Will Technology Kill the Academic Calendar?

Online, semesters give way to students who set their own schedules

October 10, 2010

Ford T. Smith is helping to bulldoze one of the most durable pillars of academic life: the semester.

An adjunct faculty member at Kentucky's Jefferson Community & Technical College, Mr. Smith teaches in an online program that lets students start class any day they want and finish at their own speed. One student, desperate to graduate, knocked off 113 quizzes and six writing assignments for a humanities course in 46 sleepless hours.

But there is a downside to this convenience, and it's deeper than bleary eyes. The open format of Jefferson's program, called Learn Anytime, means students don't move through classes in groups. None of Mr. Smith's 400 online students will have a discussion or do a group project with classmates.

It's a controversial approach to online education­—one that is gaining traction at some colleges. Supporters see the self-paced model as a means to serve more students, since no one is turned away because of a full section, missed deadline, or canceled class. Others criticize go-it-alone learning as a second-rate system that leaves students in greater danger of dropping out.

"Educationally, it's not defensible," says D. Randy Garrison, a veteran distance-education researcher who directs the Teaching & Learning Centre at the University of Calgary. "It doesn't allow students to get a deep understanding of the content."

Regardless of criticism like that, the model is spreading. Its former champion within Jefferson's administration, Robert Johnson, plans to make open-entry courses the default for a new online program he leads at the Louisiana Community & Technical College system. At Arizona's Rio Salado College, home to one of America's largest online programs, self-paced classes start every Monday. Others that teach this way include StraighterLine, a company that provides online courses, and Athabasca University, a distance-education institution in Canada.

With so much tied to semesters, innovators who adopt open-entry courses may be in for a bureaucratic migraine. Administrative software struggles to handle them. Professors who offer them sacrifice normal vacations; Mr. Johnson has taught a theater-appreciation course continuously for more than 1,000 days.

Most worrisome, Jefferson officials urge students not to enroll in open-entry courses if they receive financial aid. Their course work might straddle two traditional terms, and the lack of a grade posted for the previous term could endanger continuing aid, says Joshua Smith, the college's executive director for e-learning initiatives.

But the format also offers opportunity to entrepreneurial professors willing to log extreme hours.

The $120,000-a-Year Adjunct

Ford Smith teaches three classes at Jefferson: English 101 and 102 and Introduction to Humanities. With no due dates and students popping in daily, that feels more like coordinating 400 independent studies.

He asks students not to call between midnight and 6 a.m.; otherwise, he's mostly working. He tells two stories that sound apocryphal, but which he insists are true. One: During his wife's labor, Mr. Smith was e-mailing a student and writing a tutorial on "monophony" and "polyphony" while urging her to push. Two: He calls his daughter "Angel," after a course-management system. (Her real name is Angelica; his wife wasn't keen on naming their child for a piece of software.)

Obsession pays. Learn Anytime professors aren't compensated per class. They're compensated per student—$65 a head. By taking advantage of that system and adding other teaching gigs, Mr. Smith earns an annual paycheck that tenured professors might envy: $120,000.

"In Kentucky, that's just unheard of," he says.

How It Works

Other than programs like Learn Anytime, online education generally mimics the familiar face-to-face template. A group of students moves through course work at a set pace and discusses the lessons, typically in a course forum.

Jefferson's effort to break that mold grew out of a dual-credit project with a local public-school system. 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 computers.

The Chronicle got a feel for the quirks of these never-ending courses when a reporter met with Mr. Johnson at a Starbucks in Baton Rouge, La., recently. As a Jefferson administrator, he had led the development of Learn Anytime, and he still teaches the theater-appreciation course for the Kentucky college despite his new job in Louisiana.

