Body_OnlineCourses.jpgby Erin McDermott.


Many of America’s elite universities are rushing to stake out territory in the fledgling field of free online college courses.


For small business owners—a unique breed of independent learner—these new, free courses may mean opportunity. A glance across the Web shows remarkable offerings in business, economics, finance, and entrepreneurship programs at several $50,000-per-year colleges—all a quick, free download away. It means some of the top names in business education are becoming increasingly accessible to anyone anywhere, making these college sites a potentially smart resource for small business owners.


To be sure, some of these classes demand a substantial time commitment that may conflict with running a small business. However, many courses also give even the most time-strapped entrepreneurs the ability to tune in when they can, thereby allowing them to be lifelong learners. 


Here’s a look at what several major universities are offering:


This site, launched in 2008, claims to give “everyone on earth access to a world-class education.” Its curated lineup of free classes comes in the form of thousands of high-quality videos from top-notch professors from MIT, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, and dozens more. (Or, a Hulu “for nerds,” says On the business side, there’s the Entrepreneurship topic with practical lectures on everything from creativity and innovation, to financing and negotiation skills and dealing with a challenging employee.


PQ_OnlineCourses.jpgGot a long commute? Listen to Yale economist Benjamin Polak’s 24-lecture introduction to game theory for ideas on how to outthink your fiercest competitors. Or listen to Guy Kawasaki, an early Apple evangelist and founder of Garage Technology Ventures, talk at Stanford on doing what you love and listening to your customers. Lengths of the audios and videos vary from a few minutes to an hour, and everything can be downloaded.



MIT was an early advocate of free online classes, launching OpenCourseWare (OCW) in 2002. And it continues to break new ground. In May, the university and Harvard announced plans for another new site, edX, which will include certificate courses, for which users will be charged a fee. In the meantime, there’s OCW’s 2,100-plus courses, including virtually all class material—syllabi, videos, lecture notes, and even exams—which the school says draws one-million visitors a month. Classes are all downloadable, with the audio and video portions posted on iTunes U’s MIT page. Reading lists include links to online resources and Amazon’s vast market for used textbooks.


Business owners might be interested in Law for Entrepreneur and Manager or the graduate-level Listening to the Customer from the Sloan School of Management. Or maybe there’s a solution to your thorniest business issue in Entrepreneurial Marketing. But the bigger development is MIT’s new cross-disciplinary entrepreneurship program, with 66 courses that span offerings from Sloan as well as the media arts, electrical engineering, and computer science departments—all geared toward business owners at every level of the game.

Launched in April, Coursera brings together free classes from Princeton, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania. The courses consist of videos, interactive quizzes, grading, and feedback, as well as a social-media element that allows remote students to work together on class projects. It’s backed by two big Silicon Valley venture-capital firms and was established by two Stanford professors whose online platform with two computer-science classes attracted more than 200,000 users last fall.


The site has only a few dozen courses so far, but promises to ramp up quickly. Starting in September, Coursera will offer the 10-week course Networks: Friends, Money, Bytes with Princeton professor Mung Chiang, which explores how to best use many key business tech tools, like Skype, Wi-Fi, Google rankings, and social media like Facebook and Twitter. But plan ahead, too: Virtual students need to accommodate two 75-minute lectures a week, a weekly assignment, a midterm and final, and some blogging and wiki (social collaboration) work. Model Thinking, from Michigan Professor of Economics Scott E. Page, is another offering by designed to improve the way you strategize. All Coursera classes offer a system to show a certificate of completion, even if you’re not getting credit for it.

iTunes U

Apple makes it possible to tune into a class from a smartphone. Go to the App Store and download the free iTunes U for iPhones, iPads, and the iTouch to subscribe to more than 500,000 free lectures, books, and all kinds of media on a seemingly infinite number of subjects.


What’s worth your while? There’s a series of downloadable hour-long interviews at Knowledge@Wharton from Penn’s famous business school. Also excellent: Stanford’s weekly Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series. Interested in learning how to develop your own App? The TED Management series, Leading Wisely, features talks by bestselling author Daniel Pink, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and serial tech startup founder Jason Fried, who offers up a popular speech about why managers and meetings are the biggest obstacles to productivity.

One more free resource—your local library

The Great Courses may sound familiar—likely, you may have seen the catalog in your mailbox. The company has been making elite instruction accessible to the home user since 1990, and for as much as a few hundred dollars, ships either DVDs or CDs or issues downloadable media. A secret for budget-conscious learners: Many local libraries also carry their discs. One to seek out: Business Law & Contracts, taught by Professor Frank B. Cross of the University of Texas.