When is flexible is too flexible?
We all want to give our students flexibility, that’s why we offer online, hybrid, flipped and other models of delivery these days, but the question becomes ‘How flexible is too flexible’?
There are situations when classes are offered in a flexible format, which can mean any number of things. It could mean that it’s offered online and asynchronously, but students are expended to ‘attend’ and contribute throughout the week, every day or every couple of days. It could also mean that the class is online and follows more of a correspondence course model, or ‘pony express’ model as I call it. In this model, students are free to complete readings, activities whenever they want, and are only expected to submit assessments when they’re due, which could be throughout the semester or all at the end.
These two models of teaching should really have a giant wall between them, because anything along this spectrum will cause problems. What if you set up discussions for students to have during the week and you’ve told them that they’re free to contribute on their own time? The outcome is usually that very few people will participate in non-graded activities when they’re expected to, especially if they’re given the freedom to participate when they want to.
If, on the other hand, the expectation is that students are to participate on weekly basis, to ‘attend’ if you will, every couple of days, these types of activities are far less likely to fall flat, and will stop you from wondering “where is everyone?”
A big part of this is being very clear about expectations and very explicit in instructions. If we say that students can participate on their own good time, then expect them to participate in activities that are not in their own good time, these are in direct conflict with each other, and set these activities up to fail. It’s a situation where giving flexibility, backfires because certain activities are time sensitive and require less flexibility in order to have their intended pedagogical effect.
The best practice in either scenario is to serve as a model. If your model is a pony express model, then you don’t need to show up that often in the learning environment. If, however, you’re opting for a more learner participation every couple of days model, then you should make your presence known as often as possible, by posting very visible news updates, and facilitating forums whenever possible.
A good way to think about this as an analogy is to think of a Face to Face equivalent. You tell your students they can attend class whenever they want, and you have a study session a week before a big exam. Because you’ve said they can show up whenever they want, many don’t attend the study session and fail the exam. A pedagogical choice was made to provide flexibility, which turns out to be a detriment to the learner.
Striking a balance in flexibility, good pedagogy and guided facilitation of learning is always a tricky one, but generally the rule of thumb should be the more interaction with each other, and with content, the better, and this means shying away from a blurry area of half flexible, half not. Making this decision and being clear on what’s expected for students, and more importantly, advertising this in class catalogs, syllabi and other documentation will increase transparency and let students know what to expect when they sign up for a class.