOC?

A MOOC is a free online program that’s designed to provide learning opportunities to large numbers of students anywhere in the world. These programs are offered by providers like Coursera, EdX, Udemy, and Udacity that are connected to top universities.

Access to courses is usually either free or requires a small fee, such as if a learner wants a certificate upon completion. Roughly 10% of MOOC learners complete a course and opt for a certificate, notes Trumbore, who’s currently working on a book about the history of online learning. Some people include MOOC courses on their résumés, though that practice is “different for different folks,” she says, adding it may depend on their industry and experience level.

“People do get a very solid, concrete career benefit by including it on their résumé,” says Trumbore. Even if people opt not to do so, participating in a MOOC may still be beneficial. “They learn how to do something, and then that skill helps them advance in their job.”

How MOOCs can help prepare prospective MBA students for business school

MOOCs have become popular both with people who are currently working in a related field and those who are looking to switch careers, according to Trumbore. Taking a couple of courses can help give learners a better feel for whether they’d like to pursue a full-time degree.

“Dip in and watch a few [videos]. If you’re bored to tears, then it might not be the right career for you,” says Trumbore, adding that MOOCs can give you a feel for a school or professor. “They are a great way to do that, because you actually see the faculty that you’re going to be seeing at a traditional [in-person] school.”

Generally, MOOCs offered by business schools are taught by tenured faculty. Trumbore says most of Darden’s roughly three dozen MOOCs on Coursera are based on courses that are currently part of its MBA program. Some of Darden’s most popular MOOCs include marketing analysis, fundamentals of project management, financial accounting, and digital transformation.

Other courses from top-ranked business schools, like Columbia Business School, are offered in an abbreviated format via MOOCs. That’s the case for the introductory finance class that Daniel Wolfenzon teaches on EdX, which is broken up into three modules: introduction to corporate finance, free cash flow analysis, and risk and return. Wolfenzon is the Nomura professor of international finance at Columbia.

“It’s based on the course that I teach here at Columbia, so it covers the same material, but at Columbia we go deeper into each of these topics,” Wolfenzon says. “It’s a little bit more of a basic level than what we teach here.”

Wolfenzon adds that he usually provides more background material in his MOOC courses than in MBA courses; with the latter, he knows that his students will receive more of a background in accounting and statistics through their other coursework. “When it comes to getting an overall idea of what a course is like, it’s a good introduction,” he says of business MOOCs.

And these classes just may be the spur some students need to apply to a program. In fact, more than 50% of students who completed a MOOC at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania said they planned to apply for a degree program after the fact, according to Trumbore’s research.

Other MOOC benefits 

Business-focused MOOCs have other benefits, as well, even for students enrolled in MBA programs. For example, Trumbore has heard of professors directing MBA students to MOOCs to help them study what they learned in class.

In recent years, Trumbore says, MOOCs have become popular with people who hold a degree in their field but want to become acquainted with the latest ideas and concepts. For someone who got an MBA a decade or more ago, for instance, learning about advances in marketing analytics or the use of artificial intelligence might be useful, as those fields have changed so much recently.

“This is a nice way for them to do it from a trusted source, and sort-of privately,” Trumbore says. 

Check out all of Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.