Mr. Johnson's classroom isn't just virtual. It's also largely automated. After he logs in on his laptop, a counter pops up to show students the number of days remaining for them to complete the class (120 is now the maximum, down from 150). Quizzes are self-grading. Completion of one task triggers the next. Submission of an assignment sends an alert to Mr. Johnson's iPhone. The course software e-mails students "personalized" advice, programmed by Mr. Johnson, throughout the class. "Dear Tom," it might say. "Let me give you some tips about how to do the next lesson."

And the students? A dashboard tells Mr. Johnson that one logged in Friday. But ask him how many are in the course, which has run in this format since 2007, and he isn't immediately sure. He laughs.

"Isn't that sad?" he says. "I can't remember ever sitting down and counting. I just treat them as individuals as they pass through."

If you're thinking this feels like a misguided way to teach, that's nothing new to Mr. Johnson. How, some professors ask, can you teach without discussion? Without a cohort?

His view is that not much learning takes place among students in an online course. They often just don't read the forum conversation, he says. Sure, they might add their own comments to a discussion board, he says, "but they don't really benefit from what others are saying."

They do benefit from the feedback he gives in self-paced courses, Mr. Johnson says, because instead of slogging through 25 homework assignments at once, he focuses on each student's work as it trickles in. He is fanatic about not making them wait. Once, while giving a PowerPoint presentation to a group of college administrators, the iPhone at his hip buzzed to alert him that a student had finished a lesson. During the break, while everyone else was having coffee, he graded it.

"I'm a much better teacher than I was in a cohort," he says. "Each student gets my individual attention."

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." At Jefferson, however, the data do not show a falloff in completion for Learn Anytime courses.

Still, Mr. Garrison, the Calgary researcher, is suspicious of the format. He thinks its adoption is driven by financial, not educational, needs. To learn deeply, he says, students should have their ideas and assumptions challenged. They need freedom to explore ideas with other students, without the pressure of the instructor judging every comment.

"Historically, we've always shown that persistence is directly related to the degree of interaction and engagement in a course of studies," he says. "When a professor has 400 students, there's not very much interaction, even with a professor."

'There Was No Learning'

One of Mr. Smith's former students at Jefferson, Vicki A. Smith, praises his responsiveness and doesn't mind solitary study. Her view typifies the just-get-it-done attitude of many self-paced students.

Ms. Smith, 48, has gone back to college for a nursing degree. One of her program's prerequisites is English 101, a course she skipped years ago when she got her bachelor's at the University of Kentucky. Rather than put up a fight—she had taken English 102 there—she signed up for Mr. Smith's self-paced course.

She found it "unbelievably" easy. Assigned a research paper, she expected to write at least 10 pages; turned out she had to hand in only two or three. "There was no learning," she says. "It was total remedial."

Told of her experience, Joshua Smith, Jefferson's e-learning director, says Ms. Smith appears to be an "atypical student," since she had already earned a degree. He emphasizes that all courses must teach the same "competencies" for their discipline, and that all syllabi must be approved, regardless of course format.

"The feedback I have received from students does not suggest that the course curriculum is any easier in Learn Anytime courses," he says in an e-mail. "Given the (unfortunate) 40% completion rate for ENG101 in the spring '10 term, I would tend to agree."

Vicki Smith's bottom line: Peer collaboration would matter in a higher-level class. Not in one like this.

But can you have both interaction and independent study? The answer may be yes, through social networking.

If there are enough students, those at the same point in a course can study together on a Facebook-like system, says Terry Anderson, an Athabasca professor who does research about distance education.

It's happening. Athabasca University is experimenting with a platform called Elgg. Rio Salado students connect in an online student union. OpenStudy offers another platform.

"The next frontier in online learning," says Mr. Anderson, "is to merge the social stuff with the self-paced stuff."


This article reported that Ford T. Smith earns $120,000 a year by combining his job as an adjunct faculty member at Jefferson Community & Technical College with other teaching positions. The Chronicle has learned that more than half his annual salary, nearly $70,000, comes from his full-time job as a teacher with Jefferson County Public Schools. The most he has earned at Jefferson is $27,540, according to the college