In 2005 I published, The search for learning community in learner paced distance education: Or, ‘Having your cake and eating it, too! with colleagues at Athabasca University. This article discussed learners’ interest in social learning activities in self-paced distance education programming. Over the past 2 years we have been (slowly) developing tools and techniques which we will be implementing in pilots over the next year. In this (rather long) post, I overview the benefits and challenges of this type of intervention and then I discuss five approaches that are being tested to allow learners to pace their own educational programming – yet at the same time to enjoy and learn with others. Thus, having their cake (control over one’s pace of learning) and eating it too (enjoying and learning with others who are also controlling their time commitments). The post is also an invitation to others interested in this type of programming to become involved in a series of design-based developments.

Learning Freedoms

Freedom of pace is one of the six freedoms noted by Morten Paulsen in his 1993 Hexagon of Cooperative Freedom. The others include freedom to negotiate time, place, content, medium and access. I have since added a seventh – relationship, since I think learners seek freedom to choose the kind of learning relationship (from tightly collaborative to none) with their peers and instructors. Paulsen argued in 1993 that learners need input and control over each of these freedoms. In the 14 years since Paulsen published this article, there has been tremendous gains in the freedom of place (online learning in general), growing freedom of medium, as educational institutions and life long learners are able to use the Web to support many types of multimedia enhanced teaching and learning. Freedom of time (as in asynchronous and synchronous) is also supported by some schools, with the learner able to choose either model. Freedom of content has exploded, but mostly related to opportunities for lifelong learning provided through the web to self directed learners. Institutions still cherish control of curriculum – though pedagogical models like inquiry and problem based learning provide larger scope for learner input into the content studied. Freedom of access – notably the freedom to study regardless of past performances and without prerequisites are features of most Open Universities. However the imposition of higher tuition costs has decreased freedom of access to learners in formal education programs around the world. But it is the challenge and solutions for providing freedom of pace to which I address this posting.

With only a few exceptions (noted below) almost all formal education programming is paced. The start and completion dates are set rigidly by institutions and only rarely and begrudgedly are time extensions granted. In some schools, start dates occur only once per year, but there is a move to semester or trimester enrollment options. Entry that is retricted to once or twice a year presents major restrictions on freedom for many learners. For example, pacing is of critical importance to those incarcerated, suddenly hit by a life emergency such as a personal or family illness, or a vocational disruption to name but a few of the myriad ‘happenings’ that confront each of us in daily life.

Moreover, pace effects much more than start dates. Some learners are under time pressures to complete courses very quickly – for example they may be one course short to make up a major program of studies and have only a window of 5 weeks to make up this shortage. Others have severe constraints on their time and though dedicated, need 12-18 or even 24 months to slowly complete a course of studies. Finally, each of us learns at different rates. Suggesting that we should all learn together and be synchronized over an extended period of time likely wastes time of those with prior experience or aptitude and can be overly challenging to those with less experience or learning skills. Thus, the pace or the time to completion is intrinsically related to personal constraint, yet almost always set by institutional dictate. One would think then that educational institutions, especially those focused on maximizing learn3er opportunity, would embrace learner paced models, but that is not the case for a number of reasons.

The case against self pacing.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to learners with self paced learning is procrastination. Learning is not always fun, and rarely quick. Thus, the cost of much learning is investment of time and time is often our scarcest resource. It is very easy to let deadlines loom and pass if there is no institutional pacing that requires that assignments be completed or test written by a certain date. As result, it is easy to procrastinate for very long periods of time, until even self paced institutions give up on the learner and the dreaded non completion and failure message arrives from the institution. Self paced programming at Athabasca has about 30% lower completion rates than paced, classroom delivered instruction.

Beyond procrastination is the benefits of the “hidden curriculum” by which students enroll in educational programs to meet new friends (or lovers), learn new social skills and develop networks which can be utilized after the course of studies is completed (Anderson, 2001). This type of interaction can and is used to propagate social and racial elitism, but is also valuable to learners who engage in formal learning activity because they want to change their social contacts and networks.

Paced learning readily affords collaborative and cooperative forms of learning activities Jung, Choi, Lim, & Leem, 2002 studied collaborative and social interaction and concluded that social interaction resulted in increases in performance and satisfaction over those students interacting only academically. Social learning is at the base of socio-constructive models of learning that underlie constructivist and connectivist learning theories and designs. These ideas and practices have come to dominate discussion over high quality learning outcomes and learner satisfaction in the last 20 years.

Paced programming allows for easier and more secure examinations. Although, the issue of plagiarism challenges assessment in both paced and unpaced contexts, being able to gather large numbers of students in single locations (or at least a single point of time) and release examinations to them synchronously, precludes many options for cheating that are not as easily overcome in self-paced programming. Fortunately adaptive testing is becoming available that creates unique examinations for each student- though the cost of such online testing currently can be prohibitive.

Finally, paced programming is familiar to all of us. From administrators, to teachers to learners, we have all experienced paced programming and know how to play the game. Further, our administrative and learning management systems (LMS or VLEs) have been optimized for paced programming and these and other student management tools have major difficulty adapting to models where students are entering, leaving and being examined on a continuous basis.

