Changing the Course Calendar: Experimenting with Self-Paced Courses

MOOCs have been around for a relatively small amount of time, but have already made a big impression in higher education. When they first became popular, there was a lot of media coverage, with many making claims that MOOCs had the potential to completely change higher education (see U.S. News and The New York Times, for example). But it’s clear now that this potential disruption is happening more slowly than anticipated. In fact, many courses seem to have taken on some characteristics from lecture-style courses. True, some instructors are taking advantage of MOOC platforms such as edX as a means of flipping their classrooms (including some instructors here on our very own campus). However, one look at the course listings on edX and Coursera make it clear that many course builders and instructors are heavily influenced by the traditional semester schedule when creating courses for these platforms. But what if we moved away from the traditional practice of releasing bits of material over time?

One benefit of MOOCs is that they provide an interesting way for faculty and course staff to experiment with the ways in which learners interact with content and learn new material. Some early MOOCs took a “connectivism” approach to learning, in which the instructors/course builders simply release content for the students and expect them to learn by reviewing the content and discussing it with each other. In the connectivism approach, the instructor focuses  on increasing students’ knowledge through conversations with each other, instead of assessing students’ knowledge with quizzes and tests. However, in recent years, more structured platforms like edX and Coursera have risen in popularity. Platforms like these allow course builders to not only provide course content to students, but to easily provide assessments as well. While platforms like this are great tools, they are simply that: tools. As with any good tool, we should be able to tailor it to our needs. For example, one interesting adjustment that could be made is to make a course self-paced.

Here at the DEI, we have had no direct experience with self-paced course offerings ourselves, but are excited to see the possibilities. With many of our courses, such as our first run of Sabermetrics, we have seen learners move through a week’s material very quickly and immediately ask for us to release new material. Clearly, there is a desire amongst some learners to move through material at a rapid pace. The benefit of a self-paced course is that it would allow those learners who wish to move through the course quickly to do so. We have also seen many learners ask us to extend or change deadlines, due to personal obligations that would prevent them from completing the work on time. A self-paced course would also provide more flexibility to those who may need a bit of extra time from week to week.

We are currently thinking about trying the self-paced method with several courses,  such as ComplianceX. This will mark the first time that a BU course on edX does not follow the traditional formula of releasing bits of content each week over the span of several weeks or months. Instead, all of the content will be available immediately when the course goes live. This should be an interesting experience for learners, since it will break everyone out of the normal routine of focusing on particular topics from week to week, and instead allow them to look at the course more holistically from the start. On the course builder side of things, it will be interesting to see how we deal with the challenges of having all of the course content available immediately, rather than having the luxury of extra time to work on some of the material for later modules.

Some may question why any instructor would want to have a self-paced course. Without regular deadlines and assessments, what is to keep learners from waiting until the very last minute to do all of the coursework? If the learner waits until the last minute, will he or she still learn the material, or not understand it? Actually, a recent study by HarvardX revealed that for students in a self paced course, it wasn’t whether the learner stayed “on track” (finished the first module in the first week, the second module in the second week, etc.) that determined whether he or she would receive a certificate. The more important factor was how much time was spent on each week’s material. With this in mind, does it really matter when a learner completes the work, as long as he or she spends enough time learning the material? Another thing to note is that Harvard’s study focused on a humanities course, HeroesX. Would these same findings apply to a STEM course? (It’s also worth noting that the study also found that students are happy to take advantage of whatever time was provided.)

Currently, if you look at the list of edX’s course offerings, there are 39 self-paced courses available to learners. Perhaps soon, the DEI will be contributing a few more of its own as well. What else can we learn about learning styles and techniques from these self-paced courses? For example, would allowing learners to move through material at their own pace help them later understand more complex concepts about the subject? Would overall scores in these MOOCs increase? Hopefully the DEI will be able to contribute some findings on the pros and cons of self-paced courses soon, and also come up with new ways to experiment with traditional course structures. Does your group have any experience with self-paced courses? If so, we’d love to hear about your experience!

Vanessa Ruano is the Platform Administrator at the Digital Learning Initiative.

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