Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below looks at the importance of timelines and deadlines and related criteria for online courses. It is from Chapter Chapter 11, In School, On Campus in, A Classroom of One: How Online Learning is Changing Our Schools and Colleges by Gene I. Maeroff. First published 2002 by PALGRAVE MACMILLAN 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N. Y. 10010 and Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England RG21 6XS. ISBN 1-4039-6085-2 hardback. ?Copyright Gene I. Maeroff, 2003. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
UP NEXT: Research and Evaluation in Educational Development
Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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THE TIME AND PLACE OF LEARNING
In School, On Campus
If nothing else, the availability of online learning may force schools and colleges to reflect on their missions and on how they discharge their responsibilities. Physical plants worth tens of millions of dollars depend on students continuing to come to campus for their programs. A virtual institution of learning, largely devoid of brick and mortar, has no such capital investment. The threat posed by online learning may lead traditional schools and colleges to make themselves over in ways more friendly to students and more closely aligned with students' actual needs, in and out of classrooms.
If, as is almost certain, most people prefer learning in classrooms with other students, then it is incumbent upon institutions with investments in campus structures to make the student experience as valuable and rewarding as it ought to be. This means revisiting such issues as the time and place of learning, learning outcomes, and cost effectiveness. When Sylvan Learning Systems signaled its intent to expand its presence in online learning, an educator with ties to traditional colleges and universities told the Chronicle of Higher Education that the action "will help us all become more responsive to the marketplace, and that's a healthy thing."
The Time and Place of Learning
Distance education's most distinguishing feature is the ability it gives students to learn at their own pace at a place of their choosing. Not having to be in a classroom for a specified length of time at regular intervals means that a student may move through the material as quickly or as slowly - within reason - as he or she chooses or is able. When Dan Haerle, a professor of music at the University of North Texas, wanted a way to let some of this students advance faster through the first semester of his Jazz Fundamentals course, he put the course online. The precipitating problem, he said, was that increasingly, proportionately more students with stronger backgrounds arrived on campus than in previous years, and they grew bored during the 15-week classroom-based course that dealt with scales, chords, and aspects of theory.
The result of their being able to pace themselves online was that some students completed the work in as few as two weeks, and many others finished in fewer than the 15 weeks allotted for the classroom-based course. Moreover, for some the opportunity to pursue the course online meant that they could put off the work sometimes if they found it necessary, just as long as they were done at the end of the requisite 15 weeks. Haerle continued to teach the second semester of the course, which he said was more complex and required more time, in the classroom. In praising online learning for making it possible for his students to pace themselves, Haerle nonetheless saw limitations and did not think that the online approach lent itself to many other courses that music majors had to take at North Texas. The software that he found available did not let students clock notes onto a staff, and he had to improvise a solution for the Jazz Fundamentals course. He also worried about bandwidth and its ability to convey the quality of sound that he wanted. He was glad to solve the pacing problem for this one course, but, he said, "some things are better off in the classroom."
When instructors move their courses to the Internet to facilitate pacing, they usually stipulate a length of time by which students must complete various phases of the work. Some people wonder about how much time a student should get to finish online assignments. Whether the course is offered in person or online, an institution has to decide whether to set parameters and if there is a period beyond which it will no longer accept a student's work. It may be in the interests of neither the student nor the institution for studies to drag on interminably. Moreover, there seems to be a consensus that online courses best serve the interests of students when they contain deadlines that keep students involved in the work.
A review of the federally sponsored Virtual High School, for instance, found that "timelines and deadlines must be clear and must be enforced . . . with explicit consequences if they are not met." Researchers said that students needed to have completion dates specified to keep them from falling behind or losing track of their work. Students in postsecondary online courses undoubtedly have the same need. Michael Lambert, who was executive director of the Distance Education and Training Council, said that, from all he could gather, the more structure there was in an online course, the higher the completion rate. He said that students need deadlines to keep them on task.
Yet, carried out reasonably, there is room in most online courses for students to vary their peace more than in classroom-based courses. Students in the Core Composition I course that Vincent Piturro taught at the University of Colorado at Denver, partially in a classroom and partially online, received time limits by which to complete the online portion of their work each stage of the way. They had to contribute to a threaded discussion by a specified time and then got a second deadline by which to respond to the online comments of classmates. Piturro said that the deadline ensured that discussion was spaced out to allow enough time for reactions by all students and for him to evaluate those comments. If, for example, he assigned a question at a class session on a Tuesday, all members of the class had to register their responses online by Friday. Then, by Sunday, he expected them to comment online on the responses of other students. This gave Piturro enough time to evaluate the online exchanges and to discuss his findings in the Tuesday class.
Online learning causes more frequent questioning of the need for precise requirements for seat time. It underscores the challenge to the rigid structure of the traditional system of semesters and quarters that dictates the length of courses and the speed with which students may advance. Courses that unfold along a traditional academic trajectory will come under increasing pressure, following the example of online learning, to give students more leeway to select their own pace. Colleges and universities may loosen some course requirements for on-campus students in coming years. Often technology will lead these assaults on the strictures of time, as at Virginia Tech's Math Emporium, where many students in the university's mathematics courses were able to use online sessions to supplement their class meetings and set their own pace for learning.
Until the 1960s, the norm for most students pursuing a bachelor's degree was to enter college directly out of high school and spend four years at a single institution. Transferring from one college to another in those days represented a kind of failure, as did taking longer than four years to complete a baccalaureate. The foundations of this pattern were shaken by the student upheavals of the 1960s. Now, many students earn academic credits at more than one institution on their way to graduation, with more than half those who get bachelor's degrees taking more than four years to do so. The trend toward a longer period to complete a degree troubles some state lawmakers who would like to push students through state colleges and universities faster, reducing enrollments and holding down legislative allocations for higher education.
Most students enrolled in online courses today are also on-campus learners who take an online course or two in addition to campus classes. At the University of Central Florida, for example, 70 percent of the online students also took classroom-based courses. At the University of Colorado at Denver - a commuter institution filled with working students, many of whom are parents - four out of five of the students in online courses also took courses in person. Students try to take courses at times most convenient to them - sometimes on campus, sometimes online.
Some online courses at the University of Colorado at Denver involved internships, and others, hands-on, in-person experiences, possibly involving short periods of residency at the home campus. Furthermore this arrangement could include live videoconferences, audiotapes, and perhaps some correspondence. Increasingly, faculty members combine several delivery systems within a single course, and students carry a mix of courses in their schedules, ranging from those fully online tot hose taught entirely in classrooms. This approach reflects a world in which attendance exclusively in a traditional classroom is no longer de rigueur. Time requirements also have to change to allow students to vary the speed of their journal through formal education.