Extending the Conversation on Online Course Length

Our coverage of flexible lengths for online courses prompted lots of online discussion. Here's another look at related topics, including challenges for instructors and the value of winter sessions.

February 13, 2019
 
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Two weeks ago, “Inside Digital Learning” published an article exploring the decision-making process for institutions tweaking the length of their online courses. If you missed that piece, catch up before reading this one.

A significant volley of Twitter mentions of the article -- and a few email messages in our in-box -- left us thinking about additional angles to explore on this topic.

Teaching a short online course can be a learning experience for instructors.

Penelope Moon is the former director of online programs in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University and is currently responsible for elearning planning and design with the Office of Digital Learning and Innovation at the University of Washington's Bothell campus. For eight years at Arizona State, she taught 7.5-week-long online courses, and she continues to do so as an associate clinical professor. At another institution, she previously taught the same course online in a semester-length format.

At Arizona State, Moon adapted her half-semester online course from an existing semester-length course that’s currently offered on ground. She realized during that process that her teaching strategy up to that point focused on “coverage” -- points A and Z, and everything in between, needed to be included in the curriculum.

In a shorter course, she’s more focused on outcomes -- how to ensure that students leave the class having learned a set of knowledge and skills. “It really forces faculty to identify what’s essential in a course, and to trim the fat,” Moon said.

Moon never got training in instructional design, and she suspects many of her colleagues didn’t, either. But developing a shorter course forced her to more intentionally structure the course around one piece of accumulated knowledge leading to the next, rather than, as Moon puts it, “a firehose of content.”

“You really need to figure out, how am I going to make students … be prepared to take this next step?” Moon said. “The next step is two days from now, not two weeks from now.”

… but there are some things short online courses simply can't accomplish.

For some institutions, shorter online courses help them appeal to new students who aren’t in a position to enroll full-time at a residential program but want to gain new skills or advance in their career while balancing existing professional and personal duties. In Moon’s experience, though, an increasing proportion of students in her shorter online courses are students also enrolled in on-ground courses at Arizona State.

“The student motivation, by and large, they’ve kind of bought in to this idea that it’s the degree, as quickly I can get to that degree, I need to take that path,” Moon said.

While she understands why students see education through that perspective, and why universities sometimes act to encourage it, she has some misgivings about the trend toward acceleration and shorter courses. As an history teacher, she spends much of her grading time offering nuanced feedback on student writing, which often takes more time than a 7.5-week course allows.

Her online courses enroll 30 to 45 students apiece, with each enrollee producing 30 to 40 pages of writing throughout the course. Moon sometimes needs four days to return students’ five-page papers. By that point, another five-page paper is on the verge of being due. She has lately required peer-review exercises that lessen the burden on her grading.

But she worries that students’ learning experiences aren’t as rich or meaningful in this format, and that much-ballyhooed technology tools won’t resolve existing issues.

“I’m not sure that AI’s going to get to a point where it can assess the veracity of an argument or the compelling nature of a statement,” Moon said.

Teaching Tip

At times while at Arizona State, Moon taught several short online courses simultaneously. She sums up the experience concisely: “It was hell.” She eventually requested to downshift to just one short course at a time, which proved more manageable.

For online math courses, even 12 weeks was too few for Robert Talbert, an associate professor of mathematics at Grand Valley State University. Students who lacked prerequisite knowledge struggled to keep pace as the concepts grew more complex.

“It felt like driving 75 miles per hour in a 65-miles-per-hour zone -- just enough to feel like it was slightly too fast,” Talbert said.

Even though the course he taught was 80 percent of a traditional course length, the amount of time for review “feels closer to 50 percent of what it normally is,” Talbert said. Students accustomed to loading up on credits and other responsibilities struggled in an asynchronous course that didn’t give them the full semester to catch up.

Talbert believes calculus requires a level of “deep focus” that can be difficult for students to achieve, especially if they’re also devoting energy to a job or raising a family. “Higher ed often markets online courses to ‘working adults,’ as if those courses can just fill in the cracks left over by all the other stuff students are doing, and it's just not true,” he said.

Some online courses are very short.

For the last eight years, during the five weeks between fall and spring semesters, Kutztown University in Pennsylvania has offered as many as 100 of its regular-semester, face-to-face courses in an online, asynchronous format. Some students enroll in winter session courses to get ahead on their degree requirements, or to recover from low grades in prior courses. Other students simply prefer the opportunity to invest all of their academic energy in one course at a time, according to Joleen Greenwood, chair of the anthropology and sociology departments.

Most winter-session students tend to be upperclassmen who already have some familiarity with online courses, Greenwood said. Many of them like the flexibility of spending time with family and friends at home, or working part-time to cover the upcoming semester of tuition, while making additional progress toward their degree.

Greenwood teaches winter-session courses and decides each fall which courses from her departments will be offered in that format. General education courses tend to fit well with the format, according to Greenwood, who sometimes includes a couple of high-demand courses required in specific majors.

Students in shorter courses have a much shorter add/drop period than do students in full-semester courses. Like Moon, Greenwood struggles with getting students' work back to them in a timely fashion. But the biggest challenge for her is “keeping students on task.” In an asynchronous format, even with tight deadlines for assignments, students can easily lapse into slacking off without email reminders and check-ins.

Online courses also work better for some students than others, according to Greenwood. Over all, though, student outcomes from her winter-session courses have mirrored achievements in traditional courses, she said.

"It’s very, very rewarding to look back and say that a student improved greatly from week one to week five," Greenwood said.

Offering shorter courses isn't new.

Institutions have been offering abbreviated summer courses for decades. And as mentioned in the first article, some institutions, including many from the for-profit sector, have been experimenting with flexible length since the early years of online education.

National University began offering the option for students to take one shorter course per month, rather than several at a time, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, when many working adults returned to the U.S. with some competencies but no degree. Shorter courses went online at the institution in the early '90s, according to Michael R. Cunningham, chancellor of the nonprofit National University System.

From his experience overseeing innovation of online course formats, from synchronous to asynchronous and more recently to competency based, Cunningham advises institutions to think bigger than simply converting existing materials to a new format.

"If you approach it from a traditional standpoint and repackage courses you have to an online methodology and shortened time frame, that’s much harder to do than when you start with a whiteboard and design think what the course should be from the outset," Cunningham said.

Shorter courses often work well for military students on active duty, particularly if they have the flexibility to drop off from their studies for weeks at a time when deployed, Cunningham said. Meanwhile, an early research study comparing the system's online and face-to-face short courses has thus far indicated that outcomes from each reflect "no really measurable difference," Cunningham said.

The status quo always benefits from interrogation.

From a philosophical perspective, many experimenters with classroom formats don't believe the traditional semester schedule has universal value. Rob Gibson, director of learning technologies at Emporia State University, offered a sarcastic perspective on LinkedIn:

Jory Hadsell, executive director of the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative, got some enthusiastic responses when he floated the possibility of more experimentation within his state's system.

Moon thinks decisions over course length often come down to financial factors instead of pedagogical ones. At her institution, 7.5-week courses offer an opportunity to generate more revenue from students. Ideally, form would follow function, she said.

"What’s really the function of a course?" she said. "It should be to transform students."

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