Online courses, and massively open online courses (MOOCs) in particular, are quickly moving from a novelty to the mainstream. Leading colleges, graduate schools, and companies are investing significant resources into free education.
There are now hundreds of free courses available online, which can vary significantly in quality. That makes it essential to pick the right course.
We’ve found some of the most fascinating, highly regarded, and useful courses around, taught by some of the most accomplished professors at the best schools in the world.
If you take a class through a platform that runs more structured courses, like EdX or Coursera, it can be beneficial to take them in session. Then, you can get assignments graded, occasionally have access to teaching assistants and even professors, and have a community of other people taking the course that you can talk to and rely on. And if you do well enough, you’ll receive a verified certificate for completing the course.
Some of the following courses are running right now, while others have already concluded but can still be taken as self-paced courses. We’ve noted which is the case for each.
Length/Start date: The course ran this spring and all materials are available. It's designed to last eight weeks.
Time commitment: Seven to 10 hours a week, and no background is required other than a 'curiosity about human nature.'
Why you should take it: People aren't always rational. They do unpredictable things that are often baffling to those who try to think rationally.
The course is taught by Duke's Dan Ariely, author of the best selling 'Predictably Irrational' and one of the most prominent scholars studying this through the lens of behavioural economics. A student who's taken 36 MOOCs said it was the one he'd most recommend to a first-time MOOC student.
The idea is to introduce students to the range of cases where people make decisions inconsistent with standard economic theory, which assumes rational decision making, and think about how insights about that sort of behaviour can be applied.
Length/Start date: Self paced
Time commitment/prerequisites: The time commitment is entirely up to the student, though those looking to complete it should set themselves some goals. No prerequisites are required other than basic algebra. There is a programming track which uses Python, however.
Why you should take it: Statistics and data analysis are at the core of just about everything in business. Knowing how to read data and pull insight out of it is always useful. This course provides a tool-set that would be valuable to just about anybody.
This course is designed to teach the basics of extracting meaning from data, visualising it, and understanding the relationships in data with maths. The course is taught by Udacity CEO and Stanford Research professor Sebastian Thrun, who founded Google X, the company's research lab, and helped develop driverless cars and Google Glass.
Platform: MIT OpenCourseWare
Length/Start date: Self paced
Time commitment/prerequisites: The course is taken entirely independently. It's the first economics course undergraduates take, so no background is needed there. Some basic, single variable calculus is required, but no more than you'd learn in a high school calculus class.
Why you should take it: Economics has a bad reputation, but it's absolutely vital.
This introductory microeconomics class is one of the most popular that MIT has made available, and is taught by Jonathan Gruber. He's been teaching there for 20 years and is an extremely prominent economist who helped design Massachusetts' groundbreaking health-care reform.
Economics, and microeconomics in particular, are about how we make the best decision given scarce resources like money or time. That's useful in itself, as is this course as background for more advanced work.
Length/start date: Runs 10 weeks, and started September 15
Time commitment/prerequisites: Six to eight hours a week, and no background in the area required.
Why you should take it: Learning the basics of accounting and how to read a balance sheet, income statement, and cash flow is incredibly useful for just about anybody. The course is also designed for students with no background in the subject, and the only maths requirement is knowing how to add and subtract.
As the professor puts it, accounting is 'the language of business.'
The course is also offered by one of the most prestigious business schools in the country, and taught by one of Wharton's senior and most highly regarded faculty members, Brian Bushee, a 13-year veteran of Wharton and former Harvard Business School professor. Though it's a bit more restrictive than the entirely self-directed courses, and new material will be released periodically, you get more of a community feel and more resources.
'You will not only better understand what people in the business media are talking about,' the course description says, 'you will also be able to notice when they don't know what they are talking about!'
Length/Start date: Eight weeks long, and starts September 30
Time commitment/prerequisites: Five to seven hours a week. The course is 'designed for business students and executives,' but there are no academic or maths requirements.
Why you should take it: This is the second course in Wharton's 'MBA Foundation Series,' which teaches a lot of what a first-year student enrolled at the school would learn. Anyone who has hopes to rise from being an employee to managing or running a company needs to learn some of the key principles behind analysing and improving business processes, boosting productivity, and meeting higher standards.
The professor, Christian Terwiesch is a multiple award-winner for his teaching at Wharton, and wrote one of the most popular textbooks on operations management.
Length/Start date: Nine weeks long, and starts October 14
Time commitment/prerequisites: Requires five to six hours a week. Though no formal prerequisites are required, this is an MBA course, so a business background helps.
Why you should take it: Wharton has one of the highest-ranked marketing programs in the world, and this course is team-taught by three of its stars: Peter Fader, David Bell, and Barbara E. Khan.
Anybody interested in starting a business needs to learn how to relate to customers and sell their products, so this is an absolutely essential course.
Length/start date: Runs for six weeks, and starts October 28
Time commitment: Takes six to eight hours a week, no formal requirements, but it's a course taught to MBA students who have managed to get into Wharton, so it starts at a high level.
