Several colleges are branching out into competency-based education. Rather than being constrained to the credit hour, students move at their own pace and advance based on skills they can demonstrate they know.
President Obama also gave a nod to the innovative approach in his Aug. 22 speech in which he announced his plans to combat the problems of college access and cost.
Such programs give credit "based on how well students master the material, not just on how many hours they spend in the classroom," Obama said. "So the idea would be if you're learning the material faster, you can finish faster, which means you pay less and you save money."
The Saylor Foundation, a nonprofit with a focus on what it calls "free education," also offers an online alternative to MOOCs.
The foundation has several basic courses in both the science and humanities fields – such as Beginning Algebra, Introduction to Western Political Thought, and Business Statistics – that students can online. But unlike MOOCs, the courses are self-paced and are free.
On Dec. 19, the foundation announced that the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS) had recommended six of its courses for potential credit. Altogether, the Saylor Foundation has nine courses recommended for credit – the equivalent of almost one year of college.
"This is not about College Lite. This is not about bargain-basement degrees from no-name institutions," said Sean Connor, community engagement manager for the Saylor Foundation, in a blog post. "This is about helping smart, engaged students on a less-traditional path get to the degree they want or need."
For a $25 proctored-exam fee, students who pass the test for any of those courses can apply for transfer credit with more than 1,500 colleges that work with the NCCRS, or 11 colleges that partner with the Saylor Foundation and guarantee credit for courses.
Still at issue is how these different approaches will be regulated in the world of higher education, and how students can be guaranteed quality. Issues of accreditation for online and competency-based models are likely to surface as Congress moves forward with discussions to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.
"College access is an issue. Overcrowded courses, distant campuses, de-funded programs. Students shouldn't need to invest three or four years of their lives just to get a two-year degree," Connor wrote. "Higher education is going to change. The credit hour system is going to change. The degree system is going to change. But not today and not tomorrow."