As university students around Australia finish their final exams and assessments for the year, the idea of removing due dates might seem incredibly appealing.
Being more open-ended about when assignments are submitted may also seem like the logical next step for universities. Even before COVID-19, they have been looking for ways to make learning more flexible. This is generally done by offering units online or in a hybrid model, where some units are in person and some are online. But is it truly flexible if just the place has changed?
An emerging trend in the sector is “self-paced learning,” where students do not have to fit their learning into a university semester and there might be flexible due dates for assessments.
In other words, students with internet access and a laptop can study at a time and place that suits them.
At CQUniversity this is called “hyperflexible learning”. Our university already offers hyperflexible postgraduate units.
We wanted to know what the experience would be like for students and staff if hyperflexible units were offered at undergraduate level.
In a 2021 pilot study, we looked at four undergraduate history and communication units. The humanities was a good fit for the pilot because they attract a wide range of students, did not have tests or exams and had fewer restrictions like external accreditation.
We offered the units in the traditional mode and a hyperflexible mode. In the hyperflexible mode, students had access to all the unit content, could self-pace and did not have due dates for their written and oral assessments.
The unit’s content was self-paced, via short recorded videos and interactive learning modules, rather than traditional lectures. There were opportunities for learning with other students (like live Zoom tutorials), but these were not compulsory.
Of the group, 27 students chose to take the hyperflexible option. We interviewed them and three unit coordinators before and after the term about their experiences. We also surveyed all 12 humanities staff about their perceptions of hyperflexible learning.
While the sample size was small, students and staff suggested there are both risks and benefits to this type of study.
‘I wouldn’t have passed’: what did students say?
On balance, the students who took part had a positive experience. One even said:
If it wasn’t hyperflexible I wouldn’t have passed.
Several noted how assessment deadlines were a significant source of stress and relished the freedom to fit study around their life, rather than the other way around. Several said it made it easier to accommodate their work and family commitments.
One student said they were thrilled when they heard about the hyperflexible option because:
I am a very anxious student, and deadlines really, really stressed me out.
Other students suggested the quality of their learning was better in a hyperflexible model as they were able to “go deeper” on a topic that interested them and not have it reserved for one particular week. It was suggested that the hyperflexible unit allowed “study in a more intensive way”.
But students also raised concerns. Several noted it “feels a bit isolating”, “disconnected”, like they are “the only student doing it” and they are not “participating in the university experience”.
Others were worried they might not receive the same level of feedback from staff and there might be a temptation to “leave everything to the last minute”.
Doing two jobs: what did staff say?
University staff were generally more cautious about the benefits of hyperflexible learning. Common concerns were students would lose their sense of being part of a group, feel lost or overwhelmed, allow assignments to pile up, and it could ultimately see more students dropping out.
Staff were also concerned no due dates could increase their workload. They noted they would be less free to take leave or attend conferences if they did not have a reasonable expectation when their marking would be due. Even when students were being taught the same content, there were new challenges and as one staff member said:
I feel as though I am managing two cohorts.
Staff members did see benefits in hyperflexible learning also and most said they were willing to experiment with it. Several commented on the potential for motivated students to finish their degrees faster. One staff member noted that having now taught a hyperflexible unit:
I have confidence that most students get there in the end.
Our study suggests removing due dates from undergraduate units has potential to make university study more accessible and less rigid, while reducing student stress.
One key issue is how students can maintain a sense of being together in a group, receive support, and feel a connection to their university.
For educators, hyperflexible learning is a distinct form of teaching and staff members would need to be adequately trained and supported. This way of teaching is individualistic and seeks to fit study around the needs of each student. To some extent, this is in conflict with the ideal of university as a learning community.
Although the responses to the pilot program were largely positive, there is still a lot more we need to know about the impact of removing due dates and time pressures. For example, although due dates were removed, students still had to complete their assessments within the semester – due to university and government policies.
Also, while this approach might fit the assessment-focused humanities, we don’t know how this works in disciplines that are more heavily exam-driven (like health and IT).
Ultimately, risks associated with hyperflexible learning and the impact on both staff and students need to be considered carefully before adopting these approaches for undergrads.
So, sorry students – seems like you’ll have to finish that essay this week after all.