In the past couple of weeks I've noticed a number of headlines that address the timing and pace of learning, such as Colleges Pushing 3-year Degrees and Slow Learning. There are two seemingly contrary waves of thought in education circles these days, driven by different factors, but both beg the question of pace. How long does it take to complete a college degree? How much time should you spend?
Program length and flexible pacing are often listed among the factors affecting enrollment decisions of prospective students. And when the return on investment of higher education is being widely discussed, time is one of the components of debate. Time is part of the investment, especially from the perspective of the student.
On the Fast Track to Educational Goals
Academic courses are formal in nature, with defined learning objectives and assessments in place. These environments, both traditional and online, are highly structured and scheduled, and focused on learning as a cumulative event, or sequence of events, in a course.
Driven in large part by budgetary concerns, the overall time frames for completing academic programs are shortening. We see this "quickening" of learning options in many ways, from requiring incoming freshmen to declare a major before enrolling in their first course to the accelerated terms of many for-profit schools that market faster ways to complete degree programs. Students can now earn degrees in record time with accelerated terms, compressing the requirements of traditional 15 week semesters into much shorter formats taking place over 10 weeks or less.
Benefits and Challenges
Accelerated programs have the potential to save time and money on both sides. Students who enter higher education with a large number of transfer credits may spend fewer terms in college, resulting in tuition savings. These students are also on track to enter the workforce earlier, increasing their overall lifetime personal earnings.
Schools may realize the benefits of fast-paced programs in terms of higher graduation rates. According to Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor Jim Petro, "The longer it takes to get a degree, the less likely students are to finish." There are also financial savings issues for institutions struggling to provide students with services and support with diminished budgets. The Lumina Foundation highlights "lower-cost, high-quality models," including examples of accelerated schedules, in their college productivity report [PDF].
Regardless of how quickly students finish their degrees, they still have to complete the required number of credit hours, either through programs such as Advanced Placement while still in high school, or by taking more courses per term once in college. There are limits to what can realistically be accomplished in a given amount of time, especially for adult students who may also be juggling work and family responsibilities while in school. And on the fast track, what happens if you have to repeat or drop a course, or decide to change your major? There's not a lot of room for flexibility.
The Pursuit of Learning as a Process
There is no denying it; the pace at which we move today is getting faster. With new technologies that allow for anytime access and communication, the value of the journey is sometimes lost as we work to complete assigned tasks and achieve our goals, including those related to education. But what about the process of learning involved in the acquisition of knowledge and skills over time?
In a post from 2006, learning experience designer Clark Quinn introduced his idea of a "slow learning movement" that reaches beyond the short-term learning that takes place in a typical course or training session, to support learners with technology as "drip-irrigation over time, as well as the firehose for the moment." This approach addresses a long-term view in which we each learn continuously and in many ways. In a more recent post, Quinn explores the idea further and states a desire "to start matching our technology more closely to our brains. … where we start distributing our learning in ways that match the ways in which our brains work: meaningfulness, activation and reactivation, not separate, but wrapped around our lives, etc."
Benefits and Challenges
This process-oriented view, focused on the benefits of a decelerated pace, can include both informal and formal learning options. It also relates to the concept of lifelong learning in that the process of of gaining knowledge and skills is ongoing with many opportunities and influences in school, at work, and in all the communities to which we belong.
In a formal context, project management consultant and trainer Mike Chitty draws upon the story of the tortoise and the hare to describe the differences in providing a one-day training event vs. four half-day events scheduled over a couple of months. His observation includes, "Learning something, putting it into practice, and becoming comfortable with it is important before trying to learn and implement the next thing. Leaving enough time between learning sessions to incorporate what you have learned into your practice makes a lot of sense."
Chitty's example relates to workplace training, but could be applied to higher education as well. How well do academic courses, especially accelerated ones, allow for iterations of practice and feedback? This takes time and money, a challenge that is in a way the inverse of the fast track approach described above.
Pace and Learning Options
Recent discussions of pace offer two extremes in terms of flexibility, time, and approach. A wide spectrum of opportunities and strategies exists in between, from student, instructor, and curriculum designer perspectives. The research and debate will continue, as will the evolution of the technologies that allow for online delivery.
In addition to all of the other factors that affect learning, prospective students should consider their own abilities and preferences for pace when selecting programs and courses. What about you – what are your preferences for pace and learning in an online program?