So, from the above we see the benefits and challenges of self paced programming. But do the new social technologies provide means for bridging the gaps between these two chasms so as to allow learners to pace their programming while still engaging in appropriate levels of social interaction, or having their cake and eating it too?

Interventions in Self paced programming to afford interactive opportunities.

In this section, I overview five interventions in which learners are afforded the opportunity to meet and engage in cooperative learning activities, while retaining self pacing.

A common activity among campus students is to meet and form with study buddies or study groups to informally support each other in learning activities and the achievement of learning outcomes. Even in paced distance education programming Carr, Fullerton, Severino & McHugh (1994) found that “having a study buddy had the greatest effect on the predicted probability of dropping out”. One of the biggest problems faced by learners in forming study buddies is to even know who is enrolled in the same course of studies! Freedom of information laws often preclude institutions from releasing names and contact data of students to other students. The NKI in Norway (with predominately self-paced programming) has addressed this problem in two ways. First, they encourage students to post requests for study buddy or study group connections in a public space. All learners who have indicated an interest in forming such a relationship are then notified of the request and can then allow their personal contact information to be released to the one seeking a study partner. The system can also match students based on geographic location, course enrolled, gender etc. While not used by all students the NKI study buddy system has matched thousands of students in its first two years of operation.

Secondly systems can be developed so that learners progressing through a course of studies can synchronize their schedules so as to create personal deadlines and hopefully reduce procrastination. This from of self-directed pacing can be individualized or can be synchronized with other members of a study group. Again NKI has developed a system that encourages students to set their own target dates, sends email messages when deadlines approach but most importantly still allow learners the freedom to alter their proposed schedule if life circumstances dictate such changes.

Self paced programming has until very recently been assumed to be based on independent study pedagogical models. Early distance education theorists such as Borge Holmberg celebrated independent study and argued that the individual interaction between a single student and a single teacher/tutor was a very effective form of learning. However, as noted above, pedagogical thinking has evolved considerably and many educators consider the absence of peer group for support, validation and exploration to be a fundamentally limiting feature of independent learning models. Thus, a third alternative is to design self paced in ways that learners can make arrangements to meet (either online or in person) to complete cooperative or collaborative learning projects for short periods of time. Learners thus are empowered to create social opportunities when it meets there needs and schedules. Instructional designs for such hybrid unpaced collaborative study requires that as much flexibility in time be allowed in the design such that learners as many opportunities to meet together as possible. For example, a design might allow learners to work at some learning objectives in different sequences so as to match time windows that are commonly available. Of course, this assumes that students have capacity to announce their desire to work together and share available schedules to facilitate that meeting.

A fourth option is being developed in Canada as a partnership between CEGEP á Distance in Quebec and Athabasca University. These are Canada’s largest providers of self-paced distance education. We plan to restructure high enrollment courses and provide access to a suite of social software tools (likely elgg) that allow learners to:

  • post profiles with their course details, contact information and other personal information. Release of this information is under the control of the learner and thus not susceptible to government privacy concerns.
  • Create cooperative and community work spaces for documents sharing and cooperative project development and
  • post personal blogs within which learners can share their experiences of self paced learning and use these reflections to connect with others.
  • Be notified via RSS for additions to the site

Finally, both institutions will provide real time web conferencing tools by which learners can use voice and text conversations, application sharing and whiteboard tools to work together.

A fifth and the most technically sophisticated solution is being developed and tested at the Open University of the Netherlands as a component of the EU funded TenCompetence program. The developer Peter Van Rosmalen and his colleagues have created a system that matches peer tutors to respond to particular questions generated by a learner. Once a question is posed by a learner, the system uses Latent Semantic Analysis to extract relevant material from text materials associated with the course. These materials are entered into a WIKI along with the question. The system further identifies potential peers on the basis of there availability and success at completing the unit from which the question arises in recent times. These students are then invited to participate with the question asker to resolve the question using the common space of the WIKI to cooperatively reach and record the answer. In preliminary tests of the prototype Van Rosmalen et al. have demonstrated high levels of student participation and relatively high levels of success at solving the questions raised by the students. This project requires considerable amount of technical work as the LSA corpus must first be analyzed and then matched with the students’ questions before the peers are selected for peer review. However, the return is probably greater than less supported models of question response in that the team or questioner and peer responders has hopefully relevant material to begin their deliberations and search for a problem solution.


Maximizing student freedom in many dimensions is critical for learners to take control of their own learning agenda, as necessitated by a world committed to lifelong learning. For some students participation in paced cohorts and even face-to-face instruction is sufficient to match their life constraints and opportunities. However, for increasing numbers of others, cost effective and freedom enhancing models of education must be made available. The five solutions to the problem above support the creation of peer interaction, while retaining self paced learning models and are thus first steps towards this goal. The reward for development of socially enhanced self-paced learning systems will be increased participation, higher completion rates, development of social capital and the opportunity for learners to engage in rich and supportive peer deliberations. We invite others wishing to join in these pilot projects or have developed additional tools to support self-paced designs to contact us.