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Go Back to School This Fall--For Free

Want to get an edge? Tap into the free business and tech classes online taught by some of country's top universities.

Entrepreneurs often come from the school of hard knocks, and that's a valuable type of education. You see reality, learn resiliency. But formal learning also has its place. Theory, best practices, tools, and techniques can help you avoid mistakes, get more out of opportunities, and increase your long-term chances for success.

There's good education news for all entrepreneurs. A number of top-flight universities offer free online instruction--videos, course notes, reading lists, and/or lectures--for the taking. In the mix is a generous helping of business management courses as well as some technical ones that might be of use to a tech start-up. Call it a form of giving back that will pay dividends for an investment of time.

Where to Look

As VentureBeat noted, Stanford has 16 free online classes this fall, including Technology Entrepreneurship (it had 37,000 students when it debuted last fall), a Crash Course on Creativity, Finance, and Start-up Boards: Advanced Entrepreneurship.

But Stanford is hardly the only resource for entrepreneurs. MIT has been outstanding, both in its long track record of successful businesses as well as in an impressive commitment to making course materials available. There are close to 150 separate courses (not including multiple versions of some from different years). They include such topics as Game Theory for Managers, Optimization Methods in Management Science, Real Estate Economics, Nonlinear Programming, Managerial Psychology, and How to Develop "Breakthrough" Products and Services.

MIT has also partnered with Harvard and Berkeley to create the edX initiative. If you want to brush up on artificial intelligence or software as a service (SaaS) for a venture, there are appropriate courses from Berkeley. But a little investigation suggests that checking with the individual institutions also makes sense. For example, Harvard shows a number of edX courses on its own site, but none of them are easily found on the edX site itself.

Although the concept of providing free courses to broaden their educational mandate is becoming popular among a growing number of universities, not all will provide material that is of obvious practical benefit. Yale offers introductory level courses in a number of disciplines, but none in management per se (although economics is represented).

One name to keep in mind is Coursera, which has partnered with universities around the world to offer free classes. Another is, which has both courses and individual lectures from many institutions.

Not that taking an online course is easy. You don't have the same type of feedback as you do if sitting in a lecture hall with access to a teaching assistant after class, and it takes just as much, if not more, work to master the material. But you're already used to working hard, and a price of free is hard to beat.

Last updated: Sep 18, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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