(RNN) - Laurie Pickard wanted to earn her MBA without quitting her job or amassing overwhelming amounts of debt.
Living in Rwanda, Africa, she also needed the convenience of online classes.
In pursuit of that goal, she became the poster child for a growing trend in education called MOOC's – or massive open online courses - free or lost-cost university-level classes taught on the internet.
Wrapping up her second semester of a program she designed to earn an MBA-equivalent for around $1,000, Pickard created a path for others to follow suit, a path which she details on her blog, The No Pay MBA.
"I couldn't even believe there were so many people out there interested in what I was doing," she said.
"The reason I started doing the blog is that I looked around to see if anyone else was doing this so I could copy. And I didn't find anybody, so I thought there must be other people who would like to see this type of project in action."
As she's ticked off typical first year MBA courses like Corporate Finance, Operations Management and How to Build a Startup, she's used the blog as her public accountability project, keeping her committed to the undertaking she began last August.
While any degree requires a hefty amount self motivation, MOOCs require a special kind of dedication. MOOC students go through university-level lectures and, if they choose to be even more self-motivated, complete hours of homework per week in addition to tests and quizzes.
But, unlike their traditional university counterparts, they don't earn actual college credit.
Although no college degree is earned, the benefit of MOOCs is the knowledge or skills students gain in class. However, for a fee, some classes offer certificates of completion for those who finish all assignments.
That's something Pickard, who already has a master's degree and isn't sure a traditional MBA would open new doors in her field, is comfortable with.
"I'm actually stunned by how much I've learned in this program. Really, I feel like I've acquired an entirely new vocabulary and … a new type of analysis that I didn't have at my disposal before this. It's definitely been a huge benefit," she said.
For the intellectually curious and those who consider themselves lifelong learners, MOOCs give an outlet to feed their need for knowledge and even increase marketable job skills without emptying their wallets.
And MOOCs are going mainstream, with top-tier schools getting on board.
When Stanford launched its first MOOC in 2011, a class on artificial intelligence, 160,000 students signed up.
That led Professor Sebastian Thrun to form Udacity, a MOOC platform that specializes in technology and science-based classes.
Coursera, one of the most popular MOOC platforms, boasts more than 600 courses where schools like Harvard and Duke offer classes to anyone with an internet connection – anywhere in the world.
Birmingham-Southern College, a small liberal arts college in Birmingham, AL, is launching its first MOOC, The History of Terrorism, on the Blackboard platform in May.
"We wanted to be up there with high profile schools in getting our name out," said Mark Schantz, provost of Birmingham-Southern.
"We know that higher education is changing dramatically and there's a lot more use of technology. The MOOC is just one element of that."
But why would institutions dependent on tuition offer free material with no strings attached?
"[Something that] we thought was important is that Birmingham-Southern has a tradition and heritage of service to the community and nation," Schantz said.
"As a liberal arts institution, we take that very seriously. We wondered how we could open up conversation … and this seemed again to fit with the expertise of the college and help us fulfill our mission."
While schools incur the costs of producing a MOOC, the classes also give colleges an expanded educational platform.
Increasingly, universities don't see MOOCs as competitors to a brick and mortar education, but more a worldwide stage to show thousands of potential students what they do.
The prospect of reaching the unreached was one of the reasons the University of Rochester, in Rochester, NY, got on board with MOOCs.
"We discovered from our surveys that probably more than half the people who sign up for the course have never heard of the University of Rochester before. Most of the rest of have heard of it but don't know much about it," said John Covach, director of the Institute for Popular Music at UR.
"If somebody told you they could sell you a Facebook ad where you could reach an educated public … who never heard of you before , would you buy that ad? The answer is 'yes I would.'
"How much more targeted could an ad be if you want to spread the word about the excellence of your teaching?"
If an expanded recognition is what they were looking for, they certainly got it. When Covach launched his course The History of Rock last May, 42,000 people signed up.
"It was one of the most rewarding teaching experiences in my career," he said.
Ultimately, Covach said around 30,000 watched the videos and around 5,000 finished all the accompanying homework, which leads to one of critics' chief concerns with MOOCs – low student retention.
Typically, numbers show only around 10 percent of MOOC students - no matter what the course - do all the work necessary to get a certificate of completion.
But Covach argues that student completion rates only tell part of the story.
"If I gave an undergraduate course at the University of Rochester and only 10 percent finish, they'd call me in to the dean's office," he said. "If you don't think of it as a public course but as a lecture … [you realize students] sat through seven weeks of lectures and watched them all and even took the quizzes. How many people would sit through that? From that point of view, it's a fantastic confirmation."
Covach says 60 to 70 percent of his students already have a degree of some kind and many are simply "really geeked out on learning." A large number of them reside outside the United States.
"What you're really getting are not people in their teens, American college students. You're getting an older crowd who are already pretty educated and who watch the courses like Breaking Bad on Netflix," he said. "They form study groups on Facebook and become a community. It's just their way of pursuing education."
Another criticism by MOOC naysayers is the lack of face-to-face interaction, a drawback, admits Pickard, but one she says students can overcome.
"You shape your worldview by being around other people, by having conversations, by being immersed in a culture. So I was skeptical whether or not I could recreate that online," she said. "I've been very pleasantly surprised that just by surrounding myself with courses and conversations and through blogging and through being involved in an online format that I've been able to recreate some of that."
For Pickard, the drawbacks are an exchange she's happy to make for the financial and personal freedom she's had pursuing her education.
"I saw this opportunity to get the education I want without having to sacrifice all the things that I thought would be a sacrifice with the traditional MBA," Pickard said.
Pickard may be among the first – if not the first - to tackle a degree equivalent using free online classes, but she's heard from others following her footsteps.
Pickard is still figuring out how to list her MOOC education on her resume. With the rising popularity of the format, she may not have to wrestle with it much longer.
"I don't have a strong sense of where it's going to go, but I think we're at the beginning of something that could be really big," she said.
Copyright 2014 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved.
730 North Summit Street