Tidbits, Resources, and Discussion for ELI Faculty

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Deadlines and Distance Learning

Over the years, philosophies about imposing deadlines within ELI courses have changed. It's my understanding that in the early days, Incompletes were given quite freely and so students basically had two semesters to complete a course. More recently, we've had several deadline dates we've asked students to complete certain work by (the Inactive Students Dropped date and the Last Withdrawal Date), although each instructor chose how much to require at each date.

Even more recently, some faculty have made their courses much more like campus courses, with students required to meet much more frequent deadlines for submitting assignments (sometimes even more than one deadline per week). The idea with these changes is that given leeway, students (like most people!) will put their work off and end up not being successful (because they rush to get it all done at the end, or because they never manage to get caught up at all), so by imposing deadlines, we force them to move along and thereby increase student success. Forcing deadlines also means everyone in the class is at the same place in the course material, so that you can do synchronous activities if you choose to, and also means that asynchronous discussion forums are richer--students can actually interact with each other if they all participate in the discussion during the same week rather than spread over 3 months.

I know that some of you have very strong views on both sides of this issue. Laura Shulman (who teaches religion courses for ELI) has asked how many ELI courses use regular deadlines, and it's a question I can't answer except to say that we are moving toward more and more of them doing so. Please share what you do with regard to deadlines and why.

Some questions I'm pondering as I think about this issue: why should a distance course be different from a campus course? It is very rare for a campus course to allow students to be self-paced. Why would a distance course be so? Since most of us communicate with students electronically now, there's no mailing delay to work around. Is it because we believe distance students need more lenience? If so, is that fair to other students? Is it because distance students have busier lives than campus students? If so, do we really know that, or are we assuming it? (We certainly know they are busy--but many of our campus students are, too.) And more generally, what should our focus here be--flexibility, or student success? Do we necessarily sacrifice one to provide the other?

I'm looking forward to your comments, here--especially as I finish my course revisions for summer in the next few days. I know I'm adding some deadlines to my course beyond what I have now (just Inactive Students Dropped and LWD), but I am still making my final decisions about how many deadlines to add and where.

So--have at it! :)


Laura Shulman said...

>what should our focus here be--flexibility, or student success?<

I think we do need a BALANCE here. One reason that ELI courses attract students is because their personal lives are such that they are not able to meet at a regularly specified time and place (campus course). But this should not mean they cannot do a certain amount of course work on a weekly basis.
If we think of distance learning in terms of DIFFERENT SPACE AND TIME but NOT in terms of a DIFFERENT PACE... and if we get this message across to students, perhaps we can accomplish the flexibilty students need and the success levels both they and we desire!
Since last summer I have also been teaching web courses for Lord Fairfax CC. They maintain a much more strict pace with their online courses. Students are expected to complete these courses in the same time frame as campus courses. They simply do not meet synchonously in the same time and place. But with weekly assignment requirements, I find that most of my LFCC students do complete the courses. When I get a chance, I will look at statistics on successful course completion from last fall for both my ELI and LFCC web courses and share it here.

Jennifer Lerner said...

Laura, that's REALLY interesting re: Lord Fairfax. Is anyone else teaching online for any other institutions that have practices we should know about re: pacing, deadlines, etc.?

Laura S. said...

I checked my statistics for fall 07:
LFCC REL 100: 13/20 = 65% success rate
NVCC REL 231: 17/55 = 30% success rate
NVCC REL 232: 3/17 = 18% success rate
In comparison, my NVCC campus course success rates:
REL 231: 17/26 = 65%
REL 100: 16/23 = 70%
(success = C or higher as final course grade)

Diane Thompson said...

Jennifer, I read much of the article and I agree with the negative comments it received from some readers. It verges towards silly exhibitionism imho. There is a problem with procrastination to be sure, but it is not simply a distance learning issue; I believe our students have changed over the years. I have been teaching courses online since 1989 at ELI and in the early years I had about the same retention online as in a classroom. The students who came to ELI were drawn to us for various reasons; many were older working adults who appreciated the loose deadlines and took positive advantage of them.

Now, to be sure, until there is a deadline, many ELI students do NOTHING, and then hurry scurry complain and suffer as they pass the deadline and have to deal with the consequences.

