The search for learning community in learner paced distance education: Or, 'Having your cake and eating it, too!'

Terry Anderson, David Annand, Norine Wark


University distance and e-learning programs generally follow one of two models. Most dual mode institutions and some open universities follow a model of cohort learning. Students start and terminate each course at the same time, and proceed at the same pace. This model allows for occasional or regular group based activities. The second model, referred to as learner paced, is based on increased student independence. Students may start their courses at many points during the year, and complete these at their own pace, depending on the learner's circumstances and interests. It is much more challenging to integrate group based activities in this learner paced model. This study is situated in a university that supports continuous intake and learner pacing in its undergraduate programs. Athabasca University is investigating the feasibility and effectiveness of adding collaborative and cooperative learning activities to this model. The report summarises a study of learner interactions in the context of learner paced courses delivered by the University. Following a review of relevant literature, the study reports on interviews with Athabasca University faculty and external distance education experts, describes results from an online survey of undergraduate students, and documents how these findings may be operationalised at the University. An extensible model of community based learning support is proposed to utilise new social computing capabilities of the web, and to permit learner-learner interaction in a scaleable and cost effective manner, while retaining learner pacing.

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