Why you should take it: This is an entirely different set of tools than the ones you learn in accounting, helping provide the basics of valuing companies, valuing stocks and bonds, and using other tools to analyse financial decisions
You can't do much better for a pure MBA experience, as these are based on lectures given to Wharton students, and you're learning from one of the acknowledged masters of the subject in Franklin Allen, a 30-year veteran of the school who wrote one of the most popular textbooks available on the subject.
Length/start date: The full course lectures and materials are available, but the current course started September 10. It lasts 14 weeks.
Time commitment/prerequisites: About 12 hours a week. High school biology and chemistry recommended.
Why you should take it: This course was taken and written about at length by Kevin Carey, the director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. It convinced him that not only are MOOCs a viable way to learn, they've reached a level where traditional universities should start to get scared about their business models.
It is, for all intents and purposes, the same biology class that students at MIT take, and it's as rigorous as you'd expect. It's taught by Eric Lander who, in addition to helping lead the Human Genome Project and co-chairing President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, is an excellent teacher, according to Carey.
Even if you're not aiming at a career in the life sciences field, finding out how life works is fascinating. It's worth remembering as well that health care is one of the fastest growing areas of the economy.
Length/Start date: Self paced
Time commitment/prerequisites: The course is self-directed, and some background in linear algebra and probability theory is suggested.
Why you should take it: It originates from a widely popular Stanford course, touches on some of the most advanced and interesting topics in technology, and is taught by two stars of the field.
This is one of the courses that helped push MOOCs into the spotlight, and convinced Sebastian Thrun to start Udacity, his online education company. It started with one email, and 160,000 people enrolled. Thrun still teaches this version of the course himself along with Peter Norvig, who is a former NASA scientist and serves as Google's head of research.
You don't get a much better pedigree for a course focusing on the basics of modern AI, including machine learning, probabilistic reasoning, robotics, and natural language processing.
Length/Start date: Self paced
Time commitment/prerequisites: Students are free to pace themselves, and Blank suggests that they have at least some idea of the business they want to create.
Why you should take it: This course is a bit unusual, in that it's not produced in partnership with a university or traditional professor, and it's not about a traditional academic subject.
It's a practical and thorough guide to how to create your own company by successful serial entrepreneur Steve Blank, based on an approach he's been using and teaching for years. It takes would-be entrepreneurs through everything from developing a viable product to figuring out how they're actually going to make money.
Length/Start date: TBD -- earlier versions are available, but the next graded course isn't scheduled yet.
Time commitment: Three to six hours
Why you should take it: Several years after its passage, the Affordable Care Act is still constantly in the news and poorly understood. Pretty much everyone who runs a business, has health insurance, or engages with the health-care system is going to be affected by it in some way.
This is a look at the policy behind the law, as well as health-care policy in general and the long history of America's frequently dysfunctional and expensive system. It's taught by Ezekiel Emanuel, a prominent bio-ethicist, former health-care advisor to the Obama administration, and brother of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Length/start date: A new, graded course starts January 2014. An older, self-paced version is already available.
Time commitment: Eight problem sets, each of which will take an estimated 15 to 20 hours to master the material and complete, two quizzes, and a final project.
Length/start date: Lasts five weeks, and starts September 30
Time commitment/prerequisites: No estimated time commitment listed. Proficiency in an object-oriented programming language like Java, C#, C++, Python, or Ruby is required. The basics of Ruby are taught at an accelerated pace with that assumption.
Why you should take it: This is one of the more advanced courses on the list, as it requires prior knowledge of programming. Still, if you have enough background, this course is definitely worth it. Software as a Service (SaaS) and agile development are more than just buzzwords in the tech world, they're essential.
The second half of the course is available here.
Length/start date: Runs for 13 weeks, and started September 16
Time commitment/prerequisites: 12 hours a week, and no prerequisites required other than an interest in the subject.
Why you should take it: It's one thing to talk about coming up with an innovative product, but it's another thing entirely to do it. The same goes for making an existing company more agile and quicker to come up with new ideas.
This course takes an intelligent look at how innovation happens in the real world, rather than how people talk about it in meetings. It's taught by Eugene Fitzgerald, who came up with important innovations in his own right during his time at AT&T's Bell Labs and later; and Andreas Wankerl, who runs the Innovation Interface at MIT and Cornell.
Length/Start date: Lasts seven weeks, and started September 1, though material will remain available. Part two starts October 13.
Time commitment/prerequisites: Five to seven hours a week. Students who take the course at Barnard and Columbia have completed intermediate macro and microeconomics, but students have also done fine without having taken those courses.
Why you should take it: For the last five years, the economy has been front and center in the news as our banking and economic systems all but collapsed, were rescued, and are slowly coming back.
Behind the crisis and behind the recovery is an enormously complex system that relatively few people understand. This course is an effort to explain how money markets work, which is essential for anybody who truly wants to understand how everything moves in the economy.
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