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Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Do week-based course structures for online learning work?

By Matt Jenner, on 25 February 2014

It’s a fairly simple question, but I am unsure how often it’s asked; but do these online courses, based on weeks, really work? Are we following a time-based system based on harvesting and industry within education with great reason, or did it just kinda emerge because humans have a habit of sheepism?

Seven-day week etymology

Most of us live a seven day week and have done so since the Babylonian Captivity of the 6th century BC. The week was created around the number 7, a good number for many people. When we had slightly less-informed thoughts, we accepted a few ideas and didn’t really challenge it too much. There’s a bit of a story, but I’ll cover it with something along the lines of people believing the seven things that seem most bright, and important, were ‘planets’. I’ve written these into a table-thing below; the first column is ‘planets’ (yeah, I know), next we have ‘planet’ + ‘day’, then the french word for the day and finally the English.

Moon / Moon day / LundiMonday 

Mars / Mars day / MardiTuesday

Mercury / Mercury day / Mercredi / Wednesday

Jupiter / Jupiter day / Jeudi / Thursday

Venus / Venus day / Vendredi / Friday

Saturn / Saturn day / Samedi / Saturday

Sun / Sun day / Dimanche / Sunday

It was a real problem when we found that some of these were not planets, and also that there were more planets, quite a few actually. But, it hopefully remains interesting in how much aligns, or sticks. It’s lucky a few challenged these ideas, some punished for doing so, but they too were eventually free.

Break conformity

Why mention the days of the week? Well the number seven has been influential in many societies for thousands for years, but the week still dominates most of the world today. You probably feel good on a Friday and miserable on a Monday. If not, I am sure there are days that affect you, some are better than others. You’ve lost control, the actual day should not matter one iota. But it does.


I blogged a few months ago about a little idea I had called ‘chronogogy‘ – the idea of time-informed learning [design]. It was half-baked, but I’m heading for a biscuit (derived from the latin bis (twice) and coctus (cooked)). A twice-baked idea might not go stale so quickly… The basic concept was that timing of online learning activities might not be quite as obvious as we thought. There’s a predictable drop in people going online during the weekend and Wednesday. The patterns repeat over the past few years, for several types of website (learning and not). It’s with this highly-unscientific and basic notion, that perhaps some further research is needed. My view is that we should be careful to design time-dependent learning activities that do not align with the learners’ habits and life choices. Instead we need to design for online learning, around at least when people are going to be online. Not a bold claim, I hope.

Week-based courses

Basing a course structure, especially fully-online, seems crazy if the learners won’t get a chance to log in and participate. Or, if they do, under potential external pressures. If online activity is dominated by four days on, three days off, then we need to ensure planned, time-based activities, take this into account. Additionally, online learners are often mixing it with other things. They may be juggling employment, family, friends and other commitments to fit their learning in. They are marred by the week for everything, Tuesday they pick up children, Thursday they go to Choir, Saturday they play sports and Sunday is a holy day. Many days are full, fitting that online discussion in is a hard squeeze on Monday night, the day before it needs to be done. They also have to get themselves online which takes a slot for concentration etc.

Design differently

My suggestion is simple, don’t do this. Consider design for different periods of time. Don’t put flexible people into ridged formats. I say A4 is not a learning format, it’s an ISO standard for paper. When creating online courses you don’t immediately scan in paper. A4 paper to an online learning environment is not trendy. You’re likely to use a range of media, a diminishing amount of which is fit into an A4 shape. Think of all the traditional formats you’re defaulting to, and question them. For time:

  1. Does this fit in to a typical week?
  2. What if people can’t access this on a Tuesday? 
  3. Can I overlap activities? 
  4. What if I worked to a 10-day week, would that work? 
  5. Why? 
  6. What-if? 
  7. Can I? 
  8. How about…?
  9. etc. 

Change is good

My colleague and good friend Andy Sykes left UCL a year or so ago and left a whiteboard with some leaving messages. One of them should stick and reverberate more often:

Change is good


I’d be interested to hear your thoughts…

I am continuing to refine this time concept into something, more, urm, tangible 🙂

2 Responses to “Do week-based course structures for online learning work?”

  • 1
    mattjenner wrote on 25 February 2014:

    Some further thoughts on time-informed learning design. Very early days but I can’t dismiss it all so quickly http://t.co/WUoHIdx58k

  • 2
    Matt Whyndham wrote on 6 March 2014:

    I think the concept of the available bandwidth of the learner needs to be factored in. Simply being busy could lead to a breakdown of a weekly format.

    Conversely, humans like regularity, so if there is convenient clock tick to hang things on, like a Month of a Season.

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