~Written by Dr. Amy Greene, Executive Director for Online Learning and Adjunct Instructor in Learning Technologies
All online courses are not created equal. Although the purpose of offering online courses is to provide students with additional course format options and improved schedule flexibility, we as educators can actually do more harm than good if the courses aren’t designed to set students up for success. Obviously this statement is compounded by the intensity of the course.
As colleges and universities face the challenges associated with declining enrollment and an increasingly competitive education market, many are exploring innovative ideas to attract and retain students. One such idea is offering condensed and accelerated courses and programs. For example, The University of Hawaii noticed that taking online courses was positively correlated with persistence and graduation rates for full-time students, but part-time students struggled no matter what format course they took (Lieberman, 2019). This isn’t a surprise given the number of things that are often on the plates of part-time students. In response to this discovery, they decided to survey peer institutions who had successful online programs and positive student success rates. The common factor amongst the institutions was that they all offered condensed courses that students could take one at a time in succession to stay on track for graduation without having to pack their schedule with multiple classes during a 16-week semester (Lieberman). While this sounds like a very student-centered approach, the question about “determining the appropriate balance of efficiency and rigor in the learning experience” is often a source of contention between educators and administrators. So what does the research say? According to Austin and Gustafson (2006), “while there is much anecdotal evidence…we must ask if condensed semester courses actually provide students with the same learning experience as a traditional 16-week semester?” Using data from 45,000 course observations across many different disciplines and session lengths at the University of West Georgia, Austin and Gustafson found “after controlling for student demographics and other characteristics, intensive courses do result in higher grades than traditional 16-week semester length courses and that this benefit peaks at about 4 weeks” (p. 26).
But do higher grades actually mean increased learning or are they the result of decreased rigor in condensed courses? Lutes and Davies (2013) determined that “the subject and the instructor of the course are more likely to be the cause of significant difference in rigor” rather than the concentration of the course (p. 19). And now, we’re right back to the importance of course design! Assessing the practices of instructors who are top-rated for teaching compressed-format courses can provide some insight for other faculty and administrators when considering how to improve the teaching and learning experience in those types of courses (Kops, 2014). Restructuring the course, reconfiguring assignments, organizing and planning for the term, maximizing support for students, and creating a sense of community (i.e., social presence) are consistently the top 5 recommendations for designing condensed/accelerated courses (Kops). As one instructor put it, teaching a condensed course is like drinking a cup of espresso versus a cup of American coffee!
Austin, A.M.. & Gustafson, L. (2006). Impact of Course Length on Student Learning. Journal of Economics and Finance Education, 5(1), 26-36.
Kops, W.L. (2014). Teaching Compressed-Format Courses: Teacher-Based Best Practices. Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education, 40(1), 1-18.
Lieberman, M. (2019). The long and short of online courses. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from
Lutz, L., & Davies, R. (2013). Comparing the Rigor of Compressed Format Courses to Their Regular Semester Counterparts. Innovative Higher Education, 38, 19-29.