How Much Time Should an Online Course Take?

Five years or so ago, when MOOCs were still a new thing, I commented on what seemed to be the emerging typical duration of open online courses: Open Courses: About 10 Weeks Seems To Be It, Then?

For the OU’s 10 week short courses, which nominally required up to 10 hours study a week (the courses were rated at 10 CAT points), this meant a duration of 100 hours. The cost (at the time) of those courses was about £150, I think. So about £1.50 an hour purchase cost.

Looking at the upcoming OU FutureLearn course Learn to code for data analysis, the time commitment is 4 weeks at 3-4 hours per week, so about 15 hours. If you don’t want to pay anything, you don’t have to.

Although I can’t offhand find any previous blog posts comparing courses to things like books or games (and I guess, DVD/streamed TV “box sets”), as “cultural content consumption items”, it’s one of the reference points I often think about when it comes to trying to imagining how a course – formal (for credit), or informal – fits into the life of the student amongst other competing demands on the their time, attention and finances. If someone is going to take a course for the first time and spend time/attention/cash on it, does the study pattern neatly replace or substitute a previous pattern of activity, or does it require a more significant change in a learners daily or weekly habits. In other words, what are the attention economics associated with taking a course?

This was all brought to mind again lately when I spotted this post – Forty Hours – which opens with the observation that “the majority of videogames were made on the assumption that they would be played for forty hours. Now, games are being made to be played for longer and longer. (I’ve no idea if this is true or not; I don’t really follow game culture. Maybe the longer games are ones where there is an element of social (especially 2-way audio) enhanced gameplay?)

If true, this seems to contrast with the shortening of courses that is perhaps taking place on FutureLearn (again, I don’t have the data to back this up; it’s just an impression; nor do I have the data about evolving course length more widely in MOOC space. Presumably, the Open Education Research Hub is the sort of place where I should be able to find this sort of data?)

If that is the case, then why are games getting longer and online open courses shorter (if, indeed, they are? And in formal ed, where does semesterisation sit in all this?). As the Forty Hours post goes on:

[E]very major commercial game now attempts to ‘capture’ its audience for at least 200 hours, with multiplayer modes being the core method of retention. The forty hour model was a consequence of selling games-as-products, as boxed content that would be played then thrown onto a pile of completed games (although it turns out that the minority of players finish games). The 200 hour model is a consequence of selling games-as-services, with monetization now an on-going process throughout the time the players are engaged with the title in question. …

The big money is no longer out to hold a player’s attention for forty hours, but to hold a player’s attention long enough to get the next game out, or to hold on to groups of players in the hope to pull in a few big spenders, or to hold the player’s attention throughout the year with events crafted to maintain appeal and bring back those who are slipping away into other games. Hobby players – those who commit to a game service over the long term – often play other games on the side, which is a tiny crumb of good news for indies making smaller games. …

The game-as-product approach where the forty hour model had dominated still survives, but only where it has proved difficult or impossible to tie players down for longer lengths of time. The market for videogames is ceasing to be one of packaged experience (like movies and novels) and becoming a fight for retention, as more and more games in the upper market shift their design towards training new hobby players in a ongoing economy.

In other words, why are we looking to shorten the relationship someone has with a course? Is this so we can extend the relationship the platform has with the learner by getting them to take more, shorter courses rather than fewer longer courses? (UPDATE: Or as Helen Noble points out in a comment, is it because the MOOC is actually a loss leading tease intended to draw students into a longer formal commitment? As opposed to being an alumni touch point, encouraging a graduate to maintain some sort of content with their alma mater in the hope getting a donation or bequest out of them later in life?!)

In terms of the completion commitment pitch (that is, what sort of commitment is required of folk to complete a course, or a game), what do the attention spending, cultural content consumers respond to? And how do the economics of competing concerns play out?

(That sounds like a marketing concern, doesn’t it? But it presumably also impacts on learning design within and across courses?)

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

4 thoughts on “How Much Time Should an Online Course Take?”

    1. @Helen Yes, they are being used as marketing… So particularly for the OU they could also be seen as a way of helping students see how a course might fit into their life as a part-time distance ed student (which is not so relevant for traditional, site based, turn up to lectures HEIs).

      Indeed, OU could try to poach learners taking other HEI’s courses on the basis that they’ve already started to form time/attention habits that would transfer to taking an OU course. But there would be a conflict of interest there (the OU owns FutureLearn…)

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