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.