In a classroom when I worked with weaker students (English 111/09), I was able to set up groups to create peer pressure. That helped. They did a lot of socializing, but they also tended to get their work done, some better than others. However group work is very time consuming and is not necessarily the best way to master some kinds of materials, such as reading long books. That takes alone-time.

I read Laura's posting about LFF and I wondered if the population she is teaching there is different from the population we are working with here.

We may be dealing with some of the consequences of a population that does not read gladly, and reading is at the core of ELI courses; what good are instructions if they are unread? Diane

Jennifer Lerner said...

FYI for comment readers: Diane's referring to the article I linked to in a later blog post, the one on procrastination.

Diane--just thought I'd say that what I liked about the article was that I thought it was a very real assessment of why some students procrastinate. It didn't (in my view) sugar-coat things or try to make a lot of excuses (even though the goal was to talk about how faculty can structure courses, or interact with students differently, to help with this problem). As a non-procrastinator myself, I find it challenging at times to put myself in the mindset of a student who does procrastinate, so I liked hearing about how a student might feel when receiving chastising emails (which I am wont to send my students when they get behind), etc. What did others of you think of the article?

Laura: It's very interesting that the deadlines in your LFCC courses seem to make such a difference. Do you think you would have the same improvement if you implemented those deadlines in your ELI courses? Or not, because LFCC also has the institutional deadline policy so that its distance students expect to have to meet deadlines when taking online courses?

Laura S. said...

Jennifer, I think your last observation in terms of bringing LFCC deadlines into my ELI course is more realistic. I do believe that, currently, our ELI students would NOT stand for such deadlines as we use at LFCC simply because it would NOT be institutional wide. But perhaps, as ELI director, you are more aware of the few ELI courses that DO pace all students through the course at the same time (perhaps those that are actually Hybrid like Terry's speech class). Do these ELI courses indeed have a higher success rate? Can this success be correlated with the assignment deadlines? Do ELI students enrolled in these courses complain about these deadlines or accept them? Do these courses with such deadlines have a higher rate of students who DROP the course early once they learn of these deadlines (DRPs do not count in the overall rates but W's do)?

Anonymous said...

I use due dates in dealines in my ELI courses consistently and find it works well. I truly could not imagine doing it any other way. I teach highly interactive communication courses online and it is essential the students are close to the same page so their online discussions are relevant. I have a list of deadlines (due dates) in my courses that I have developed over the years and hold students to those deadlines. Similar to an on campus course-I remind my students of these deadlines through weekly announcements and emails and I hold them to it-I do not make exceptions or give them any extensions (the interactive nature of the course does not allow for assignment extensions since once the course has moved on from a discussion there is no use in posting for no one in the class will read them).

I find there to be about a 50/50 split in those students who work ahead and those who complete assignments days before they are due. In any case students have little problem completing the assignment by their due date (they have several weeks notice of the deadlines to complete each assignment) and I find I have over an 85% completion rate in my online classes.

I find due dates the best way to facilitate student participation and learning in my courses and find that student comments consistently state they love the structure and pace of the course (and the interactive nature) and find it to be a positive learning experience. I feel students need the structure (and they need me to hold firm on these due dates) to keep them motivated and to be fair to everyone in the class.

Stephanie Harm said...

I do not use deadlines. I tried once before and it didn't work for me. Regardless, I am very interested in hearing how people who teach English composition use deadlines. For me, my students' skills are developed over the semester in terms of their writing ability. What they do in week 1 needs to be completed before week 2, etc. It is not like I can tell them that since they did not meet my deadline for week 5 that they fail those assignments and have to move on to week 6 because what they would have learned in week 5 is information they needed before being able to move on to week 6.

Aggie Taormina said...

I am very deadline oriented myself so I like deadlines. I currently have several:

1) the college-imposed Never Attended dated
2)the Drop Date ( I have been informed ELI is no longer publishing so I am going to make up my own)
3) the W date
4) the end of enrollment date.

When students send me their required introductory emails, I respond with a welcome letter and an attached quick calendar with all of these deadline dates noted as well as a grid with the 16 weeks of the course noted and suggested deadlines for completion.

By the drop date students must take the first exam; otherwise I will withdraw them.

By the W date students must have finished the first 6 weeks of the course or I will drop them.

By the End of Enrollment date students must finish at least the first 12 weeks of the course to qualify for an I grade.

I give students only 8 weeks to finish the I grade.

