January 22, 2017

The pros and cons of self-paced online learning

Parry, M. (2010) Will technology kill the academic calendar? Chronicle of Higher Education, October 10

This article is about a mid-west college in the US that is operating continuous enrolment in online courses, and provides a good introduction to the pros and cons of continuous enrolment.

Again, this is an old chestnut in distance education, long pre-dating online learning. In fact, the very first correspondence courses were all continuous enrolment, which might give a hint of where I stand on this. I, like Randy Garrison in the article, do have concerns about students studying in isolation from other students. The value of group work for developing critical thinking skills, social learning, and just learning a hell of a lot from other students, far outweighs the flexibility of not having to wait three months to start a course. Also, many students new to online learning need a clear structure, with deadlines, otherwise they procrastinate and delay until they get so far behind they drop out.

At the same time, some students do really want to get going as soon as they have made up their minds that they want to take an online course. (One could argue of course that a delay, giving time for second thoughts, might prevent someone from jumping in too quickly, without thinking through the implications).

However, there is also a middle route. Why not wait until say four students have registered, then start the course, with the four students working through together? As more students sign up, more groups can be started. Thus it’s like joining a moving walkway with other groups already further ahead, with others behind. The groups of course can see the work of other groups, allowing students who start later to see what students earlier have done. Students in fact could ‘jump’ from one group to another, going faster or slower, depending on their needs. The instructor of course has to deal with students at different stages in the course, but that is not a huge problem. In such a system, there would still be deadlines, with assignment dates linked to the date of starting. Again, students could have some choice, jumping ahead or delaying until they are ready, within certain boundaries, to encourage course completion (and to give the instructor a break).

To the argument in the article that this creates difficulties for registrars and administrative computer systems, my response is ‘tough’. Let’s say we started with continuous enrolment, then wanted to move to a  semester system. Can’t be done – the computer system won’t handle it. Sorry, but computers and administrators are there to help students, not the other way round.

Once again, I don’t think we need just one solution. Students have different needs. I can see a mature, already well-educated student being perfectly happy with self-paced study, but they are likely to manage this quite well without having to take a formal qualification in the first place. If they want informal help with informal learning, they can join Supercool School. Other students, particularly those new to online learning, will need a strong structure, a regular schedule, and other students to provide support and help. But for students somewhere in the middle, a ‘moving walkway’ program may be just what they need.


  1. I’ve worked for a long time in distance education with an institution that offers some courses with rolling enrollment, so what is being discussed here is of critical importance. Two factors that strongly affect us: institutional metrics that put a value on “success” as determined by completion that makes rolling enrollment courses, which typically have significantly lower success rates, a target (or make *us* a target for offering them), and the struggle to figure out how many students are “enough” to allow for community and group learning effects. I love the *idea* of continuous enrollment much more than I like the reality… so far.

  2. Linda Harasim says:

    Hi Chris:

    Your comments on rolling or continuous enrollment are intriguing and important, because they raise some fundamental questions: why rolling enrollment? are collaborative learning approaches possible in such a context, and if so, how? I do not have practical experience in this area, but over the years discussions related to the challenge of using “online collaborative learning’ approaches in the context of rolling enrollment have given me some connection with this format.

    Based on my discussions and my thinking on the topic, I would say that collaborative learning approaches are NOT possible in the context of rolling enrollment because there is NO SHARED OBJECT. No way to organize shared discourse if enrollment is diverse and participation idiosyncratic. Collaboration requires some common ground: time and/or space and topic. Discourse is the key to knowledge building, and without group discourse, learning is reduced to knowledge transmission and knowledge acquisition tasks (memorization, etc): a very static and limited approach to learning.

    So, if that speaks to my 2nd question, what about the first: why the rolling model? It seems to me that this approach was really terrific and revolutionary in the context of the monopoly of traditional classroom approaches in the 20th century, when the need for mass education and educational access was intense. Distance ed broke the mold and sought to overcome obstacles to learning based on time and place.

    The need for educational access remains intense, however today we have Internet technologies which enable us to transcend traditional boundaries of time and place, while enabling the more effective, satisfying and relevant learning pedagogies: asynchronous collaboration and knowledge building. There is an element of rolling time (and place-independence) but it is bounded, limited in order to enable group discussion and debate.

    Is there still a real argument for rolling enrollment that is unbounded? I ask this with great respect for distance ed. If there is, what is it? How do the benefits relate to the problems for learners? Unbounded or rolling enrollment employs individualized learning approaches which are cheaper for the institution because they require less (or no) teacher or moderator involvement, but the human learning cost is huge. As you noted, drop out rates are significant and the effectiveness of individualized learning is in question.

    What do you think? Do many institutions still use rolling enrollment? What are the arguments for this?
    I look forward to hearing from you and others on this topic.


  3. Thanks for posting this. I personally am not a fan of the self-paced model. I am a self-motivated person and I could probably complete any self-paced course successfully. However, if I had the opportunity to take the same course content with a cohort of other students where a discussion board and collaboration was integrated into the design, I have no doubt that I would learn much more and enjoy the experience much more as well.

    I believe the learning community is essential in online learning. Certainly sitting at a computer can be isolating but not as much if you have the opportunity to share your ideas and more importantly have them challenged. I also wonder about assessment in self-paced courses. I imagine the majority of self-paced courses are not facilitated which means assessment is probably primary multiple choice questions and surveys. While I do a lot of independent learning online, if I am paying for a course, I appreciate the guidance and feedback of an experienced instructor.

    I am starting to feel nervous as I see more fully online schools popping up and targeting students as young as 10. Many of them seem to target the home-school market and many seem to be self-paced. I am hoping that we can start to think more carefully as we grow online learning to ensure that collaboration and interaction is still paramount!

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