Windows of Opportunity in Online Learning

  • 5 Min Read

A deeper look at finding the right window of opportunity for the online student

In a previous post, I talked about the concept of a window of opportunity being the amount of time that an online student is given to complete a task; such as take a quiz, complete and submit an assignment, or post to a discussion forum. I mentioned that a window that is too small takes away the time flexibility that students expect in online learning. A time window that is too long can have negative impacts on students in other ways. Let’s dive a bit more deeply.

Short Windows of Opportunity

Online students are typically trying to balance school, work, family, community, with other responsibilities, interests, and commitments. Listed below are a couple of examples of short windows of opportunity that can cause problems for many online students.

Consider a required writing assignment that opens on Friday morning and closes on Sunday night. Three days (but only two sleeps) might not seem too short for some people, but it certainly would for other people, depending on their circumstances. Students who work on weekends to pay for college now must fit in one more requirement. This also begs the question of whether weekends should be weekends–meaning that school happens Monday through Friday and weekends are your own. Most educators would agree that you need to make some sacrifices to get an education, but there may not be wide agreement that one of those sacrifices should be to have required schoolwork seven days a week.

Also consider a quiz that opens on Monday morning and closes on Tuesday night. Many educators choose to keep quiz windows short to discourage cheating, or to accomplish other goals. Deciding whether this window is too short or not probably depends on other factors. Is it expected that the quiz will only take 15-20 minutes to complete? If so, then two days might be plenty of time for students to fit that into their schedules. If it is expected to take 90 minutes or more, then a two-day window might be insufficient.

Long Windows of Opportunity

Let’s say that you give students two or more weeks to do just about anything that is required in your class. Is there a natural sequence to the work that they need to do? First things first and last things last during that window? If not, one concern about a long window of opportunity is that students might only check in near the end of that window to do all their work. If you’re okay with that, then go for it; however, many faculty get antsy when students haven’t checked in for ten days which they might not have to do based on the course design.

I mentioned in a previous post that I once took the advice of a couple of students and gave one large window of opportunity for the entire course. Everything was available to them on day one of the term, and everything had to be completed by the last day of the term. Work quickly, get everything done, and you could complete this 16-week course in four weeks or less. Work slowly or check out for the first 13 weeks, and then you’ll be scrambling to complete everything before the end of the term. This is a procrastinators dream; except that the fun part of procrastination is when you’re putting off the work that needs to be done, and then the fun stops and quite possibly the quality of your work suffers when you try to squeeze it all in before the final day.

I only tried that approach one time, and I regretted it even before the term was over. In my experience, the best ways to keep students on task throughout the term is by spreading the work out, having a regular cadence of quizzes to assess the requirements for each major section or module, and providing a sufficient window of opportunity to complete work.

Goldilocks Principle

How do you know if it’s too long, too short, or just right? I don’t think you can know for certain. I’d like to say that there’s a magic answer, such as three days, always use three days! If I did say that, I’d just be making it up.

Different circumstances call for different solutions. Here are a few rough guidelines:

  • Full-time fully-focused students, such as in a graduate program perhaps, could handle shorter windows of opportunities than a group of non-traditional students who have many non-school commitments.
  • Assignments of any type that require a short time frame to complete, including research and reading that needs to be completed in advance of the assignment, can likely be assigned a shorter window without serious consequence. A 15-page paper needs a much longer window than a 15-minute quiz, but you already knew that.
  • If there are several requirements that all need to be completed in the same window, then that window should be longer, generally speaking.
  • Consistency is very helpful to online students. If a discussion forum posting has a five-day window, then you should try to create similar windows of opportunity for most discussion assignments in the course.

Always happy to hear your thoughts regarding time flexibility techniques for online courses. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Interested in applying these principals to your online courses–Try Brightspace free for 30 days!

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2 responses to “Windows of Opportunity in Online Learning

    1. Hi Willem. The only research that this is based on is the Online Student Satisfaction survey that was linked in the first post on this topic. That survey is where online students indicated the most important reasons to enroll in online learning. I’m not aware of any research directly bearing on the question of the length of the windows of opportunity. Cheers, Barry

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