Self-paced learning

This post is part of an effort to explore how different online learning methods affect knowledge retention among students.

Self-paced learners progress through a set course at their own pace. There are few short-term deadlines and learners can often choose to study different elements of the course in whichever order they please.

There is a renewed flurry of interest in self-paced learning as a result of the growth in online learning. The ability to give students all resources all at once makes self-paced learning an easy and cost-effective option for universities and schools. In fact, some training providers, such as Webucator, push self-paced e-learning as a low-cost alternative to “low-cost alternative to classroom training and are a perfect solution for individuals or small companies who do not have the budget or time for an onsite class.”

According to a 2010 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education,

In some ways, self-paced online courses are a throwback to the days when learning at a distance meant corresponding by mail. Over the years, completion rates for independent learners have generally been lower than for those studying in groups, according to experts both for and against self-paced study. One calls the format “a procrastinator’s heaven.

No statistics, however, are offered to back up this criticism of self-paced online learning.

A touted benefit of self-paced online learning is that students can start and finish a course whenever they like. Critics of this approach say that solitary learning is less effective than courses supplemented by class discussion. A middle way, as suggested by T. Bates, would perhaps see regular starting dates contingent on a small minimum number of students.

Case study & examples of self-paced learning

Jefferson Community & Technical College was a pioneer in self-paced online learning. In 2007 they introduced a “Learn Anytime” online learning program whereby students can “start any day, move at your own pace.” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

Since 2007, Learn Anytime has exploded from a couple of hundred students to nearly 1,300. The two-year college, based in Louisville, Kentucky’s largest city, now runs about 25 start-anytime courses. They’re typically high-demand, introductory classes in subjects like English, economics, math, physics, psychology, and computersthe data do not show a falloff in completion for Learn Anytime courses.” [my emphasis]

Other universities are following suit and offering self-paced learning in addition to traditional structured online and offline programs. For example:

  • Louisiana Community & Technical College offers LCTCS Online, a set of college-level courses with the motto “Anytime, Any Place, Any Person, Any Pace, Any Path. Mobile learning at your convenience.”
  • The online Rio Salado College, based in Arizona, offers 48 start dates each year in a semi-structured system known as Term Block.
  • StraighterLine pushes the lower cost and convenience of self-paced study: “We offer a new way to complete your required college courses online for less – less money, less time, and less hassle – with convenient and affordable online college courses you can take on your own schedule. These aren’t your typical distance learning courses.”[8]

None of these colleges offer any statistics or other evidence to show that self-paced learning is any more or less effective than traditional class-based or online learning.

Student interaction in self-paced learning programs

One major criticism of self-paced online learning is that students have no opportunity to interact with other students working on the same subjects at the same time. Some believe that social networking systems such as OpenStudy and Elgg have the potential to solve this problem.

The operative word here is “potential.” No single social networking solution has been proved to be effective in terms of encouraging student interaction during self-paced learning programs – particularly if students do not start the course as a cohesive group or cohort.

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