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How Fast is Too Fast in Online Learning?


Last week I noticed this exciting announcement via social media posted by an online instructor: “We’re converting our entire online curriculum from 10 weeks to 6 weeks!” The entire curriculum?

I immediately shared the news with a colleague who also teaches online. While I expected him to be as surprised as I was, he sighed and said “actually, we already switched from 11 weeks to 5 weeks.” These kinds of compressed, condensed, or intensive courses are now offered by all kinds of institutions in a range of formats, including online.

Accelerated academic terms, those shorter than the traditional 15- or 16-week semester, can be an advantage for students. Cutting the length of individual courses can lead to increased flexibility in scheduling and reduced length of time it takes to complete a full certificate or degree program. I’ve experienced it for myself, completing a master’s degree, one class at a time in six-week sessions, in about 15 months. And I recently assisted with a 3-credit course that took place over just 5 weeks. It’s no easy task, however, from either the learning or teaching perspective. As an MBA graduate outlined in “The Pros and Cons of Accelerated Master’s Degree Programs,” the time factor can be both a benefit and a significant challenge.

Time and Motivation

In shortening an academic schedule something has to give, and it’s usually the student’s schedule. Covering the same amount of material, reaching the same learning objectives, and earning the same number of academic credits still requires effort and time. So, time compressed becomes time shifted. The demands of the course, which may have taken place in a classroom or on more passive learning activities online, is still there.

An immersion approach is often required on the part of the student. The hours required to successfully participate in and complete an accelerated course will likely come from those spent with family, friends, and in leisure pursuits. This is especially the case with students who are also working. In other words, there’s an inherent sacrifice associated with enrolling in these courses.

There is evidence that the experience of a compressed course is worth the effort. Research from educator Patricia Scott identified the “Attributes of High-Quality Intensive Courses,” which include “active and experiential learning and discussion” often resulting in “focused learning … less procrastination, and stronger performance.” Scott also found that instructor characteristics make a difference and the faculty members teaching intensive, accelerated terms need to posses strong communication skills and be enthusiastic about their work.

Angelica Bahl and Gregory S. Black from Metropolitan State College of Denver studied student demographics and motivation in compressed course formats [PDF] finding that “students enrolled in compressed courses [were] more motivated” than those in semester-length courses and “received more feedback regarding their performance,” which had a positive impact on their motivation to do well.

Readiness and Expectations

While it’s well accepted that learners need to possess certain skills and characteristics to succeed online, the need for keen time management and self-discipline are particularly critical when course length is shortened. They’ll also need support from their instructors, school services, and classmates, as well as friends and family members to help them manage all of their responsibilities while in school.

Accelerated courses and programs leave “little room for error,” as noted in Christina Couch’s post “Pros and Cons of Accelerated Degree Programs.” Couch’s interview with Steve Roberson, dean of undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, brings attention to the structured nature of these programs, which limit changes to the plan, such as retaking a course. The schedule doesn’t allow for variation.

There are also drawbacks related to learning. Shorter terms do not allow a lot of time for the reflection and comparison required to build knowledge. Students who already have the fundamentals may have an edge. In addition, Roberson noted that not all academic subjects lend themselves to an accelerated pace. Prospective students should assess their own abilities and readiness, and acknowledge that accelerated online learning isn’t for everyone.

Students need to be ready for accelerated studies, but these intensive programs also need to be ready for students. Bahl and Black address the need for educators to continue “providing different teaching formats and changing them to maximize the amount of useful learning that takes place.” It’s not just about tightening the schedule, it’s also about redesigning the courses themselves to encourage student motivation, effort, and engagement through activities that promote learning.

Course length and time-to-completion are just two variables to consider when choosing a course or program. Course design, instructional strategies, support services, and the instructor’s style and qualifications also impact the overall quality of a course.

What are your thoughts about accelerated terms? Share your ideas and questions with us here.

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Image credit: KatieKrueger, Flickr, CC:BY-NC

November 5th, 2012 written by (learn more about our authors)

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