Rethinking Time in Online Learning

In online learning, we often tout how one of its best attributes is flexibility. We talk about how online learning will allow students to learn at their own pace, and how we will meet them where they are. A case of this was talked about recently on CNN, an echo of the other report in USA Today. Students were engaged in online class for credit retrieval. Students had to meet standard and complete course work using an online course. It has given students, who previously had felt hopeless, the opportunity to graduate on time. This is one instance where is seems time is truly flexible for the student to achieve.
However, the reality is that most online schools and course operate within strict time constraints. Courses need to account for a certain amount of hours and days, all in order to be considered part of the Carnegie Unit. This leads to some contradictory messages. On the one hand we say that online learning is truly flexible, but we also construct strict pacing guides and completion dates in order to ensure that students are doing work in a timely matter and also to ensure they are doing “enough” work. The effort is not of bad intent, but out of the need to cater to student needs and governmental policies.
A study was put out a few years ago by Kathy Holmes of the University of Newcastle that examined asynchronous discussions, which we know are designed to facilitate conversation just like in the face to face classroom. In in a discussion took place for a course of 48 days for full time students and 18 days for part time students. For anyone who has taught online, this might seem odd. Most of the time discussion boards are used as quick assignments that occur over a few days. However over the course of this larger discussion the students were engaged had higher learning taxonomy. Holmes asserts ” Not only should instructors ensure that online learning tasks are sufficiently open-ended, engaging and unambiguous, but they should also be familiar with the intricacies of managing online discussions and with viable methods of augmenting student learning within this framework.” This example of what we want in online learning runs contradictory to the constraints of time many online instructors face.
In addition, iNACOL published a briefing around Competency Based Pathways, where a discussion is around the reform needed in online education in order to have true student-centered learning.
“Frequently, competency-based policy is described as simply flexibility in awarding credit or defined as an alternative to the Carnegie unit. Yet, this does not capture the depth of the transformation of our education system from a time-based system to a learning-based system.”
Online educators need to rethink how we use time. If we are truly student-centered, and want rigorous discussion, then time needs to become less of an immovable force.

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