There is a new online program in town that lets students start class any day they want and finish at their own speed, as reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The open-format program, Learn Anytime, allows students to race through quizzes and writing assignments to complete the course in the shortest time (humanly) possible. No time is wasted on group projects and discussions with classmates.
What does a self-paced course look like? In summary, quizzes are self-grading and completion of one task triggers the next. Submission of an assignment sends an alert to the instructor and the course software e-mails students "personalized" advice, programmed by instructor. If this may seemed like a rather detached approach to education, Johnson, an instructor of Learn Anytime, explains in the article that in actuality, each student gets his individual attention. Instead of having to grade assignments all at once, he can focus on each student's work as they trickle in.
As with any program, there will always be pros and cons and so far this new self-paced model has received mixed reviews from educators. "Supporters see the self-paced model as a means to serve more students, since no one is turned away because of a full section, missed deadline, or canceled class. Others criticize go-it-alone learning as a second-rate system that leaves students in greater danger of dropping out," as reported in the article.
The lack of social interaction in this open-format program has left some educators feeling a little uneasy and for good reasons too. Studies have shown have social interaction with peers and instructors is vital in ensuring higher retention rate, improved learning strategies, greater perseverance and reduced need for help from instructors. Social interaction is especially important for online learners where the lack of face-to-face interactions leaves some students feeling isolated and helpless. Additionally, group projects and discussions are vital in teaching soft skills like collaboration, problem solving and critical thinking, all of which are hard to assess and teach if the student is flying solo. In fact, studies have indicated that participation in group discussion can increase conceptual understanding of the topic. Having assumptions and ideas challenged in a group discussion can lead not only to self awareness of personal biasness but also a greater tolerance and eventually acceptance of diverse opinions.
Now that we know the importance of social interaction in education can there ever be a middle ground? Is it possible to merge both interaction and independent self-paced study?
Those were the exact question posed by the author of the article. Terry Anderson, an Athabasca professor who does research about distance education, believes it is possible to have your cake and eat it. He imagines a model where students can study together on a social networking system like Facebook. That seems like great idea for a hybrid model that combines both interaction and independent self-paced study since students can potentially collaborate and help each other out. Yet there are still some concerns that need to be addressed - without formal discussion topics and required group projects, how likely will students interact with peers in a self-paced course, especially when students move through the course at different pace? Also, how do you prevent the interaction from devolving into chatter?
Despite the above concerns, this self-paced model may seem like a gift to many motivated and goal-oriented individuals, professionals and adult learners thinking of enrolling in online programs as it gives them more flexibility in managing their work-study-life commitments. To these individuals, the benefits of open-entry online courses are obvious - it's an efficient way to earn a degree as quickly as possible.
Whether you think this approach to earning a degree is good or bad is likely indicative of your views on education. So, what is your opinion of the self-paced online course model? How effective would it be to have a social interaction component in an independent self-paced course? What would a hybrid model look like?