At traditional brick-and-mortar high schools in Ontario and across North America, students are expected to move through course material at a uniform pace with the rest of the students in their classes.
These students have little to no control over how they pace their studies. Rather, their pace is determined for them by their teachers, curriculum, and school board. They are expected to meet deadlines and are penalized when they fail to do so. Learning at a uniform pace is called synchronous learning and it does not benefit all students.
With synchronous learning, students who don’t keep pace with their peers inevitably fall behind and often grow discouraged and may become unmotivated. If they can’t keep pace and therefore don’t receive the same grades as the students who can, they may come to believe it’s because they are not as smart as the other students. This, in turn, may cause them to lose motivation, which could then lead to them falling further behind.
On the other side of the spectrum, extra motivated students who wish to plow through course material faster than their peers may grow frustrated because synchronous learning does not allow them to do so. As a result, these students may lose interest in courses that, if structured more flexibly, they would love.
This isn’t to say that education is a race. It’s not. However, many students in Ontario could benefit from a more enriching and engaging education if they were to have more control over the pace of their studies. Students could benefit from enjoying an asynchronous education, rather than—or in addition to—a synchronous education.
Synchronous vs Asynchronous Learning
The difference between synchronous and asynchronous learning is simple: with synchronous learning, students learn in sync with their peers while with asynchronous learning, students have more control over the pace of their studies.
Traditional learning is synchronous. Students learn together in real-time. In-person learning tends to be synchronous, but online learning can be synchronous as well. When, for instance, an instructor streams a lecture that students are meant to participate in via their laptops, that’s synchronous online learning.
Synchronous in-person learning is what many people today think of when they think about learning, but ever since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, asynchronous online learning has become an increasingly popular alternative.
At OES, we promote asynchronous, flexible, self-paced learning and our students have far more control over the pace of their studies than they would at traditional secondary schools in Ontario. Students can choose to linger on some units and speed through others. They can also have more control over deadlines.
Benefits of Self-Paced Asynchronous Learning
Self-paced learning provides a wide range of benefits, including:
- A lifeline for struggling students
- An opportunity to get ahead
- New classroom dynamics
- Attention to different learning types
- An education in time management skills
A Lifeline for Struggling Students
There will always be different types of learners in the classroom, and not all students will fit the one-size-fits-all synchronous pedagogical approach applied in traditional high schools in Ontario. Students who struggle to keep pace with their classmates are one example. These students can find a lifeline in self-paced learning.
There’s a common misconception that fast learners are smarter than slow learners and that is far from accurate.
When we refer to someone as a “slow learner,” what we tend to mean is that this person processes information slowly—in other words, that they have a slow processing speed. In reality, processing speed does not reflect intelligence.
Someone who processes information quickly is not necessarily more intelligent than someone who processes information slowly. In fact, some learners may process information more slowly because they think more deeply or critically about the material they’re learning. In many cases, these very learners often do the most compelling academic work—at the secondary level and beyond.
For instance, when a student thinks deeply and therefore slowly about a poem they’re assigned in a class like ENG4U, they’re more likely to come up with multiple interpretations of the poem than a student who quickly skims the poem for what they need to know before moving on.
Additionally, learning how to process information quickly is a valuable skill in and out of school, but it’s not a skill that should be mistaken for intelligence. How fast a student can complete equations for MHF4U, for instance, does not indicate how well they will ultimately do in that course.
Unfortunately, traditional schools tend to penalize students who don’t move through course material at a certain uniform pace, meaning slow processing students who could do well in a course if they were given enough time and resources end up underperforming.
Schools that promote self-paced learning empower slow processing students to learn at their own speed without being penalized.
An Opportunity to Get Ahead
On the other side of the spectrum are fast learners—students who process information faster than average.
Although traditional synchronous secondary schools in Ontario won’t typically penalize fast learners for processing information at a quicker pace than their classmates, these schools won’t exactly reward them either. Traditional institutions tend not to offer fast-learning students the resources they need to move through course material as quickly as they would like to.
As a result, students who could, under more flexible circumstances, actively engage with course material at a quicker pace end up growing impatient with the slower pace of their courses and, in turn, losing interest in the material.
At asynchronous online secondary schools like OES that promote self-paced learning, by contrast, fast learners can choose to learn as quickly as they would like, making it possible for them not only to go where their curiosity takes them but also to get ahead of their peers.
New Classroom Dynamics
Just as not all students learn at the same pace, not all students like to socialize in the same way or feel comfortable in the same social settings. Students who are shy, bullied, or who don’t for any other reason feel at home in a typical classroom dynamic can feel more at home when learning online, at their own pace, when they set up a productive at-home learning space.
Attention to Different Learning Types
As is by now common knowledge, there are at least four types of learners:
- Reading and writing
Unfortunately, classes at traditional synchronous secondary schools tend to cater to one or two learning types rather than a wide range of alternatives.
