Laurie Pickard wanted an education from a world-class business school. She didn't want to pay the $168,000 for a degree from Wharton. So she found a way to get the education — though minus the sheepskin — for next to nothing.

Pickard is the creator of the No Pay MBA, and she is perhaps the first person to ever pursue a complete business education through massive open online courses (MOOCs) on the Internet. During the past year, she's taken free courses from Harvard, Yale, MIT, the Darden School -- and Wharton.

She's also created a blog and a website nopaymba.com — where anyone with an Internet connection can track her progress, learn from her mistakes, and follow her lead.

A former Philadelphia school teacher, Pickard discovered online courses in 2013 while with the Peace Corps in Nicaragua. "A friend with an MBA was taking a MOOC finance course just to brush up on it," Pickard said. "He suggested I look into it. The first thing I thought was: 'This is how I could get my MBA!' "

Many of America's most prestigious business schools have produced online courses. They're free and open to anyone with the desire to learn.

The schools don't award degrees to MOOC students, but several offer certificates of completion, usually for a small fee.

When Pickard first started looking for classes to build an MBA curriculum for herself, she was unsure if there were enough offerings. She scoured the web to see if anyone had done it before. No one had. She found a couple of websites that weren't very well maintained. But a self-contained, self-driven MBA was uncharted territory.

"I saw an opportunity and decided to go for it," she said.

When she began the project, there were very few b-school offerings. But there was just enough to get started. It wasn't long before schools began to aggressively release courses, primarily via Internet 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 nearly all of its core curriculum — four courses ranging from accounting to marketing — available for free on Coursera.

Some of her coursework, customized to her interests, is seriously rigorous.“I’ve also been taking a few MIT classes on edX,” Pickard said. “Those are very challenging and you have to have a lot of math going in.” 

Convenience is the MOOCs' top draw for Pickard, who works as a development and entrepreneurship specialist for USAID.

Commuting to a school in University City or Cambridge would have been impossible. The No Pay MBA allows her to get the education part-time, on her own schedule, from her current post in the east African nation of Rwanda.

We spoke to Pickard last month. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you go from Philadelphia to Rwanda to pursuing an MBA education? I came to Philadelphia right after finishing my undergraduate degree at Oberlin College. I got a job as a Philadelphia teaching fellow and worked at Hunter Elementary in North Philadelphia. Then I went to grad school at Temple for Urban Studies and Geography. When I graduated from my master's program, I wanted business skills but I also wanted to work in international development. I thought about getting an MBA at that moment, but instead I went into the Peace Corps. I probably would have taken business classes in some form or fashion eventually. I really wanted this education, and I would have found some way to get it. I got very lucky that MOOCs became available when they did. The Peace Corps sent me to Nicaragua which is where I met my husband. We're now in Rwanda together.

Which online MBA offerings would you recommend to someone starting out? I would recommend taking a course in finance; I took 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 the Introduction to Financial Accounting with Brian Bushee from Wharton. Accounting has a reputation for being boring, I suppose - Professor Bushee is so concerned students aren't going to like it that he adds 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 Startup taught by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank on Udacity

How involved are the courses? Some you can listen to in the background and it's like watching a documentary. An MIT course, though, might take six hours a week and require a ton of work because they're all math. The videos gloss over the equations so you really have to teach yourself using weekly problem sets.

How much time do you dedicate each week working toward your No Pay MBA? I try to spend about 10 hours, but that includes course work and my blog and writing reviews of courses for Poets and Quants, a website community devoted to business school education.

What's the most important thing you've gleaned so far, and what has been the most difficult aspect of getting an MBA education this way? Being immersed in the language and the concepts of business has been the most valuable part. Most difficult part: The lack of a good peer-to-peer experience and the absence of professors who are invested in my learning. I was in such a small program at Temple and got a tremendous amount of attention and hand-holding. It's very different. But I don't think you usually get that much attention even in a top school for an MBA. The social experience of learning, I've gotten it to some extent. But it's nowhere near to what you get in a typical classroom. It's not a technological limitation, it's just the size of the class -- tens of thousands of students.

Completion rates for these free online courses are usually very low. How do you keep on keeping on? For most people, motivation is the hardest part. For me, I have the whole blog architecture to keep me motivated. But I think for MOOCs to really be a force in the business school world or the university world, there needs to be a different incentive structure. The incentives just aren't there.

What would you propose? There are a few different things that could happen: being able to earn course credit that could be transferable or build to a degree. The MOOC platforms themselves could offer certification programs or job training programs. Also, you put a MOOC course on your resume, and employers might not know what it means. But if it becomes a signal in the job market, you'll have a lot of people completing MOOCs.

How would you include online MBA course work on a resume? I think that a package of courses, no matter how you wrap it up and tie a bow on it, is more useful - and 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 MBA," that's more interesting.

Do you miss networking with other business school students? You're not going to run into the next Elon Musk while taking an online course. I've been building a network, but that network may be unique to me as the first person to do this. I get about 8,000 new visitors to the No-Pay MBA site each month, from people from all over the world. Some of them reach out to me to tell me about their academic or professional projects. Recently a professor wrote to me to ask me to take his MOOC. So I'm building a network but it's particular to me and the public way I'm going about getting this education.

Without a similar website, how would a No Pay MBA student build community? It's a challenge. The discussion forums aren't all that friendly to making connections. I've tried to put together study groups, but never to great success. With some courses, you can write-in questions to the professors and teaching aides. My best experiences connecting with fellow MOOC students were meeting one-on-one with a partner, or working on a group assignment where I got to talk with people. In larger cities, where there are more students taking a course, there are more networking opportunities. I've also noticed that MOOC assignments are getting better.

Have you had a chance to apply what you've picked up in the MBA courses? Right now, the field of international development is going through a shift. The focus has turned to partnering on projects with the private sector. Having the language, the frame of reference, the knowledge of what drives business and why they might be interested in working with development organizations, that knowledge has been vital and helps me in those conversations. I think we recognize now that private sector investment really drives development.

Is this the future of business education? I think in the business school world, the easiest targets for disruption are online degrees and executive education. People still place a lot of value in having a certificate or degree from a school. So it probably won't be the future of mainstream business education until someone can create something out of MOOCs that can be seen in that way. There is a great potential for someone to create an alternative, especially for that segment of the market which is already working and doesn't want to spend what business school costs, and doesn't necessarily need the launch pad that business schools offer because they're already midstream in their careers.

How much would you have paid in tuition so far if you were attending a traditional business school? Let's estimate $3,000 per course - about $1,000 a credit and three credit hours per course. Having taken about a dozen courses, that would put me at around $50,000, so far.

What's living in Rwanda like? It's been 20 years since the genocide and it's incredible what Rwanda has done. It's such an oasis of tranquility in East Africa: clean, beautiful, safe, and the weather is amazing.

Contact Sam Wood at 215-854-2796 or samwood@phillynews.com. Follow @samwoodiii on Twitter.
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