I email students 2-3 weeks before each deadline to remind them of it; I also email students with I grades halfway through the I grade period to remind them to finish.

In my experience a lot of students rush to meet the deadlines so I am generally swamped in the 24-48 hours before each deadline.

I teach 3 courses and all 3 cohorts for each course so I use a spreadsheet to manage the dates and the dates when I email students.

Of course I can't control whether students ever open their email. But I think this routine is worth the effort.

Stephanie Harm said...

I guess I wasn't thinking. I do use deadlines that the college has designated and I do use an inactive student drop date.

What I would be really interested in knowing about are how other instructors use weekly assignment deadlines.

Jennifer Lerner said...

Yes, I guess there are two sorts of deadlines here. Nearly every ELI course (though not every one) has at least one or two deadlines, corresponding to those major college dates (NVRK date, LWD, etc.).

But like Stephanie, what I had in mind when asking/thinking about deadlines was more regular deadlines than that. There is a distinct difference between courses with just a couple of deadlines over the course of the semester and those with weekly or even bi-weekly deadlines.

The latter is harder to administer (though it avoids the huge-grading overload-at-deadline-time problem Aggie points out) and can in some cases engender student resentment and resistence, but the more I learn about the success different faculty are having at ELI with different approaches to deadlines, the more I think we need to design more of our courses with regular deadlines.

Aggie Taormina said...

A lot of our students choose distance courses precicely because they can't meet weekly deadlines; they might travel, for example; they need the flexibility of working twice as hard one week and half as hard or not at all the next.

The most successful students find a happy medium; and many students do mostly keep to the weekly deadlines I suggest or at least try to.

But with 3 cohorts I couldn't keep track of weekly or biweekly deadlines if I tried so I am content with those that I do impose because students have to make a certain amount of progress by a certain time.

I tell students they can't move on until they complete the work up to a certain point but in my literature courses a lot of them post on the individual works and then go back and write the essays. My deadlines mean that they have to turn in at least one essay by halfway through the course so that I don't usually have the problem of a weak writer turning in all of his/her essays at the same time with the same mistakes. But I have learned that I can't win them all.

Nancy McTaggart said...

I think deadlines work better for some classes than others.. I've changed my ENG 112 to weekly and sometimes twice weekly deadlines because of group work, and I'm very happy with the results.

ENG 111/9 is trickier because the range of skills students bring to it is so wide that some have to do several rewrites with tutoring in between and some have to do very little revising. If I had strict deadlines, the weaker students would fall so far behind that they'd never be able to catch up. I have had students request weekly deadlines, though.

I plan to create fixed deadlines in my new ENG 150 course for the fall, but I can do this only if I teach one session of it. I can't keep track of deadlines for three sessions in three or four classes.

Anonymous said...

I teach ITE 115 and we redesigned the course last fall with weekly deadlines (every Sunday) and in some cases mid-week deadlines for assignments where responses to other students' discussion board entries are required.

I have gotten mixed reactions from students. I think most can deal with the Sunday deadlines but they really do not like the mid-week deadlines. This spring, I had four sections of ITE 115, two starting Jan 14 and two starting Feb 4. Record-keeping was challenging.

One thing that really helps is a separate attachment that I create that students can download and print listing all the assignments and exams and the due dates. I have to create a separate document for each enrollment section but it is worth the time. I keep it by my side and reference it many times each day.

Students who have been taking courses at ELI often expect the courses to be self-paced and complain that the course is not advertised as one with deadlines. Although I post this very clearly on my BB site, they get the impression even before they sign up that the course is self-paced. ELI needs to look at all the pages on the web where we advertise and make sure we don't set students up to think ALL ELI courses are self-paced.

I am also concerned about my summer sections. I usually get a significant number of students from 4-year schools that need to finish earlier than 16 weeks since they go back to their college in mid to late August. I tell them that they can certainly work ahead, but for assignments that require responses to others' posts, they may not get those done early if their classmates are following the normal schedule.

As a positive, I must say that I have very few incompletes which I love.

I, too, used to teach ITE 115 online at LFCC with fixed deadlines. Students did not complain as much because they never experienced distance learning any other way. I had about the same attrition and success rates as I do with my NVCC ELI courses with fixed deadlines.

Maria Rynn

Anonymous said...

I finally got my comment to publish using the "Anonymous" option. I was never able to get it posted using the "Name/URL" option.

Maria Rynn