Catch up strategies in online courses

Flickr photo by Simon Pais-ThomasMy friend Bronwyn Stuckey wrote a blog post this week that rang bells for me. She was essentially asking, how do we catch up when we are lost or left behind in an online learning course/class/workshop? This hit home because right now I’m facilitating a workshop and have totally fallen behind in two online courses I’m ostensibly “taking!” Ha!

Here is a snippet to get us started. Lost or left behind in online learning? « Bron’s Spot

Flickr photo by JagginLast week I was facing what many of our online learners must face – a guilt trip about not devoting enough time to a course and being overwhelmed by decisions. Do I try to catch it all up after being inattentive for a few weeks? Do I try and contact someone, perhaps a buddy, and try to get the abridged version of what has passed me by? If everyone else is keeping up why am I so inadequate? Do I just pick up from here and ignore or let slide what has passed me by? Or do I just give up because I feel too far behind?

I know in the Foundations of Communities of Practice workshop in which I am a leader and coach, we have have been acutely aware of this kind of problem. How do we allow people easy reentry into the hub of the learning when they have been absent (physically or mentally)? This is particularly important when courses like Foundations and the FOC08 and CCK08 have a frequent phase changes that make returning your attentions like picking up a movie plot part way through the screening. We have never really found a satisfactory answer. How do other online programs deal with this?

Flickr photo by Ric e etteFirst, for those not familiar with term “phase change” in the context of a course, my interpretation is a phase change is when the group shifts from a focus or topic, shifts from one form of interaction to another (going from online to offline, for example, or shifting to using a different tool or modality.) Sometimes the shift makes us feel that there is no going back to previous phases, or that if you missed the previous phase, you were out of luck. Bron, is that your interpretation?

OK, let’s start brainstorming strategies for facilitating catch up and reentry. I started to sort some initial into two lists – strategies for the workshop designer/instructor/facilitator and strategies for the learner/participant, but in a collaborative or community setting, some of these might be interchangable. So they are all in one and you can infer which are more design strategies for the facilitator and which are more ongoing learner coping strategies. I’ve included those suggested by Bronwyn!

Design and Practice Strategies for Catching Up in Online Courses

  • Offer synchronous meetings to reestablish engagement through a focused moment in time.
  • Design “phase changes” (as Bron calls them in her blog post) that are also reentry points, rather than “left behind” points. (I should write a whole blog post on this one alone.)
  • Create or encourage the creation of summaries for both content and process where appropriate.
  • Design “Forgiveness” points in time where you tell the learner to ignore everything that came before and just dive in.
  • Encourage learning buddies to help each other – “personal bonds to keep us on track” (Bron).
  • Don’t go overboard in a designing “self directed learning” recognizing that learners are busy and may need/appreciate more scaffolding than “do your own thing, baby!”
  • Contact another learner and ask them to give you a quick update.
  • Offer to do a summary – you will learn more than anyone else and catch up at the same time.
  • Forgive yourself and let go of what was not done and focus on what can still be done.
  • Mark time in your calendar for the course and treat it like a “real appointment.”

What else?

P.S Edited on Friday, Sept 12 – Sue Waters’ comment reminded me it would have been helpful if I referenced the workshops I was referring to:

Photo Credits – creative commons on Flickr

view photostream Uploaded on January 5, 2007
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11 thoughts on “Catch up strategies in online courses”

  1. Tēnā koe Nancy!

    Great list! I’m familiar with all of the strategies you give here as I (probably) have used them all at one time or another (even way back in 60s when I was at uni – yes some apply to what you can do on a non-online course too:-).

    But am I missing something here?

    Avenues that I’ve used that are seemingly not in your list are:

    book references,

    web references,

    links to blog posts,

    links for Delicious.

    Any of these could help fill in the bits the participant had missed. When I missed a lecture at uni, I could always refer to the recommended text or go to the library. Are online courses, these days, so far advanced that nothing can be found anywhere else that could help?

    While I could lend someone my lecture notes or write a summary for them, they would almost certainly come across some references in my notes or summaries that would take them to resources that could provide enrichment.

    Or is that too old-fashioned, too 20th centurish to be of any use these days? Surely not 😉

    Ka kite
    from Middle-down to-earth

  2. Yes, very helpful post Nancy. Bron’s post really does touch on something hey. I am observing a bit of a slump in the FOC08 course, probably partly due to CCK08 (darn those a-listers) and partly due to a possible over site on my part as to the pace of the course schedule, and very much due to my self imposed 5-10 hour per week limit for the course. Hopefully it come back, but I might have to do some one to one encouragement…

  3. My big problem is I have this real urge to read everything. I am trying to train myself that this is not possible, but I find it hard to know what not to read.

    One thing I really like about the Connected Futures workshop was that there was specific mention of what to do (or not do) if you were time challenged.

