Free Online Course Providers Partner With Credited Exams

It was last December and the vacation from the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay had begun. But Alex Stenner, a sophomore and human biology major, spent his two weeks off earning three college credits. And he did it without attending a single class – for a total cost of $90.

Free online courses do not lead to college credit, at least not directly. But students can use free course content from providers like Saylor Foundation and Education Portal study for “challenge exams,” which can be the quickest and cheapest way to earn credit.

Examinations, such as those offered by Excelsior College and the College Board College Level Examination Program (CLEP), are designed to test whether students grasp concepts that would be taught in a conventional classroom version of general education courses. In this sense, they combine elements of competence-based education and prior learning assessment.

Last year, around 18,000 people took the Excelsior exams. And 76,000 passed the CLEP exams, of which 98,000 took the tests.

Many, if not most, US colleges and universities accept academically rigorous testing and have accepted some Excelsior and CLEP exam credits, most of which cost less than $100. Another popular exam program is that of the US Department of Defense. DSST, formerly known as Dantes Subject Standardized Tests, which can earn credit recommendations from the American Council on Education (ACE). And colleges, especially those catering to mature students, are also developing and offering their own challenge exams for prior learning credits.

Stenner spent two weeks studying with the Education Portal’s Psychology 101 course before taking the corresponding CLEP test. He had heard about CLEP when he was in high school and found the education portal with an internet search.

He liked what he saw on the site. Like Saylor’s offerings, Education Portal courses are self-paced and prepackaged — or asynchronous, which means instructors create the courses and students take them on their own schedules. They include video lectures and small quizzes, and each course usually consists of 100 videos of 5-10 minutes each.

Education Portal’s video lectures are fast and have professional production quality, but that’s not the only appeal.

“Obviously it was very appealing because it was free,” Stenner said, adding “I spent two weeks studying, compared to 15 weeks in a course.”

The course wasn’t easy, Stenner said, and he had to be disciplined to master the material in two weeks. Students may take much longer to master the material. But Stenner wanted to finish before the holidays were over. He passed the CLEP test on January 2.

Stenner said he doesn’t regret not taking his college’s introductory psychology course. He values ​​personal relationships with professors and fellow students. But that course would have been taught in a large lecture hall, so according to its cost-benefit analysis, Education Portal was a better investment.

“To me, it just doesn’t make sense to pay so much for entry-level courses,” he said.

Deepening partnerships

Massive open online courses could also be used by students to prepare for challenge exams. The California community college system, for example, is considering partnering with popular MOOC providers to help students use free courses to pass credited exams. And Excelsior is looking at for MOOC content in line with their exams.

But for now, this path remains mainly a concept. Meanwhile, Saylor and Education Portal are actively working with Excelsior and CLEP to ensure that an increasing number of their courses correctly match the learning requirements of challenge exams.

This approach is similar to StraighterLine, an online course provider that offers low-cost ($99 per month is an option) and self-paced material that can lead to ACE credit referrals. StraighterLine also partners with Excelsior, and the company recently announced 15 teacher-led courses.

Unlike StraighterLine, however, Education Portal and Saylor do not do a test or assessment. No one passes or fails. This option is only available if students are trying to take a difficult exam elsewhere.

The Education Portal, for example, offers 31 courses linked to credited recognition exams – 16 suitable for CLEP, two for Excelsior and eight corresponding to both types of exams. the for-profit startup, which is based in Silicon Valley, is also a web publishing company with materials aimed at advising students on career and college choices. Ads on this side of the business generate revenue, company officials said, which keeps the courses free.

The company employs 53 video monitorsBen Wilson, co-founder of Education Portal, said the company may consider licensing course content to colleges. And advertising on course portals could be another source of income.

Saylor is a non-profit organization that offers 270 free online courses. The foundation has created a comprehensive suite of courses for a dozen popular undergraduate majors.

So far, Saylor has only launched one course “aligned” with an Excelsior exam – in univariate calculus. But foundation officials said six more courses are in development, with likely release dates this year. And Thomas Edison State College, located in New Jersey, is partnering with Saylor to create six challenge exams synchronized with Saylor’s coursework.

These collaborations are hard work, said both exam creators and course providers. The learning objectives for the exams are defined and any gaps in the course material must be filled. But officials at Education Portal and Saylor believe enough students will be drawn into the credits route to make the work worthwhile.

Saylor would also accept more university partners, said Jeffery Davidson, the foundation’s strategic initiatives manager.

“We’re ready to work with any college that wants to develop their own exams,” he said.

Additional help

The College Board produces study guides and sample tests for CLEP. It also suggests online study material produced externally, albeit somewhat tentatively. Excelsior goes a step further by directing students to open educational resources (OER) that specifically cover the basics of their credit tests.

Students can study a free online textbook to prepare for an exam, said Mika Hoffman, executive director of Excelsior’s Education Measurement Center. But to achieve this, you need a lot of self-motivation.

“There are plenty of other students who need more help,” Hoffman said. “It’s not very engaging to read a textbook cover to cover.”

In contrast, Hoffman said the material from Saylor and Education Portal is intended to train students. The concepts are detailed individually, with particular attention to the most delicate. (She explains, in a online presentationhow Excelsior matches its ratings to free content.)

“We give a lot of advice along the way,” said Devon Ritter, Saylor’s special projects administrator.

Hoffman describes the material from both vendors as a “perfect match” with Excelsior’s reviews. One reason, she said, is that they focus on general education courses, where, at least arguably, a standardized approach to helping students master content can be more valuable than teachers’ individual teaching styles with materials.

In that sense, both free course providers are pulling a page out of the playbook of for-profit institutions, like the University of Phoenix, which pioneered standardized curricula. And Hoffman said this approach also sets Saylor and Education Portal apart from major MOOC providers, like Coursera, Udacity and edX.

“They’re much more like elite universities,” she said of MOOCs. “What really matters to them is who teaches the classes and the stamp they put on it.”

Stenner said he didn’t want to miss out on learning from talented professors at his university. But that applies primarily to upper-division and major-specific courses, he said, not those “impersonal” ones taught in large classrooms. Stenner plans to take another course on the Education Portal this summer, in history, and he’s spreading the word about how he used free classes to pass the challenge exams.

“I told everyone,” Stenner said.