The Need for Speed?

In the heady days of the dot com era, a paradigm of “better, faster, cheaper” fueled a frenzy of rapid innovation aimed at capturing market share. It’s a paradigm that continues to drive most tech development. But overcoming the triple constraints of quality, speed, and cost is not easy and so the business mantra often defaults to “fast, good, cheap…pick two.” Ask around…project managers and product developers know that producing something of quality usually takes either lots of time or lots of money.

“Better, faster, cheaper” has, in some ways, also driven universities’ thinking about online education. And that’s not all bad. A wealth of compelling research demonstrates that digital tools and online environments can help students learn. Multiple studies conclude that online students typically perform as well as, and in some cases, better than their counterparts in face-to-face environments. The asynchronous nature of most online classrooms affords students the ability to work at their own pace, pause and replay lecture content, and reflect on questions before contributing to discussion. Quality educational experiences are, indeed, possible online. In light of this, the decision by many public universities to expand into online education is entirely consistent with their mission to provide students first-rate educational experiences.

Giacomo Balla – Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash

Doing things more efficiently also makes sense for universities. Eliminating extraneous material from a course can help students focus on achieving important learning outcomes. And efficiency in university operations helps keep tuition costs down for students and offsets drastic cuts in state funding. Finding ways to do something without waste is not only ethical, but financially and, potentially, pedagogically sound.  

But what about the faster bit? I recently spoke with Mark Lieberman at Inside Higher Ed about just this question. A number of universities have opted to deliver online courses in accelerated formats, condensing the traditional 15-16-week semester into half the time. Studies show mixed results when it comes to student performance in accelerated formats. Shaw et al, note a number of benefits, including higher levels of interaction and a more palpable sense among students of progress toward degree completion. Potential downsides include cognitive overload as students try to simultaneously address more challenges (including the technology) and lackluster long-term knowledge retention.

I have had terrific experiences teaching semester-length and accelerated courses in both face-to-face and online environments. The intensiveness of an accelerated course can be deeply rewarding, but context matters. In the 4-week face-to-face “interterm” courses I routinely taught at a small liberal arts college, my students were hyper-focused because they weren’t taking other courses. Together for 5-6 hours every day, we were able dive deep into content.

But the 7.5-week accelerated online courses I’ve taught over the last eight years are a different kettle of fish. My students don’t have the luxury of hyper-focus. They are often taking other courses (because financial aid packages require it) and juggling significant work and familial responsibilities. These students come to class hoping to “get through” quickly, both because they don’t have time to spare and because cultural messages (including messages from universities) signal that “getting through” quickly is something to desire, a “value add” worth paying for—a dubious assumption worthy of unpacking in a future blog post.

I’ve no objections to thinking creatively about academic timeframes. The conventional 15-week semester is no more or less arbitrary than an 8-week session. It’s a legacy of our agricultural past that no longer makes sense for most students. Short courses—whether 8 weeks, 4 weeks, or even 5 days—can be terrific environments in which to learn a discrete skill or specialized content. But accelerated courses aren’t just shorter courses—they are faster courses. And the reality is that it’s not always possible collect information, process ideas, and master skills quickly. Think about what it takes to learn a language. Some things take time.  

Time is a factor for professors, too. Providing students with useful feedback takes time. Grading in accelerated courses is a particular challenge in disciplines where writing well is a key learning outcome. It’s no accident that the courses in studies that find no significant difference between student performance in accelerated and non-accelerated formats are courses in which most of the assignments are auto-graded by the LMS. But what about courses in which students are learning to research, synthesize, or effectively communicate ideas? In accelerated courses with research and writing components, I often struggle to get papers back in time for students to apply my feedback to their next assignment. In these courses, my grading changes. I morph into a fretful scold focused only on what’s broken. Two glows and a grow? Fuhgeddaboudit. And what about things that need to be practiced repeatedly over time in order to achieve mastery, as is the case with language acquisition? Is it possible to do these types of things quickly? Absolutely. Is it possible to do them well quickly? Not so much.

At the end of the day, the form of a course, including its length, should ideally follow its function. If the function of online education is to generate revenue for the institution, then accelerated courses make sense, and accelerated courses with high enrollment caps make even more sense. They move lots of students through the institution quickly, making space for new students. But if the function of online education is to successfully nurture thinkers and innovators and to equip students with skills and knowledge they’ll be able to apply over a lifetime, then “faster” may ride roughshod over “better”.