As someone who is attempting to take enough free courses to add up to a complete MBA, I know as well as anyone that not all MOOCs are created equal. Some courses are so good you can’t believe they’re giving this stuff away for free; with others, your time would be better spent watching a good TED talk.
Time is valuable. MOOCs may not come with the B-school price tag, but as an economist friend has pointed out, there’s really no such thing as a free course. In the hours you spend watching video lectures, answering multiple choice questions, and posting on discussion forums, you could be running a lemonade stand or reading Dostoyevsky. Not every nominally free course is worth the time it takes to complete.
If you plan to start a business, one course that is worth every minute is How to Build a Startup from Udacity. As its name suggests, “How to Build a Startup” walks you through your business model, using a tool called the Business Model Canvas. Each lesson covers a different facet of your business, from customer relationships to partnerships to cost structure to sales channels. At the end of the course you, the budding entrepreneur, will end up with a solid structure upon which to base your business plan. The course is taught by Steve Blank, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has spent his career building startup companies, including a few with major IPOs. Blank teaches at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and Columbia Business School. He also lectures on entrepreneurship at Stanford’s School of Engineering.
I have a few basic criteria–three to be exact–for what makes a good course, and “How to Build a Startup” nails them all.
Am I checking email during the video lectures?
Udacity courses are composed of short videos of around two to three minutes, grouped into lessons. Each video in “How to Build a Startup” is packed with information. I’m rarely tempted to surf the internet during the videos–I’m too worried I’ll miss something. Steve Blank is an engaging lecturer, and the videos are supplemented with helpful drawings. This course passes the email test with flying colors.
Do the assignments require serious thinking?
Call me a masochist, but when I take an online course, I want to work. I respect rigor, and I would happily take a difficult problem set over a fluffy forum assignment any day. Unlike courses such as finance, accounting, or economics, the material in “How to Build a Startup” doesn’t lend itself easily to problem sets. Nonetheless, the instructor has found ways to design assignments that require the student to really engage with the material, primarily through testing hypotheses by speaking with potential customers. If you manage to do all the assignments, you will have given some serious thought to your business plan, and you can’t help but learn a thing or two in the process.
Is there a practical application for what I’ve learned?
I like to take courses with an obvious real-world application. I’ll admit, I’m biased toward courses with the words “How To” in the title. For my purposes, a good course should do at least one of the following:
– Impart skills and knowledge that allow me to do work I couldn’t have done before
– Teach me to more effectively do work I’m already doing
– Allow me to avoid hiring or paying someone
– Help me to avoid making costly mistakes
This course has prepared me to do the work of taking a business idea from concept to reality. I may have had some clue about how to do this work before taking the course, but I now have a systematic approach. This approach could not only help me identify and develop a good business idea but also could keep me from investing time and energy in an idea that doesn’t have great potential.
Laurie Pickard is cobbling together an MBA from free online resources.
I don’t want to make it seem as though this class is perfect. It’s not. For one thing, it is a self-paced class. This may be a plus for some people, but I find it harder to stay motivated when there isn’t any imposed schedule to conform to. Even though there are places to post comments on the lessons, the course lacks the student energy of classes in which everyone is doing the same work at the same time. For another thing, the quizzes embedded in the lectures aren’t great–sometimes they cover material that hasn’t been discussed yet, and sometimes they’re too easy. The real assignments, the ones that require you to “get out of the building” (a phrase Steve Blank uses about a thousand times during the course), aren’t graded. In fact, the course as a whole is not graded and offers no certificate or verification option.
The bottom line
If you’re considering launching a startup–now or ever–and you only take one course, this should be it. In fact, you should probably take it twice–once before a big idea strikes and a second time when you’re ready to turn that idea into the next big thing.
Laurie Pickard blogs at the No-Pay MBA. She is putting together a complete MBA using free online resources. Pickard reviews her most recent courses on Poets&Quants.
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