The Long and Short of Online Courses

Online education has spurred institutions to experiment with courses shorter than a full semester, weighing pedagogical and financial factors as they decide on the proper length.

January 30, 2019
 
Istockphoto.com/Nuthawut Somsuk

The University of Hawaii has been building its online education portfolios for more than two decades, now offering more than a dozen degree programs and many more individual courses.

But last year Hae Okimoto, the university’s director of academic technology services, noticed something interesting in the outcomes data for online courses. Full-time students who took at least one online course persisted and graduated at higher rates than did those who took no online courses. Part-time students, though, performed less well in general, whether they took an online course or not.

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“Because many of our [part-time] students are working two jobs and taking care of family, in the 15- or 16-week courses, life happens and they have to drop out,” Okimoto said.

Okimoto surveyed the institution’s online competitors, including Arizona's Rio Salado College, Southern New Hampshire University and the University of Maryland University College. All of them have “good online programs with good student success,” she said, and all of them offer shorter courses that students can take one at a time, rather than loading up on several semester-length online courses simultaneously.

This spring, the University of Hawaii will test that approach with the rollout of its accelerated online associate in arts degree program. Students will take one five-week course at a time from the Hawaii system’s seven community colleges and earn their degree as early as December 2021. The system plans to expand the accelerated program next fall to several online bachelor’s degrees from the university proper.

Hawaii is far from a pioneer in this regard. The proliferation of online education has prompted experimentation with widely established higher education traditions, including the concept of a season-long semester and enrolling simultaneously in several courses. Before traditional public and private colleges and universities leaped into the online market in large numbers, major for-profit institutions laid important groundwork for this experimentation, attracting students with start dates throughout the year and course schedules suited to their competing professional and personal obligations.

Institutions in recent years have increasingly tinkered with the length and structure of their course offerings to meet the scheduling needs of their diverse online students, as part of a broader acknowledgment of the increasing number of college students who are not traditional age and who attend part-time, among other things.

But trying new things also means confronting new and modern challenges: determining the appropriate balance of efficiency and rigor in the learning experience, crafting programs to target specific audiences amid an increasingly competitive education market, navigating federal rules that weren’t written with experimental programs in mind. Institutions also have to contend with a widening array of nontraditional competitors, which in some cases explicitly reject the traditional semester model as part of their marketing pitch to students.

“We’re trying to make education more accessible to students who have many roles in their lives and have many competing demands,” said Dana Grossman Leeman, provost faculty fellow for online education at Simmons University in Massachusetts. “The conversation about, do we really need to have a 12-, 13-, 14-week semester makes sense both pedagogically and operationally.”

Engaging the Learner

According to several administrators, the primary consideration for the proper length of an online course is what will contribute to the most fruitful learning experience for students. Achieving that goal isn’t always straightforward, though.

Conversations about course length often come as an institution develops a concrete vision for its online output. LIM College, a for-profit New York institution offering face-to-face and online degree programs in the business of fashion, has for years offered some courses in 15-week increments and others in half that time. All three of the institution’s online programs currently consist of courses that last eight weeks apiece.

“We’ve had success in both models,” said Mitchell Kase, LIM’s director of faculty development. “Now we’re thinking a little bit more strategically about where do we want to go from here.”

The faculty experience also differs depending on the length of the course. Kase has taught eight-week courses at LIM and found them to be “a lot of work” -- offering timely feedback on student assignments, responding within 24 hours to student concerns, intervening with struggling students by the end of the second week. Instructors teaching an eight-week course at LIM rarely teach another one immediately afterward, Kase said, in part because they’re often adjuncts juggling multiple commitments, and also because that pace can be difficult to sustain over an entire semester.

Kase and his colleagues want courses to be structured to best suit their content. Writing-intensive courses work better in 15-week increments, while some statistics-based courses can be more effective in eight weeks. Given the large number of part-time students looking to gain new skills and advance their careers, Kase hopes LIM can meet those populations with programs tailored to their needs.

Leeman at Simmons saw firsthand the perils of failing to match a course to its proper length of time. Her institution has eight, 11- and 14-week online courses. Nursing and social work courses have always run for 14 weeks, but the institution experimented in 2016 with the 11-week format for courses in behavioral analysis.

It didn’t work. Within the first year, instructors and students reported they felt challenged synthesizing and applying information in the allotted time.

