How do different eLearning methods affect knowledge retention?

Self-paced online learning, open studios and the timed of release of course materials: preliminary overview

The purpose of my research here is to explore the effectiveness, in terms of student learning and knowledge retention, of online courses which:

  1. deliver all course materials at the start of the course
  2. release course materials step by step over a longer period

I am unable to find academic studies which specifically measure how knowledge retention among online students changes with the timing of the release of course materials. This doesn’t mean such studies don’t exist, but it does indicate that the subject is not well covered by academia.

There is, however, vigorous debate about the merits and demerits of self-paced courses in which students generally have access to all course materials from the start. A plethora of online and traditional universities now offer self-paced course options, advertising them as low-cost, convenient alternatives to traditional class-based or online courses.

Interestingly, most debate revolves around student motivation and interaction, rather than around the effectiveness of self-paced learning in general.

Related fields, including self-directed learning, asynchronous learning and unstructured learning, are similarly devoid of scientific or statistical studies yet filled with online learning practitioners purporting to offer examples of best practice.

In terms of formal studies, it is perhaps more fruitful to examine discussion around blended learning. Blended, or hybrid, learning gives students face-to-face class time as well as a database of online teaching resources that they can access any time.

Some studies indicate that allowing students free access to a database of online course material in combination with a structured program and class time leads to better pass rates and, it is implied, greater knowledge retention.

Approaches to online learning


I hesitate to draw conclusions on the basis of such inconclusive evidence. The field of online learning is relatively new, and there are few readily available scientific studies focusing on learning retention per se.

However, the plethora of new and different approaches to online learning – blended or single-medium, synchronous or asynchronous, structured or unstructured, self-paced or with set deadlines and assignments, “open studio” or solitary study – indicates that there is a lively debate around the subject.

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