The Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed me about  month ago regarding the “new” invention of self-paced learning and this week published the article  Will Technology Kill the Academic Calendar? After spending at least 30 minutes trying to explain distance education to the reporter, he managed to include a single quote from myself. Ironically, he wanted to interview someone with an opposing viewpoint and I suggested my former PhD supervisor Randy Garrison – who got much longer quotes, most of which I don’t agree with- but such is the way of journalists.

First, let me say that I am glad to have attention paid to both the benefits and challenges of self-paced learning. Self-paced (I don’t call it independent study- see below) is the model followed by a small (but growing) number of institutions around the world. However, most online and distance education, like campus based education, is cohort based-even that offered by the mega distance universities.

Self-paced programming maximizes individual freedom. Rather than making the obviously incorrect assumption that all students learn at the same speed, have access and control over their lives to march along with a cohort group of learners or are able, despite divergent life circumstances, to begin and end their study on the same day, self-paced study correctly  puts the learner squarely in control. Distance education clearly deals with geographic distance, but it can also afford  opportunities for individuals to set their own start dates, the type of relationships they develop with teacher and peers and more importantly their own pace of study. However, as has been documented by myself and others, that this freedom comes at cost of procrastination and often results in higher attrition rates.

Randy Garrison and other commentaries in the replies to the article argue that self-paced study denies learners the opportunity to engage in peer debate and discussion and thus leads to superficial learning. I’ll use the remainder of this post to respond to these concerns.

Where is the evidence? Thirty or more years of research has shown that learning outcomes show no significant differences between on campus and distance students. In fact, recent meta analysis (Means, 2009) research is showing that online distance education students outperform campus based students. Having said, this as every educational researcher whines, we don’t spend nearly enough time and energy on educational research, and especially that which is invisible to classroom researchers, to have a deep understanding of learning in online or distance contexts, be they teacher-paced or self-paced.

How much deep engaged social learning takes place in paced courses? Michael Moore is famous for describing the distance education that occurs in a large lecture theatre, as a single professor orally transmits information to passive students (well at least now they have capacity to text each other). Much of the criticism of self-paced learning assumes that every class on campus or in paced distance format, is marked by high quality, critical discourse -despite the evidence that many students, both online and in classrooms are disengaged.

What type of learning are talking about? One of the problems in evaluating different models of education is that the  curriculum has many different goals and the knowledge gained has many different epistemological roots. For example, if learning e is interpretted as coming to understand and be able to repeat facts and constructs, then learning can be assumed to be a product. From this view, education curriculum is constructed through development of learning objectives and activities that are designed to transmit factual knowledge from teacher to learner.  There is little doubt that people learn this type of knowledge through a very many types of tools and activities, and sitting in a lecture hall is arguably one of the least effective ways to accomplish this type of knowledge transfer. However, if one takes a more modern view of learning as a process (see Smith, 1996), then indeed, their may be justification for the efficacy of (but I would argue, not for the essential)  role of peer and teacher student-interaction in experiencing this process. If one views learning as being a praxis or capacity to engage and apply new knowledge in real life contexts, then learning in group contexts may contain a hidden curriculum (Soldatenko, M. 2001) which is as much about exclusion and group think as about development and action in real life.

Does self paced learning mean no interaction? Morten Paulsen (2005), myself (Anderson et al, 2005) and a growing group of connectivist researchers are developing online learning designs that allow students to “have their cake and eat it too”. We do this by creating compelling, but not compulsory learning activities, that allow learners to engage with others within the contexts of self paced learning. Key to accomplishing this is to have students engage in sophisticated social networking contexts that allow students to discover  each other, study and interact with peers and project collaborators and as importantly to enage asynchronously with learners, by reacting to the stored comments and artifacts created by learners who have undertaken the same course of studies in earlier times.

Why do we have semester paced courses? Pacing is an artifact of batch processing designs from an industrial era. Students were first herded into cohorts in response to their free time away from agriculture during the winter months. Batch processing allows for an economy of scale whereby a single teacher can teach (but not necessarily interact) with dozen or even hundred of students at the same time. The batch process also does facilitate opportunity (though not necessarily) peer interaction. 21st century life is marked by heterogeneity and opportunity for individual choice. Many students are not prepared for this freedom of choice and have never been given the experience of pacing their own learning- thus the higher attrition rates. This is not to suggest though that students cannot learn to be more responsible for their learning pace and indeed once they graduate they will be faced with lifelong opportunity and compulsion to pace their own formal and informal learning. Finally, I note that pacing works well with industrial -era management systems. Establishing firm dates when students must enroll, must pay their tuition fees and must complete papers and exams allows the standardization of our whole system of higher education. The benefits of this system are apparent – especially to teachers who live for those extended summer holidays!

To conclude, self paced learning will become increasing popular as a model of education for all students and especially for busy working adults. The tools that support time shifted and asynchronous interaction in these contexts are as yet in primitive states and as importantly students and teachers have little experience in effectively managing their own learning pace. However, learning is too important to be left to industrial era processes and institutions. As we learn to learn more effectively, self-paced learning will become an important part of all of our formal learning activities.


Anderson, T., Annand, D., & Wark, N. (2005). The Search for Learning Community in Learner-Paced Distance Education Programming Or “Having Your Cake and Eating It, Too!”. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 21(2), 222-241. Retrived from

Smith, M. K. (1996). Curriculum theory and practice, . The encyclopaedia of informal education. retrieved from

Paulsen, M. (1993). The hexagon of cooperative freedom: A distance education theory attuned to computer conferencing. DEOS, 3(2). Retrieved 2010 from

Soldatenko, M. (2001). The hidden curriculum of higher education. In E. Margolis (Ed.), Radicalism in higher education (pp. 193-212). London: Routledge.

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. Washington: United States Dept. of Education. Retrieved July 2009 from