“There are certain disciplines where you kind of need time to synthesize information before it becomes a skill,” Leeman said. “You need to take in a theory and a concept. You need time to percolate a little bit, and then it starts converting with conversations and activity.”

Administrators had been apprehensive from the start about the 11-week format, according to Leeman. To transition back to a 14-week model, every aspect of the program had to be revamped: course curricula, marketing materials, relationships with program mentors in the field.

"Once we agreed, let’s look at how we could make this work, there was such an incredible commitment to actually making sure it did," Leeman said. "You can do that if you put your heads together and you’re looking at every aspect of everything a student touches at the university."

The University of New England has been transitioning many of its face-to-face 14- or 16-week courses to eight-week online courses. “We are able to in an asynchronous model present and include all the same information and give the students the same experience in those weeks,” said Jennifer O’Neil, director of online graduate social work programs at the institution.

Instructors work with designers to parse learning objectives and design assignments that help students achieve them in a compressed time frame. “It does mean that small things may get cut out, but it also means that” students can get their degree faster -- a worthwhile tradeoff, O’Neil said.

O’Neil believes her program’s adult population “wants to feel like they’re making progress through their degree at a rate that feels like it’s attainable to them.” Shorter courses also allow the institution to offer multiple start dates throughout the year.

There is a such thing as too short, though. O’Neil said she’s taught courses in six and seven weeks and found them too rushed. “The eight-week model for the asynchronous piece keeps the students engaged, gives them more than enough work to keep students engaged,” she said.

Balancing Pedagogy and Strategy

Instructional design and course development costs don't tend to vary according to the length of a course, administrators said.

But creating a new course length model can lead to other costs. At Hawaii, the financial aid office will have to work with students throughout the semester to monitor when they drop or add courses. The institution’s registrar will have to log students’ grades more frequently than once per semester. Advisers will meet with students as many as three times per semester instead of just one.

“I think because we’re fitting kind of a nontraditional program into a traditional institution, our support services is going to feel the burden,” Okimoto said.

At Simmons, abruptly transforming a program was costly, underscoring the importance of assigning the proper course length as early in the process as possible, according to Leeman. Instructors devoted extra time to revamping the curriculum and assignments. A team of deans and faculty members rebuilt courses one by one on the LMS. “That doesn't happen without financial impact -- both in terms of sweat equity and actual dollars,” Leeman said.

Figuring out the length of an online course raises other questions as well. Accreditors expect institutions with online programs to demonstrate rigorous assessments of student progress, according to Michael Williams, dean of the School of Business at Thomas Edison State University, a majority-online New Jersey institution serving the state’s adult population.

Getting faculty members on board can also require some finagling. At Hawaii, instructors initially resisted the idea of using a common course template to bring a degree of standardization to their new five-week courses. But by the end of an online faculty development program that mimicked the structure of a new five-week course, instructors began to realize that working from a template gave them more time to focus on teaching.

State policy can be a barrier to this kind of innovation. In California, institutions are prohibited from offering academic programs that cross calendar quarters or straddle fiscal years, according to Kate Jordahl, director of academic affairs and consortia at the California Virtual Campus Online Education Initiative, which supports online programs in California’s community college system.

"Community colleges are very tied to schedules and rules and logs," Jordahl said. Her team has been working on creating cross-enrollment procedures within the system that allow students to pick and choose courses of different lengths from various institutions to meet their needs. The state's new online community college, launching this fall, will add new tools like competency-based education to the system's arsenal.

In that case and others, the government can also motivate experimentation. In addition to improving outcomes, the University of Hawaii’s new five-week online courses could help contribute to the state-mandated goal of 55 percent of the state’s population earning a higher education credential by 2025. Okimoto said administrators worry about falling short of that goal; shorter online courses could be enticing to students who left the institution partway through earning their degree.

They also might help students learn better: results from pilots last fall of the five-week courses indicated higher rates of completion and a larger share of A and B grades than in comparable 16-week online courses running simultaneously, according to Okimoto. Moreover, lessons learned from experimentation online might affect how the system's traditional campuses approach teaching, she said.

All of these decision-making processes, regardless of the institution or the type of program, aim for similar goals.

"You have to keep going back to the student learning outcomes," Jordahl said. "We have to meet the students where they are."

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