When, by contrast, students take self-paced online courses at OES, they work closely with their teachers to create a timeline that works best for their learning type.
Time Management Skills
To leverage the advantages of self-paced learning promoted by schools like OES, students need to practice time-management skills. On the other hand, it’s self-paced learning that can help students develop these very skills in the first place.
When teachers offer their students control over their schedules, these students learn through personal experience how to manage their time when no one’s constantly looking over their shoulder.
It may take students some adjusting before they can fully take advantage of self-paced learning. After all, many students are accustomed to having very little control over the pace of their studies. But learning how to study at their own pace is a skill students can develop faster than you might expect.
It’s also a skill that can benefit them in the long run; students who learn how to manage their time while still in secondary school enter post-secondary school with a leg up on their peers.
Benefits of Self-Paced Learning for Different Kinds of Students
Self-paced learning can benefit different kinds of students in different ways, including:
- Mature students
- Busy students
- Overachieving students
Mature and Busy Students
Self-paced learning can benefit a wide variety of students, but can work especially well for mature students and those with full-time jobs, part-time jobs, and family responsibilities outside school.
The traditional synchronous high school system in Ontario is not geared toward mature or busy students. Instead, it’s geared toward students with enough free time to treat school as a full-time job. It’s far easier for a student who can afford to focus their attention on homework when they are not at school to excel in their classes than it is for a student who goes straight from work to school, for instance.
Mature and busy students are often better off taking courses at a school that allows them to focus on their responsibilities outside of school without having to compromise their education.
To explore why that is the case, let’s take a look at two hypothetical situations. In the first, a busy student attends a traditional synchronous secondary school in Ontario. In the second, this same student takes some in-person classes at a traditional high school and others at an online high school that promotes self-paced, flexible learning.
Hypothetical Situation 1
Sarah is a grade 12 student who lives with her father, a single parent, and her grandmother.
Her grandmother’s mobility is reduced. She struggles to complete basic daily tasks, like walking from one room to another, without someone else’s help. Sarah’s father has a demanding job that typically requires him to work until 8 or 9 pm every day and he can’t afford to hire a professional nurse or caregiver to take care of his mother full-time. Instead, he hires a caregiver to take care of his mother while he’s at work and Sarah is at school. When Sarah gets home from school at 3:30 pm, it becomes her responsibility to tend to her grandmother’s needs.
Sarah arrives home from school tired, yet she helps her grandmother move from the living room to the bathroom, take her meds, change into a sweater, brush her teeth, and do other basic tasks. Not only that, but Sarah cooks dinner for her grandmother to eat at 6 pm and for her father to eat whenever he gets home from work.
By the time her father arrives home around 8 or 9 pm, Sarah is exhausted and has little to no energy to study for tests or complete her homework. As a result, her grades suffer, and she grows increasingly discouraged in her academic ability.
Sarah also has no time for extracurricular activities like sports or model UN.
If she had the luxury of treating high school as a full-time job, Sarah could do well enough to get into the university of her choice. Instead, she gets mediocre grades and ends up attending the only university that accepts her.
Sarah’s situation is not uncommon. Many secondary students in Ontario have responsibilities outside of school. Yet traditional synchronous brick-and-mortar high schools in Ontario are not designed for these students.
Hypothetical Situation 2
Now let’s say Sarah takes some classes at a traditional in-person high school, otherwise known as her home school, and other classes at an online high school in Ontario that promotes self-paced learning.
Instead of getting home from school at 3:30 pm, Sarah gets home at 12:30 pm. As a result, Sarah has the time and the energy to complete her homework for her in-person classes while taking care of her grandmother. (Another result is that her father does not need to hire a caregiver for as many hours as he would if Sarah attended her home school full-time). On days when Sarah has the energy to do her self-paced online secondary classes, she does. On days when she doesn’t, she doesn’t.
Sarah’s online teachers understand how busy she is and she is able to work with them to devise a study schedule that works best for her. Her teachers provide her with the leeway to alter deadlines if need be because her teachers understand that she can’t afford to treat school as a full-time job.
When Sarah and other students in similar situations have control over the pace of their studies, they can manage their other obligations at work and in their personal lives without compromising their academic performance or saying goodbye to a healthy work-life balance.
Self-paced learning can also work well for overachieving secondary students, meaning students who not only work hard academically but who are also involved in extracurricular activities like student newspapers, debate team, volunteer work, and piano lessons.
When their extracurricular schedule gets extra busy, for instance, overachieving students can set aside their online self-paced schoolwork until their schedule returns to normal. When their extracurricular schedule slows down, they can dedicate more time than usual to their self-paced schoolwork.
The Bottom Line
There’s a reason self-paced learning models are becoming increasingly popular. Self-paced learning offers a kind of flexibility that has been absent from traditional learning and can be beneficial for a wide range of students.
Whether self-paced learning is right for you depends on many factors, including what type of student you are and your personal goals. You can learn more about taking self-paced learning courses at OES here.