Challenging for credits

Cost-conscious college students can earn very low-cost credits by taking a free online course and passing a challenge exam, reports Paul Fain at Inside Higher Ed. 

. . . students can use free course content from providers like the Saylor Foundation and Education Portal to study for “challenge exams,” which may be the fastest and most inexpensive way to earn credits.

The examinations, like those offered by Excelsior College and the College Board’s College Level Examination Program (CLEP), are designed to test whether students grasp the concepts that would be taught in a conventional classroom version of general education courses. In that sense, they combine elements of both competency-based education and prior-learning assessment.

. . . Many, if not most, American colleges and universities accept that the tests are academically rigorous, and have accepted some Excelsior and CLEP exam credits, most of which cost less than $100. Another popular exam package is the U.S. Department of Defense’s DSST, formerly known as the Dantes Subject Standardized Tests, which can earn credit recommendations from the American Council on Education (ACE). And colleges, particularly those that cater to adult students, also develop and offer their own challenge exams for prior-learning credit.

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay sophomore Alex Stenner earned three credits in Psychology 101 during his two week winter vacation. Total cost: $90. Educational Portal’s self-paced course — short video lectures and quizzes —  was free. He paid to take the  CLEP test. His university’s Psych 101 course is taught in a large lecture hall with little chance to make personal connections with professors or fellow students, he says. Why spend the time and money?

“Massive open online courses could also be used by students to prepare for challenge exams,” writes Fain. The California community college system may partner with MOOC providers to help students pass credit-bearing exams, cutting wait lists and easing pressure to squeeze more students into traditional  courses.

Low-cost credit for free online courses

Students will be able to earn college credit for free online courses thanks to a partnership between the Saylor Foundation, which offers  free, self-paced college courses, and StraighterLine, which offers low-cost online courses.

Saylor students will be able to take a StraighterLine exam to earn credit backed by the American Council on Education, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. Or students could enroll in a StraighterLine course but use Saylor’s free course materials to save money.

Alana Harrington, director of the Saylor Foundation, said her group’s repository of free online courses won’t go anywhere, and will still grant certificates of completion. But the partnership with StraighterLine will give students a way to get credit for low-cost online courses that’s more meaningful than a certificate.

“We understand the fact that to some students, the pure acquisition of knowledge or the certificate proving their competency isn’t enough,” she said. “Credit is a form of currency today.”

StraighterLine and Saylor will work with George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College to help students transfer credits easily.

Free courses may shake universities’ monopoly

Free or cheap online courses may shake universities’ monopoly on credentials, writes the Hechinger Report.

“If I were the universities, I might be a little nervous,” said Alana Harrington, director of, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit established by entrepreneur Michael Saylor that offers 200 free online college courses in 12 majors.

Among other similar initiatives are Peer-to-Peer University, or P2PU, which also offers free online courses and is supported by the web-browser company Mozilla and the Hewlett Foundation, and University of the People, which charges $10 to $50 for any of more than 40 online courses, and whose backers include the Clinton Global Initiative. Both are also nonprofits.

The content they use comes from top universities, including MIT, Tufts, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan. Those are among some 250 institutions worldwide that have put a collective 15,000 courses online in what has become known as the open-courseware movement.

Traditional colleges and universities are reluctant to accept transfer credits from these programs, claiming they can’t judge the courses’ quality.

“Libraries are free, too,” says Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “You can roam around, read books and study. But hardly anyone would say that spending time in the library is a good preparation to work in any economy, much less this one.”

Traditional colleges deny academic credit to squelch competition, said Philipp Schmidt, cofounder and executive director of P2PU.

Debbie Arthur, who’s taking StraighterLine courses with hopes of earning an education degree, says most university classes don’t offer more personal contact than online classes.

“The Pollyanna version of college is that you’re learning and discussing things with your professors,” said Arthur, a custom-jewelry maker who lives in Kingsport, Tenn. “The reality is that you have 450 kids in an auditorium listening to a teaching assistant. They’ve killed the golden goose themselves by being greedy, and I think people have started looking really closely at alternatives.”

After 160,000 people worldwide signed up for his free, online class on artificial intelligence, Sebastian Thrun quit his job as a Stanford computer science professor to fund Udacity, a free online university. It’s a udacious idea.

Students will be able to take tests to show mastery of critical thinking skills, writes Jeffrey Selingo. That will help the alternatively certified to compete for jobs with people who’ve spent four (or more) costly years pursuing a bachelor’s degree, adds Richard Vedder.