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from Ray Schroeder, Senior Fellow at UPCEA

Breaking the Boundaries of Time and Space

An artifact of centuries of schooling history in agrarian cultures, our universities have been bound by semesters, quarters, terms and other rigid predefined calendar schedules. Likewise, we have been fenced in by regulations of states, campuses and other locational limitations.

For good reason, it is time that these boundaries are broken! Learning should be defined by outcomes, not calendars and places. The policy relics of the past have become a minefield for so many learners and so many modes of learning models.

Back in the day when most youth were needed to help with work in the farming fields, our schedules were defined by breaks for tending to the cycles of life on the farm. Those days of the majority of residents engaged in farming went away with the Industrial Revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries. They weren’t even well aligned nationally—some with quarters, others with semesters. Now, well into the 21st century, it is time for our “terms” to go away.

The advent of computer-assisted instruction and, now, self-paced learning, enables personalized delivery of learning opportunities that appropriately enable learners to advance according to their mastery of material rather than conforming to a rigid calendar schedule. One of the biggest challenges I confronted regularly in my decades of university teaching was meeting the needs of students with a range of skills, abilities and knowledge in the same class. Too often, instructors are still forced by the calendar to “aim to the center of the class” rather than optimizing learning by providing materials just in time that address where the learner is in comprehension and subject mastery. The status quo is not only inefficient and ineffectual by definition, it is discriminatory to those with deficiencies in their prior learning as well as unfairly limiting to those who are ready to move to higher levels of learning in the subject area.

It is long past time that we implement a learning system that assesses learning often and moves students ahead who are ready to progress—and at the same time provides alternative approaches to enable those who are not yet ready to move ahead to avail themselves of the attention, support and time to reach prescribed outcomes. This requires that the mandated calendar-based schedules be discarded. They must be replaced by carefully constructed and frequently reviewed learning outcomes. As soon as students meet those outcomes, they should move ahead—not sooner or later based on a calendar that allows achievement assessed as A, B, C, D or failure! Everyone should achieve the level that is expected for success in the next step in their lives and careers. We don’t want C- or D-level surgeons, engineers or other professionals. No exceptions.

The current scheduled term system also hamstrings internship and apprenticeship opportunities. These can be very effective at offering “learning while doing” activities. However, they must be coordinated with the less flexible schedules at businesses, organizations and government agencies.

So, if we don’t assess tuition by the term, how do universities get income? Much of the business world operates with subscription models. We can do the same. We can adjust to a monthly, semiannual or annual billing system. This can provide a financial incentive for students to progress more quickly through the mastery process. Yet, it is flexible enough to allow brief stop-outs for the inevitable personal needs encountered in life.

We need greater flexibility for inter-institutional collaboration to benefit students. I recall one such activity from some 15 years ago in which I must confess that I and my co-conspirator, the late Julian Scheinbuks, failed to seek higher approvals for deviation from the normal class structures. Funded by an Illinois Higher Education Cooperation Act grant, we devised a program in which students from Chicago State University—an urban, minority-serving institution—and the University of Illinois at Springfield, a relatively rural institution with a then relatively low representation of minorities, merged in about a dozen classes online. In most cases students were not identified as to which institution they attended. One faculty member from each institution shared supervision in each class and assigned grades to students from their own institution. The engagement and perspectives shared in those classes were enlightening and worthwhile. Done without formal approvals, at both universities and higher boards, this kind of collaboration would have taken years to have been given the go-ahead. We need to open the door to such innovative collaborations without going through formal transfer of credit or other red tape.

Certainly, many institutions have credit for prior learning and related programs. Yet these programs too often require that an additional course be taken and significant fees assessed for each credit hour authorized. We need to open the learning vault to credentialing in creative ways—recognizing learning that has been documented in the past without the mountain of red tape and the milking of added tuition and fees. We must simply and efficiently recognize learning that took place in a different time and location.

The barriers have been put in place over time to sustain additional revenue generation, suppress individual initiative, and to promote continuity over innovation. The time is past in which universities have a monopoly in the learning universe. We must recognize that programs such as the Google Career Certificate program are already moving ahead with these approaches. We must review our policies and processes with an eye toward advancing learner freedom, efficiencies and effectiveness rather than institutional convenience and advantage.

Who is leading these changes on your campus? Are you in a position to advance learning innovation, lower costs and offer a more flexible approach than the restrictive term-based learning system? Will your institution lead or trail in moving beyond the boundaries of time and space?


This article was originally published in Inside Higher Ed’s Transforming Teaching + Learning blog.

Ray Schroeder 2016 Summit for Online Leadership

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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