Monday, June 09, 2014

Those Work at Your Own Pace Courses?

Every so often, you see someone administrative talk or blog their ideal of on-line classes where students can work at their own speed, starting when it's convenient for them, finishing when they do, and so on.

In the administrative ideals, of course, most of the "teaching" is "done" through pre-prepared videos, readings, problem sets (where appropriate), and so forth.

Those of us who've taught or tried to teach ourselves something independently know how difficult this model is.  Most of us can teach ourselves something if we really want to, and indeed, some students do it.  Most of us also know that it's difficult to do the task at hand every day, even for half an hour or an hour, much less for the several hours that learning college level material takes most people.

What's missing in the model are teachers.  And what the model basically sets up is a lot of independent work by students and then unmentioned, usually, are teachers answering questions, helping with problems, responding to work, grading, keeping track, motivating, all the usual things. 

Except in this model, unlike in courses where students work in common, teachers will need to be responding to students working at very different paces, providing assignments and exams for each student, all individually. 

Basically, even with all the materials pre-prepared, teachers will be doing individual study with every student in the class.

I don't see that as a money saving venture, not without abusing the heck out of teachers.

And what about the student who lags seriously, who starts in January, say, and trudges through the material through the next January.  Is the same teacher being paid for the year (or longer)?  At the same rate? 

My guess is that teachers are going to be paid a rate for each student or for certain documented interactions, and either docked for students who move slowly or don't finish, or given a bonus for students who finish or finish quickly.  Maybe they'll be expected to pick up new students along the way?  Or will there be a handoff system, where everything will be so regulated that the first teacher will pass off all the students to another teacher while they take a break for two weeks, and then pick up a new group?

How will they keep track of students who drop in drop out?  You know, the student who starts the course, disappears for two months, then reappears and starts working again, asking for lots and lots of help, disappears again, reappears.

The way the model stands to make money is if students pay up front, and then drop out and don't really reappear, and teachers are paid by the documented interaction, so they don't get paid for students once they're not requiring teacher interaction.  Of course, not for profit schools aren't supposed to aim for making money, but no school I know of has money to pay for lots of individual study, so these sorts of courses will need to be "cost effective" in whatever terms the school uses.  (Mine currently cares about how many students drop from courses, how many graduate on time, and so forth.)

I've successfully done truly independent learning once in my life, though I've started any number of attempts.  The things that made the one time successful were:  a strict time limit (I had a summer to learn to read a third language to pass an exam for my PhD program); a relatively easy goal for which I was well prepared (I learned to read Italian after being reasonably fluent in Spanish; I don't think I could have learned to speak Italian that way); time (I was a graduate student during summer, not taking classes and working for money only a few hours a week); resources (I had cheap Italian children's and short story books readily and cheaply available).  If any one of those things hadn't been in place, I doubt I would have succeeded.

But the students with those qualities (especially time, preparation, and resources) aren't usually the students these courses are aimed at.  Instead, they're aimed at working students who aren't close to the university and aren't necessarily well-prepared.

And, of course, the strict time limit is exactly what these courses do away with, and one of the most important things for my own success.  (I realize that anecdote =/= data.)

What are your experiences with learning at your own pace or with these sorts of courses?


  1. Every administrator who proposes this ought to try it out first by having faculty that turn in all documents--assessment reports and the rest--on their own flexible schedule. You know, whenever they get around to it.

    "Self-paced" = a whole lot of convenience for students and a whole lot of inconvenience for teachers, it seems to me.

  2. Anonymous9:32 AM

    Dave Ariely has a paper (randomized controlled experiment) showing that not having deadlines doesn't work for paper writing within a class. That can probably be extended to the class itself.

  3. Anonymous9:32 AM

    DAN. Not Dave.

  4. Anonymous1:31 PM

    I think it depends very much on the content as well as on the students. Self-paced calculus worked out very, very well for me. Students registered for however many units they thought they wanted to take (1-4, I think) and thus were contracted to finish that much work in a quarter. The course was broken into sections, each of which required passing a test. There were limits on how many tests you could take in a day or a week. There was a room with multiple desks and 1-2 math grad students available for tutoring and test-taking at fixed hours, so you could go in for help with homework or just to take the tests when you were ready. I spent weeks on integration by the shell method, which for some reason I struggled with, and breezed through other sections at a rapid rate, and with still others I was about average. In a regular class, I would have been alternately bored and lost.

    I think this also worked well for the graduate students. Teaching writing can expand to fill the time available, but if you want a math grad to work ten hours a week at teaching, then assign that person to ten hours in the self-paced calculus classroom. Grading and tutoring alike are done in those ten hours, and then you're done.

    I don't see how this model could be made to work with most humanities courses, or even with more advanced math and science courses, unless a very small number of students enroll. Shoot, I'd be delighted to work with up to ten students in self-paced Chaucer---no problem. But if I need to teach more people than that, then yes, they need to be doing the same work at the same time.

    You can go back to early-modern educational theory and find that the optimal way to teach is for a master to have about four students who just tag along after him, reading and discussing; and if you can't manage that, then the way to go is lectures with the students taking notes. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

  5. The school I work at has had some success with a limited "work at your own pace" model- they can start any time within the semester, but they must be finished by the end of the semester. They can finish early. This has worked with classes like statistics, microbiology, anatomy and physiology, which are pre-requisites to a one year program in nursing for people with bachelor's degrees. We tried with the humanities electives that students with RNs need to get their bachelors, and it did not work as well, although the students still liked it they weren't learning as much and it was horrible for the faculty. Ultimately, we are trying a model where the students can work ahead if they want (these are all adults who are working as nurses) but they still have to keep pace with the class so there are not 4293 papers to grade the night before Christmas!

    My nursing school has a weird population, though, because we don't take anyone without either a bachelors degree (in which case they get their RN in a year) or an RN (hospitals are pushing RNs to get their bachelors. So we either have a population that REALLY wants to become a nurse fast, OR a population that REALLY doesn't want to get their bachelor's degree at all and cannot stop working full time.