Rethinking the course schedule for online learners

By Jason Myers posted on April 1st, 2016

Recently, I was preparing one of the edX courses I help to support for the next offering and noticed something interesting in the student activity data. It had been nearly six months since the course was last offered, but there were still a large number of students active. The course was in archive mode with discussions closed, the instructor wasn’t answering questions anymore and students weren’t able to get any credit for the work they were doing. Still, people were watching the videos and taking the quizzes. In the time since the course closed there were nearly as many active students as had originally completed the course. There were many people who were eager to learn, but for whatever reason, didn’t find a good fit between their needs and the schedule for how it was offered.

This experience isn’t unique either. The University of Toronto recently published a study looking at the behaviour of live versus archived learners in two of their MOOCs. They surveyed both sets of students and tracked their activity within the courses. What they found is that there was very little to differentiate the behaviour of the archived learners from those who took the class live. For the number of videos watched, number of assessments they completed and their participation in discussion forums, the two groups showed similar patterns.

Seeing active students in a course that had been over for six months was definitely different from what I was used to when I supported UBC online courses. These courses typically follow the 13-week schedule, and when the course ends, so does the activity on the course site. Students move on to their next set of courses and access to the materials is even generally removed. Place has been eliminated as a limitation for students, but time is still very much driven by the campus schedule. The students in the edX courses are different in many ways from what we see on campus in terms of location, demographics, goals and motivations. They also haven’t made the commitment to reorganize their lives around the campus schedule, and as a result, we need to rethink some of our assumptions around time when designing courses for the continuing and professional education space. While there are many obvious benefits of leading students through a course as a group, students may be willing to make the trade off for more flexible scheduling and the ability to engage in a learning experience at the time when they are most ready.

Keeping students in a synchronous cohort is seen as beneficial because of the social aspect of learning in a community along with easier management of the course. It’s also the model students and instructors are most familiar with. Proponents for self-paced online learning argue, however, that social interaction between students is often overstated, a nice to have feature, but not a necessary condition for learning. Students may be willing to forgo interaction with other students if it provides them more autonomy and flexibility over their learning.

As self-paced learning opportunities are becoming more widely available, questions are being raised about whether or not this is a good thing. Do self-paced courses increase access to learning opportunities, or are they a lesser form of education driven more by financial considerations than pedagogical benefit to the students? There are also questions about whether a self-paced experience, where students work in isolation, provides students with the type of rich, supportive community experience often seen as the ideal learning environment. Maybe they can be effective in certain contexts, for certain students and for certain types of learning.

There is evidence to support the idea that meaningful learning experiences can be created in forms other than the instructor led, cohort based model. Terry Anderson’s Interaction Equivalency Theorem explains that:

“Deep and meaningful formal learning is supported as long as one of the three forms of interaction (student-teacher; student-student; student-content) is at a high level. The other two may be offered at minimal levels, or even eliminated, without degrading the educational experience. High levels of more than one of these three modes will likely provide a more satisfying educational experience, though these experiences may not be as cost or time effective as less interactive learning sequences.” (Anderson, 2003)

Studies have shown that students especially value quality course content and interactions with the instructor. Creating high quality content interactions for a self-paced course is something we have the tools and techniques to do well. This by itself may be adequate for certain types of learning, but having a sufficient level of interaction with the instructor and peers is important for creating a more satisfying experience and exploring deeper learning goals.

There are challenges and tradeoffs when designing peer and instructor interactions, though. Many of the studies that support the idea of self-paced learning involve small, campus based online courses where a high level of interaction and feedback from the instructor can balance the lack of a peer cohort. Providing this level of direct instructor support to a larger number of students can be cost and time prohibitive. Self-paced environments also provide a particular challenge because it becomes more difficult for an instructor to communicate with students as a group when they are all at different places within the course.

Peer interactions can also be challenging, since having a sufficient number of students progressing through the materials together is an important factor in facilitating these interactions. Finding effective strategies for encouraging the social interactions involving students and teachers while still giving students more control to set their own pacing is an important design challenge in these environments that still needs to be explored more.

There may be opportunities as well to explore a middle ground that provides flexible pacing with the benefits of a group of students moving through the material together. Tony Bates has proposed a rolling model where a new cohort would begin once a sufficient number were ready to go, kind of like waiting in line at an amusement park for the next car on the rollercoaster to leave. Some courses are beginning to experiment with this type of cohort arrangement.

Other possibilities might include better tools and strategies for facilitating self-forming cohorts. New models might also look beyond thinking of a course as just an instructor and students. TA’s can play an important role in providing support and feedback, along with Community TA’s (volunteer TA’s who have already successfully completed the course). Both have been widely and successfully used in MOOCs. Conceptualizing a course, or series of courses, as part of a larger community of learners where more experienced members help to mentor and provide feedback to those at the entry level might help to alleviate some of the instructor constraints.

Thinking beyond just a single course, self-paced courses may prepare students for a more intensive instructor-led experience. This might be an online capstone course or even intensive face-to-face experiences. As institutions think more about providing career and professional educational opportunities across a student’s life, it will be important to explore these options for flexible pacing in order to provide experiences that fit with a wider range of learner needs.

Jason Myers

Jason Myers is the Faculty Liaison for Arts at UBC.

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