    But I suspect that learners ultimately need strategies that work for them and cannot rely on others to solve the problem, but maybe it is something that people can learn. Perhaps there should be an online course on Catch up Strategies for Online course – or coping with Information Overload in the Digital World.

  4. The two online courses that Bron is involved in require participants to write blog posts to reflect on their learning. So the key for her greatest learning is to be able to connect easily with the other participants and all collaborate, share and network with each other.

    While email forums and discussions boards help in some ways what would help the most is if all the RSS feeds from the participants posts are brought into the one location where participants could easily read each others posts, comment and reflect. This way the group could work easier as a community to learn. Takes a bit of coordination and use of the same tags but can work.

    Obviously with Leigh’s course this is easier to achieve however with the sheer number of people doing CCK08 I would try and set up a community with a smaller subset of the participants.

    My only other thoughts are after doing two very intensive online projects in the past year — I personally think it is better to do one course and do it really well since two could quite easily be too much.

  5. Ken, absolutely good suggestions and there is no question that we can include technological and “old fashioned” strategies. I realized I had been thinking in terms of how I/a learner feels about falling behind, rather than thinking quantitatively or qualitatively about the course from a content perspective. But yet it is often content that triggers the fallback (overload.)

    Leigh, I wonder what would change in our workshop and course designs if we stopped and included specific catch up phases? There is a niggling thought in that for me, in that when I design and lead a workshop, I am rarely remunerated for the number of hours I put in, so this feels too like “adding more work.” I hate to admit it. I applaud your intent to limit your time in facilitating the FOC08 course. I don’t think I have your discipline!

    This leads to your observation, Shirley, about having/practices strategies overall as learners. One course won’t solve that, but I love the idea of the topic as a focus for both course designers, facilitators and learners to develop those practices!!

    Sue, thanks for reminding me that I did not reference the two courses, and that context would have been helpful in the course. I’m going to go back and edit the post and include links. From a design perspective, how much integration do we want to do/can we do, and how much is simply making the flow available and people making choices about the flow? I think the tag for both of the courses alluded to in this stream have been a really interesting “window in” on the courses for me, but i have not mustered the time and discipline to make a coherent dive into them. So I just catch snippets, like Bron’s post that stimulated me to write this post. So the idea of subgroups appeals to me.

    And yes, one at a time – what a SENSIBLE strategy!! LOL

  6. I think one thing that is overlooked in these suggestions and strategies is timing. It would be good to discuss these issues early and arm people with strategies rather than offer a “fix” when a problem arises. Create the infrastructure and understanding ahead of the challenge and it might never be a problem.

  7. Bron, yup, we need to talk about it up front, but there is also that trickiness of how MUCH other things we talk about up front and the disconnect between the IDEA of overwhelm,and the crushing EXPERIENCE of it.

    We say yeah, yeah, we’ll manage. But when it hits, I think the “flee” instinct kicks in! LOL

  8. Nancy … here I am again, “catching up” on this blog post that I wanted to get to much sooner than now but alas.

    As I think of the strategies I use in terms e.g., make an appointment with myself, set the timer, scan rather than read, skip over past portions, jump in at the current place only looking back when necessary for context or clarity, and still I often feel overwhelmed and rushed with little time for thinking about what I am reading – which means I too often .. shoot from the hip .. or should I say “lip”. Bron’s blog strategy is a wonderful help and still I have to READ all the content I consume and metabolize.

    Here’s a real time scenario (from last week) I spent 11 hours on the road driving this past week (not counting airport time) and while I listened to other content on my iPod (been reading, uh,listening to the book, Influencer by Patterson) … I had no way to use that time to catch up on CCK08. I remembered your question and wondered … what if we could have an audio feed on a site? Something I could either stream on my computer, download and listen to on my iPod and wouldn’t it be great if it pushed to the mobile phone so I could have it no matter whether I am connected via computer?

    Does anyone else find reading as the way to consume difficult to fit into a schedule? As I’ve been writing this post an idea popped for me. We may actually have a solution like this in Utterli ( Would it be of as much value to others as I think it would be to me? Would people be willing to use it?

  9. Hi Nancy and everyone!

    Thanks for placing the post with so much clarity and thanks all for commenting on what you do to catch up. This are practical ideas a learner can follow and try to implement.

    I want to tell you Nancy that I came here from the EVO09 moderators training session, your post was quoted or those who felt burning up. When I saw your name I happily came to read.

    The situation I have in Mexico with my teenagers is that they are not used to receive email so when they receive 6 or 7 emails in a row they get scared, shout laud “overload” and start to retreat. They don’t like to read. They also don’t respond to participating with mics, they refuse to take the mic even among peers. They are so used to write in their strange language with signs and icons at hotmail chat that is almost impossible to get them writing a few lines in a row.

    If you come up with an idea using audio, just listening, please let me know. The kids are going that way and if someone finds a solution or discovers how to deliver content in audio form, I bet he or she will get rich!

    See you around! Besos. Maru

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