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On the true significance of self-paced, online courses: the anytime MOOC

Posted by on Tuesday, September 2, 2014 in News, , , , , .

On the true significance of self-paced, online courses: the anytime MOOC

Douglas H. Fisher

Last year I wrote about my experience in a self-paced online course in Artificial Intelligence offered on Udacity ( The advantages of a self-paced course are most apparently in the flexibility it affords the student — a student can work their way through the course on their own schedule, taking educational detours along the way, as they see fit. Coursera is now offering self-paced (aka on-demand) courses as well (

The individual flexibility associated with technology-enabled self-paced courses is common in other areas touched by the digital revolution. In her introductory post as a VIDL Graduate Fellow (, Sandra Arch points to the same advantages of online-enabled flexibility in other working environments, but she also notes the broader, potentially negative cultural and societal impacts of extraordinary individual flexibility:

While these newer forms of work offer greater independence and autonomy to workers, enabling them to work from anywhere with an internet connection, they also reflect a larger trend of social isolation in the contemporary era, with its declining rates of membership in social, religious, and voluntary organizations.” (Sandra Arch)

Slogging through a self-paced course all by yourself takes discipline, and completion among the isolated can be difficult (e.g.,  But importantly, the freedoms of self-paced courses are NOT limited to individual students, but self-pacing can also be exploited by instructors.

Shortly after my post on my self-paced experience, I wrote about my desire to synchronize MOOCs with my campus’ academic calendar, and the anticipated ease of adapting self-paced online courses (which aren’t really MOOCs in the conventional sense) to this task ( Herein lies the real positive significance, I think, of self-paced courses — individual instructors can adopt the “self” paced course so that it keeps pace with their on-campus schedule. Thus, the “self” in self-pacing is generalized to my on-campus student cohort, or synchronization with any local learning cohort for that matter (e.g., my after-school club, my retirement community).

How would adopting a self-paced OPEN Online course for my campus course differ from simply implementing what is called a closed instance, also known as a SPOC (a small, private, online course: In a SPOC, only the campus students see the content — the MOOC is essentially ported to a learning management platform that can only be accessed by the campus students. Wouldn’t that allow the instructor to move through the material at a pace that best suited the campus course? Yes, it would, but what would be missing is participation of students from outside the campus to take the course coincident in time with the campus students.

Why might I want non-Vanderbilt students to take a course side-by-side with campus students? For several reasons. First, because such students will bring international perspectives to my campus course. For example, two criteria used to accredit computing programs ( are “(e) An understanding of professional, ethical, legal, security and social issues and responsibilities” and “(g) An ability to analyze the local and global impact of computing on individuals, organizations, and society.”  Might campus students taking a course with international students better appreciate these criteria, and be better motivated to excel at them? Its an open question, and well worth exploring.

Second, many of the people who take our MOOCs are professionals and otherwise experts in the field (e.g., Such students can be valuable mentors for our campus students (e.g., helping them to excel along the technical criteria of ABET, for example). This can be particularly so for underrepresented groups in computing (or other fields). Even if potential mentors from some groups are few on a campus, drawing from a global population can bring empathetic and enthusiastic mentors into a course, perhaps helped through collaboration with professional societies (e.g.,;

Third, in an open environment, “alums” and advanced students of the self-paced online course (or a corresponding MOOC) can continue to give advice to the current crop of students taking the course, including those who are members of the local learning cohort that the on-campus instructor organizes. In an open environment, it is indeed possible for an on-campus instructor to find some of the world’s best “teaching assistants” for the benefit of the campus population (

As an educator, the potential of self-paced courses that I get most excited about is that I can “wrap” my campus course around the self-paced course (, thereby benefiting from those outside my course. In the self-paced course, I can also invite outsiders to join my campus cohort, synchronizing with my students, and if enough decide to do so then I am essentially the on-the-ground instructor for an anytime MOOC. An anytime MOOC is the MOOC I most want to run. Perhaps I’ll have my chance in Spring 2015 when I next teach Introduction to Databases (e.g., if I’m fortunate, using a course such as!

*The opinions expressed herein represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the stance of Vanderbilt University

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