01/29/2013 01:23 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Getting an Entrepreneurial Edge for Free -- With MOOCs

It's an incredibly exciting time to be interested in learning. For the first time ever, it doesn't matter if you're in community college, attending an Ivy League school, or enrolled in a part time program after work -- you have unprecedented access to some of the best professors in the world, thanks to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). MOOCs (aka online courses) pair technology -- video lectures, interactive assignments, online forums and discussion groups -- with academic experts from top tier universities. Oh yeah, and they're free!

The three biggest names in the MOOC world are Udacity, EdX and Coursera. There are differences between the three, but in the end, they all offer high-quality, online courses that cover a range of subjects.

While MOOCs have historically been free, that may change in the near future. This week, Udacity announced a partnership with San Jose State that gives SJSU students access to Udacity courses, which allow them to receive school credit for $150/course. The early courses offered through this partnership are mostly around basic math subjects, but MOOC classes aren't just for brushing up on the basics -- many follow advanced curricula and some have pretty intensive pre-reqs.

Before paying for online courses becomes the rule and not the exception, I decided to take a look at what's being offered today. With the courses available, I realized you could easily create your own entrepreneurship/business curriculum -- all totally for free. So whether you are focused on the liberal arts in school and are looking for some real[er] world skills, or are a recent grad thinking of starting your own company, here are some courses that any aspiring entrepreneur should check out.

How to Build a Startup with Steve Blank on Udacity
Think you could be the next Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs? Make sure to take this class on how to build a great startup. The instructor, Steve Blank, is a veteran of eight silicon valley startups, and this course is an opportunity to get free instruction from someone who's been there before (and has the IPOs to prove it!). Even if you've never thought about becoming an entrepreneur, this course has no pre-reqs, so it's an engaging intro to a fast-growing industry. More of Steve's wisdom can be found in his blog posts, if you aren't ready to commit to the entire course.

Intro to Computer Science & Programming on EdX
This course walks you through basic computer science and programming at an intro level. Taught by an all-star team of MIT professors, it gives computer science newcomers an introduction to Python programming. You won't be ready to build a Facebook clone when the course is over, but you will have a better understanding of programming and whether it's something you'd want to pursue more in-depth.

Introduction to Finance with Gautam Kaul on Coursera
You can't start a business without money, and you can't make the best decisions for your business without knowing the basics of finance. By taking this course, you'll get an overview of basic finance, which you can apply to the real world. There's no guarantee that taking this course will result in you being disciplined enough how to pay off a credit card balance, but it will give you some important basics.

Cryptography 1 with Dan Boneh on Coursera
When I think of cryptography, I think of old school puzzles or codes designed to keep adversaries out. Modern cryptography is all about ways to protect information online. This six-week course explains "the inner workings of cryptographic primitives and how to correctly use them." Students will both learn the fundamentals and how to apply them in a real-world way. For computer science students who feel a little bogged down in the theoretics, this course should be a welcome and interesting break.

With each of these courses, watching the videos and doing the reading is the bare minimum. Connecting with other students, participating in the forums, and if needed, working with a tutor will help you be more engaged with the material, and more likely to pass the final exam (yes, even free, no-credit courses have finals).

What MOOC classes have you found most useful?

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