What are the Benefits and Disadvantages of Self-Paced Learning?

I recently had a long layover at the newly renovated Muscat Airport, Oman. While I was waiting for my connecting flight to London Heathrow, I had time to find coffee and settle into a metal chair and catch up on some work, marking student assignments. 

As I scrolled through my students' English essays on the LMS it became apparent that the switch to online learning had taken a toll on the quality of my students' work. I knew they could write better than this. I began to wonder about the effectiveness of self-paced learning. 

Across from me was a giant billboard. Unsurprisingly they were trying to promote tourism in the capital, Muscat. It featured the sun setting on a desert horizon with the caption: ‘Visit Oman: Miles and miles of nothing but white sand’ - while this might appeal to some people, for me, it was precisely the reason I wouldn’t be visiting in the future.

Similarly, I couldn’t help but feel self-paced learning benefits are misleading. My students were underperforming, and I wanted to find out if the freedom to self-regulate their learning was detrimental or even counterproductive.

A Quick Google

I started researching the benefits of self-paced learning, and this is what I discovered:

“online modules frequently have a dropout rate of more than one in five students…”

“costing universities millions in lost revenue every year. It creates a poor perception of online education.” - theconversation.com

That’s an alarming dropout rate! Higher educational institutions offering 100% self-paced learning courses had BIG retention problems. 

Concerned about my secondary school students and our blended learning approach, I decided to research the benefits and disadvantages of self-paced learning to better understand why my students were struggling. 

5 ideas from the web kept popping up, however, just like the ‘miles and miles of nothing but white sand’, I’m not sure if they’re benefits or disadvantages. 

1. With Self-Paced Learning there is no pressure to complete assignments. 

Initially, it sounds like a benefit. No one likes too much pressure, but from my experience as a classroom teacher, if there ain’t pressure, the students ain’t doing the work. Moreover, the longer students procrastinate on assignments, the less valuable information they'll remember.

Psychologist Robert Bjork (1994) says that there should be ‘desirable difficulty’. 

“Introducing an element of struggle or difficulty into the learning process can significantly improve long-term retention, it helps to form deeper neural connections.’

Deep down I know that challenge increases the motivation to succeed. Regarding my students, I think self-paced learning often becomes ineffective when there’s no pressure. 

Verdict: No pressure is a disadvantage (at least for most learners). 

Action: I decided to increase communication with my learners to apply pressure and remind them of their active deadlines.


2. Learners can develop the skills to work autonomously and stick to a learning schedule that they create for themselves.

Learners who create and stick to a learning schedule feel empowered. Whether my students are early birds or night owls, allowing them to work autonomously can only be good…right?

“Students choose what to study, how to study, when to study, and how long to study; these self-regulated aspects of learning have important implications for the effectiveness of their learning efforts and achievements in education (Dunlosky & Theide,1998)

Schools and teachers aren’t recognizing the potential burden self-paced learning adds to learner's workload. A student that’s never set their own schedule may not have the self-discipline to do so.  

Verdict: I think it’s a benefit. Working autonomously may be difficult at first, but we shouldn’t underestimate our students. 

Action: I’ll ask my students to discuss their learning schedule. I’ll ask them when and why certain times are best to study. Hopefully, this communication keeps them accountable for their learning.

3: Freedom to try different models of learning.

It’s true, one size doesn’t fit all. Some of my learners may have a ‘preferred method’ of learning. Perhaps they prefer to acquire information from textbooks, internet research, or even talking to professionals. But at the same time, they may think watching Netflix will help them pass a media studies exam. It might...but, it's not a very effective way to learn. 

It’s my job to structure and facilitate their learning with a proven teaching methodology. 

Few examples exist in which allowing learners to control their own learning produces higher levels of performance than that of restricting learners’ control. (On the effectiveness of self-paced learning - J.G Tullis / A.S Benjamin)

Verdict: It’s a disadvantage. At this stage in my student’s education, it’s better to restrict the learning input. 

Action: I’ll always encourage my students to research independently, but learners usually need help assimilating and breaking down their findings.    

4: Mobile learning is more engaging

Even though I’m very proud that I can recite Hamlet's ‘to be or not to be’ speech unashamedly at the front of the classroom, maybe my students would prefer a multimedia version on their tablets, or mobile phones. 

“65% of all digital media is viewed on smartphones. 91% of the time spent on smartphones is spent using apps, of which about 50% is used for some form of learning. https://www.go1.com/blog/the-benefits-of-mlearning-over-elearning

While most teachers experiment with engaging ways to use digital media in the classroom, students spend more time on their smartphones than in the classroom itself. 

With an abundance of educational apps and resources, self-paced mobile learning has the potential to offer students the chance to learn completely from their mobile, or tablet. 

Mobile learning gives more options for interactive and engaging content. Students have quizzes, digital flashcards, explainer videos, podcasts, and even educational games at their fingertips. 

Verdict: It’s a benefit. Self-paced learning on smartphone devices offers students the chance to engage with a wider range of interactive content. 

Action: I’ll curate a list of appropriate apps and resources my students can consume from the comfort of their sofas, but warn them of the dangers of distractions. 

5. LMSs support self-paced learning 

Educators born in the 90s or later most likely came across Learning Management Systems (LMSs) and other educational technology during their professional teacher training. Slightly older teachers can perhaps remember all the fuss, fooling around, and chaos that implementing LMSs in the classroom had on the department. 

90% of students prefer learning online to traditional learning methods. https://research.com/education/lms-statistics

Long story short, LMSs are here to stay. I successfully use them in the classroom, and for online teaching. And honestly, LMSs are better catered to support self-paced learners. Proficient systems include everything learners need to organize, deliver, and assess educational content on their schedule. 

We cannot force them to learn, nor can we teach them absolutely everything they'll need to know in the future. We can…give them the gift of self-paced exploration. In other words, we can offer them the tools and skills they need. https://elearningindustry.com/8-tips-adopt-elearning-mindset

Self-paced learning and LMSs go hand in hand like palm trees in sand. 

Verdict: LMSs are already widely used in classrooms all over the world. Extending the effective use of LMSs is a massive benefit to self-paced learning. 

Action: Make sure all my learners can benefit from our LMS's various functionalities. 

Can Self-Paced Learning Work?

As I sit in the airport, I’ve reached a few conclusions: It's getting closer to boarding time, but I'm no closer to getting my work done.   

It’s true what Business Dictionary says.

"Self-Paced Learning is a Teach-yourself method of learning that is initiated and directed by the learner...”  

I’d like to add more to that quote.

'Teach-yourself method of learning that is initiated and directed by the learner..." ....with careful monitoring, assessment, and motivating communication throughout from a teaching professional.

I’m not 100% sold on self-paced learning yet, or the perfect desert destination either. 

Update: April 2023

The good news is, I'm a lot more "sold" on self-paced learning as of April 2023. 

I'm using a Learning Management System called LearningOS. It's a low-cost and low code system that’ll streamline your content, making it easy to personalize content for self-paced learning. With LearningOS it's easy to onboard students and allocate content and it's easy to monitor their learning progression and assessment with extensive learning analytics.

Take a look for yourself www.thelearningos.com

And if you're interested in how Self-Paced Learning and Microlearning work together then scroll this blog...

The Mighty LMS and One Teachers Love Affair with Microlearning

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