Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Self-Scheduled, Not Self-Paced

When the College of Arts & Sciences at my school started the online course program back in 2002, the director of the program made a very useful distinction between "self-paced courses" and "self-scheduled courses." I took that very much to heart, so today I am going to explain how I use due dates and self-scheduling in my courses.

Brief Description: Both my courses follow a weekly module format, with the same assignments each week. Each assignment has a due date, but students can and should (!!!) work ahead; they can work as far ahead as they want. In other words: self-scheduled, but not self-paced. There is abundant extra credit to make up for missed assignments; students can also complete extra credit in advance.

Details: One of the things I value most about online courses is the flexible scheduling. Many of my students have mind-boggling personal schedules as a result of their many other commitments, and they often have very chaotic lives with unexpected events that can derail their normal schedule. Luckily, all of that is easy to handle in an online course, especially if students work ahead. As advice from past students shows, the number one recommendation students have for each other is: work ahead and do the extra credit. You can see that advice from other students here: Insider Tips for Online Courses.

So, I always encourage students to work ahead, and also to do extra credit in advance. That way, they are ready for anything that comes up, and they can take a week or even two weeks off in this class when they have other demands on their time. Obviously, it's much better to work ahead and build up a cushion of extra credit in advance, but it is also possible to use extra credit after the fact to make up for missing assignments. I need to post in detail about grading in the class, but it is on a points-based grading system, based on 30 points of regular work each week, with 8-14 points of extra credit available in any given week.

Yes, that's a lot of extra credit... but that's because my courses have so much potential for reading, writing, reflecting, and interacting that there is a TON of stuff that I would for students to be doing for the class, so the extra credit opportunities are just as useful and important as any of the regular class activities. You can see a typical week's worth of assignments here: Myth-Folklore Weekly Assignments.

Another reason for the extra credit is that there are two assignments each week which have a more limited timeframe. The blog commenting has a 72-hour time frame each week, since it only becomes available after the due date for the blog posts: the Storytelling blog posts are due on Wednesday (with grace period on Thursday morning), so the blog commenting opens on Friday and runs through the weekend (with its grace period on Monday morning). The project commenting window is wider: students publish their project webpage at the end of each week, with a grace period on Monday morning, so the project commenting then opens on Tuesday and runs for the following week. Very few students have any trouble with these windows, but that's another reason why it is imperative for me to offer extra credit: if students do miss those windows for reasons beyond their control, I do not want them to be penalized. They can easily make up the missing points with extra credit.

History: I am very lucky that the online course program I work for embraced this notion of the "self-scheduled" class when I first designed my classes. In recent years, I have heard rumors that the online course program office has since backed away from this philosophy and no longer encourages the notion of students working ahead, although I that is just second-hand information; I do not know what the official policy is at this time. Luckily for me, my classes were created at a time when we were all being encouraged promote time flexibility in our course design, and I would find it very hard to teach a course with a rigid time schedule that every student had to follow.

Goals. These are some of the goals related to this course design strategy:
  • High performance. By letting students set their own schedule, I hope to see high performance, high engagement, and high completion rates. And that is exactly what I see!
  • Improved time management skills. By being able to make their own schedule week by week, students can practice their time management skills.
  • Student choice. As a general course design principle, I try to maximize student choice; a self-scheduled course with optional assignments gives the students lots of choices.
  • Flexible accommodations. Over the years I have seen all kinds of complications happen in students' lives, both good and bad, and the flexible scheduling of these courses has made it possible to accommodate basically anything and everything.

General Thoughts

Why not self-paced...? Well, there are two reasons. One good, one not-so-good.

The good reason is that the weekly schedule of due dates helps keep the class moving together even while some students are moving on ahead. So, there is still the sense in Indian Epics that "this week we are reading Narayan's Ramayana" for example, or "this week in Myth-Folklore, we are looking at Native American storytelling," with a collective sense of engagement and accomplishment. I don't want anybody to be held back by those constraints, but I also want to create a sense of togetherness too.

The not-so-good reason is that students have learned (not surprisingly) that the teacher is "in charge" and sets the deadlines, etc. Presented with the opportunity to set their own schedule, they instead go for the default, doing the work on the due dates that I have set, no matter how inconvenient those due dates may be for their own schedule. Even with all this opportunity to work ahead, very few students actually do so (for more on that, see my post about Sunday reminders). Self-paced would, I expect, be a disaster for many students. Given the opportunity to put things off for weeks at a time, they would end up with an unmanageable load of work at the end of the semester . . . as often happens in their regular classroom-based classes, of course. The dilemma of pacing and scheduling is one that pertains to all classes, not just online.

So, time management and personal planning is something I try hard to work on with the students, constantly reminding them that they really can work ahead, that they can create a schedule that suits their own needs, that the class will be less stressful if they are not working to beat the clock, etc. It's an important lesson to learn, and if that were the one lesson they take away from this class, that would be okay with me. Learning how to manage time, instead of letting time manage you, is an incredibly valuable life skill to have! If only the dinosaurs had figured that out . . .

(2010 cartoon by Dan Regan)

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