Brainstorming a Learner Flexibility Rubric

I’m hoping I can get all the smart people in my network to add to this little (asynchronous) brainstorm. For some time now I’ve been wanting to develop a rubric for measuring the amount of flexibility in online courses. I’m particularly interested in how the course design and student requirements relate to providing students with a reasonable amount of time flexibility for their online course work.

Flexibility quote by Everett Dirksen

All the data that I have collected over the years from online students indicate that time flexibility is the number one reason that they enroll in online courses. Not cost, not distance, not even preferred learning methodology; but clearly they place a premium on having time flexibility that allows them to fit higher education into their otherwise busy lives.

UPDATE (4/23): This will probably not result in an actual rubric. I’m having a hard time figuring out the lousy-good-better-best type of hierarchy that you typically need for a rubric. Instead, I’m thinking that the output will be a list of effective (or maybe “promising”) practices for ensuring time flexibility in an online course. Please keep the comments coming.

The purpose of the rubric is to come up with a way of measuring the flexibility in various online courses, and to encourage more flexibility rather than less by those who are using the rubric. I have no doubt that some online students are frustrated when they enroll in an online course with certain personal expectations about flexibility, only to find that the course offers them very little of it. These are some of the factors that come to mind for me.

Time flexibility, measured by the size of the “window of opportunity” for:

  • Quizzes and exams (how long are they open to students?)
  • Dropbox assignments (how long between start and end of assignment availability)
  • Making the required number of discussion postings per module/topic (how many days to do it, etc.)

Other factors affecting time flexibility:

  • Timeliness of quiz/exam grading (is quiz feedback received before next one is required?)
  • Stated expectations (syllabus/outline) for instructor responses to student inquiries
  • Required synchronous activities – how many, how long, and when (& are there alternatives?)
  • Required group work projects/assignments
  • Days of the week when due dates are scheduled (e.g. weekends and/or holidays)
  • Online office hours: timing of availability
  • Online office hours: modes of availability (might affect timeliness for students)
  • Added 5/3/12 from comment received: Online courses should have a rhythm or consistency to them as to when things open, when they close, how large the windows of opportunity are, etc.
  • Added 5/3/12: Appropriate amount of content
    • Too little content provided means students have to spend time hunting down relevant content that allows them to achieve the required outcomes.
    • Too much content provided typically includes content that might be on-topic, but not relevant or useful in achieving the required outcomes,; causing students to spend time filtering through the information (a case where the instructor throws everything but the kitchen sink at them).

One of the keys to this type of rubric will be to walk the fine line between enough flexibility and too much flexibility. An extreme example of “too much” flexibility would be those cases where there are no deadlines at all in the course except for the course ending date. This might work for an electronic independent study course, but not for online courses where learner interaction is expected and/or required. Based on my past online teaching experience, I find that I am in agreement with many faculty members I know who state that you must keep students engaged with the course every week (and probably 2 or more times per week) in order to not have them fall off the face of the earth (fall behind and drop out or just quit).

I’ve thought about including other types of flexibility rather than those focused on the students’ time availability. I’ve decided not to tackle those right now. For example, it might be interesting to include things related to the nature of assignments – do they allow students to choose different assignments or different methods of completing the assignment (write a paper, make a movie, make an oral presentation, etc.). I think that’s interesting, but I don’t think it captures the reason that students take online courses – which is clearly time flexibility.

Determining the specific parameters for each rubric item is yet to come. Right now I would love to have your input on other factors that could be included in a rubric to measure time flexibility for online learners. Please leave your thoughts in the comments or email me at barrydahl at gmail.

Thanks in advance, and yes, I realize this could be a colossal failure. I’m okay with that.