NOTE: This post pertains to traditional online courses in institutions of higher learning. Constructivist approaches have a different focus and timing would be addressed in a completely different way.
Because time is a different animal in Distance Education, you may have the idea that making your course self-paced, in other words opening all your learning units at once, is a cool idea. It has major drawbacks for traditional educational approaches. This document is offered as a brief guide to managing your content.
It’s a given that you have all kinds of students in your classes, some will get the material quickly and be ready and eager for more, however, others will struggle to get through all of your material in a given unit of time. Finding a balance for all students is a little tricky.
Consider what you want them to do together as you are trying to decide what release options you will employ in your course design. Generally, teachers want students to discuss content that is presented at the time it is presented. If you have a learning unit in progress that includes a discussion or requires comments in a blog, for example, it’s useful for all the students to be focused on that particular unit at the same time. Even though the idea of what you are doing results in asynchronous activity, too much lag time in posting replies in forums, causes an end to active participation!
How does this work in a face-to-face class? Students may have all of the reading and assignment scheduled in a syllabus that they can refer to. They can read ahead all they want, but the actual directions for the activities aren’t part of the syllabus because you want to have the students ready to do those activities and you are the one who prepares them! You also wouldn’t want them to come in three weeks after the fact and try to ask questions during your lecture about things that you have already covered!
The converse is also true. It’s tough and distracting to have students asking questions in class, that are too early in the general progress of the group, to address. How often have you found yourself saying, “That’s a good question and I’ll get to that”, knowing that the context of presenting information is important.
These things are the same in an online class. Timing adds to the ability for you to provide context and students that are too far ahead, may miss that and head out in the wrong direction or not participate as you would like them to.
So, what’s the solution? It depends--- A good rule of thumb would be to open a unit and then a few days before the end of it, open the next one. Keep the interactive components, like discussion questions, closed until the actual opening date of the class. You may want to adjust that as you get the feel for the ability of the students to work on their own. For sure, you want to keep them focused at the same time on the interactions they will be involved in.
Keeping control of the release dates also makes it easier for you to work in the class. You can plan for each week’s worth of work and are grading and offering comment on the same topic all week, rather than jumping around. This also gives you perspective across the work that is being submitted, which is a really good thing.
Reminder: Distance Education courses are defined in the "Higher Education Opportunity Act" (Federal) as having interaction between the instructor and the student. Correspondence Education is defined as “self-paced” and limited interaction with the instructor. Distance Education funding is different than correspondence funding in many situations. Students cannot receive federal financial aid for correspondence courses. Educational institutions are liable for any financial aid money that was given to students in correspondence courses. Additionally, correspondence courses are not considered as transferable courses by many universities.