Me: “Hi, I’m Hillary.”
New friend: “Nice to meet you. Are you going to school here?”
Me: “No, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Thomas Edison State University in New Jersey. But I used distance learning so I could live here in Walla Walla.”
NF: “Cool—so you took online classes?”
Me: “Actually, I used credit-by-exam tests. I studied on my own and then took a test for college credit.”
NF: “Oh, I see.”
In some conversations, I go into more detail, but often I feel that credit-by-exam tests are shortchanged in my meet-and-greet banter. Even if the person I’m talking to doesn’t have experience with CLEP or other similar tests, they seem to have a rough idea of what credit-by-exam tests are, but they aren’t exactly sure what’s different from online courses.
I totally understand. Distance learning is a broad term, and it’s been used over the years to refer to many things: correspondence courses where you snail mailed your assignments back to the teacher, pre-recorded videos of lectures, and, more recently, online courses.
These online courses have dramatically changed our education landscape and become nearly ubiquitous here in the US. In a 2012 survey of 2,820 colleges, 86.5% offered online courses. Probably because of this widespread availability, online classes are the poster child for distance learning.
However, there is one key difference between online classes and credit-by-exam tests: one is professor led and the other is self-directed. For online courses, you have someone who will outline assignments and be available for questions. For credit-by-exam tests, you create your own schedule and seek out mentors or resources.
In online classes, you don’t have to worry as much about getting stuck on a problem or concept that you can’t understand. Also, you will be given deadlines.
In preparing for credit-by-exam tests, you may be challenged at times in learning the required material. (I highly recommend YouTube and forums for helpful explanations.) You will have flexibility in the time frame for test preparation.
So, the difference between online classes and credit-by-exam tests is who is the leader. Neither one of these types of distance learning is a quintessential solution to learning. But, fortunately for us students, neither is exclusive: you can take an online course while studying for a credit-by-exam test. The credit earned via distance learning can be a big step toward achieving a goal, whether that is a degree, expanded knowledge for work, or personal enrichment.
 I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, “Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States,” Babson Survey Research Group (2013), pp. 20, 32 and 37: http://onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/changingcourse.pdf.