We have all taught students who say they "clepped out" (referring to the CLEP test offered by the College Board) of certain credit-bearing courses. These students seem very bright and the exams are rigorous, requiring a great deal of independent or tutored study. The credits earned are typically in introductory courses—such as the classes offered by community colleges. A fee is charged for the exam.
However, a new and perfectly understandable permutation has developed, in the Darwinian struggle over speed and efficiency. Massive Open Online Courses can be used to prepare for the exam. It's covered nicely in an article by Paul Fain, in Inside Higher Ed. Please read it.
So far the numbers are small, but MOOCs are adapting quickly to a host of exigencies—all geared to attract as many students as possible. One of the most formidable speed bumps hindering universal acceptance concerns the issue of academic rigor, since students currently receive only a certificate of completion for most MOOCs. The CLEP and similar exams would seem to solve this problem. Enter Teaching to the Test. Hey, K-12, how's that working for you?
Some commentators argue that MOOCs should be compared to historic correspondence courses, but students taking the mail-in approach years ago paid full tuition, perhaps even a special fee to cover the added cost to the institution. We already have plenty of online instruction, of course. MOOCs, however, are free, at least so far.
One can easily picture a world in which introductory courses (providing a critical mass for investors and vendors) are increasingly taught this way. MOOCs are offered by outstanding professors at prestigious schools, with the latest technology and slick presentation. It's just a matter of time until we have Algebra 3-D with popcorn. Fast, free, and with butter. What's not to like?
But "educational television" was another development, many years ago, that commentators said would transform the entire infrastructure of higher education. Didn't happen.
A key and perpetual dilemma is whether the average college freshman has what it takes to do the actual work involved. If not, then what?