Attending online colleges has an array of benefits, one of the main ones being that students can log on and learn from anywhere, anytime. As an extension of that, some schools are offering self-paced courses in which students can take their time or speed through coursework - it's their choice. Unlike traditional college classes or even most online colleges, self-paced courses are free of  deadlines or due dates, offering a flexibility that some types of students might find appealing.

"A self-paced course is where the student has control over the tempo and flow of the course," explains Dr. Jeff Borden, Vice President of Instruction and Academic Strategy at Pearson and Professor at Chaminade University. "It empowers the student by putting the control in their hands."

The way it works is that the courses are competency-based, meaning students must demonstrate that they have achieved the specific knowledge and skill set requirements in order to move forward. It's taking some time for them to catch on at academic institutions that offer for-credit courses and traditional degree programs. "Self-paced online courses are more common for continuing education and corporate training, and not as common in the educational space. MOOCs (massive open online courses) are also essentially a self-paced experience," says Borden.

Most institutions that are experimenting with this format are dipping their toes into the water slowly to make sure their self-paced and competency-based courses are well-received. Some online colleges are jumping in, however, offering self-paced online courses for credit toward a degree.

One such school is Northern Arizona University (NAU), which launched its Personalized Learning competency-based online Bachelor's degree program in May 2013. The program gives students credit for their existing knowledge, and is then tailored to individual learning preferences, giving students the opportunity to finish at their own pace online. Currently, Personalized Learning offers degrees in Computer Information Technology, Liberal Arts and Small Business Administration.

Are you a match for self-paced learning?

Where you're starting to see more interest in self-paced online courses for credit is in the military, says Borden. "The sailor on a submarine can literally come up to the surface and download all of his content to get through the next weeks. It's a very appealing option since pragmatically, they don't have any other way to attend classes," he explains.

This format can also be beneficial to those wanting to learn a specific piece of information, or how to understand something they couldn't do before, says Borden. "They can then apply it to their jobs to get a promotion, or change a process. These 'microcredentials' can really help him or her," he says.

Dr. Fred Hurst, Senior Vice President of The Extended Campuses of NAU says that self-paced programs can be appealing to most any non-traditional student. The average student age at The Extended Campuses of NAU, for instance, is around 33. "They have full-time jobs and families, so an online approach is a more flexible, appealing option," he says. "Students can complete their studies when it is convenient for them; during their lunch hour, after they've put the kids to bed at night, while they are waiting in the doctor's office, or even on their morning commute."

And, with no impending deadlines hanging over their heads, students in self-paced online courses can take time off when life gets in the way without consequence to their academic standing.

What are the challenges with self-paced courses?

Because of the less structured nature of self-paced courses - meaning, there are no professors guiding you through every step of the way, or timelines set out in advance to keep your progress on track - students must be extremely self-motivated. "Some students do just fine because they are going back to school for their own concrete reasons, not just because it's the right time in their life. It translates into a different level of commitment," says Hurst. Essentially, he says, the motivation is much greater because it's about making a better life for themselves and their family, as opposed to attending college because it's simply the expected path after high school.

Another challenge lies on the content creator side, says Borden. "Schools have to make sure that this is content needed or desired by their audience. As soon as you give content that the person needs, there's an intrinsic motivation to make the person persist," he says. In other words, there has to be a level of commitment by the university to create programs that have high value, and will in turn have strong completion rates. With no end date, universities may be worried that students might not feel enough loyalty or connection back to the university to complete their programs, says Borden.

Self-paced vs. traditional college

If you're thinking that a self-paced online course or degree program is just the type of online college experience you're looking for, take a look at some pros and cons of self-paced and traditional programs, and then see which is a better match:

Self-Paced Programs
  • No time wasted reinforcing things you already know.
  • Can accelerate or slow down as necessary.
  • Typically less expensive than a traditional education program. At NAU, for instance, students pay a six-month subscription rate and can take as many classes as they want.
  • Can complete work anytime, anywhere, and whenever you want.
  • Lack of or less connection to other students and professors.
  • Not widely available.
  • Must have a high level of commitment to keep yourself on track.
  • Less course options to choose from.
Traditional Programs
  • Widely available, with lots of courses to choose from.
  • Lots of interaction with professors and classmates.
  • Having a timeframe and an anticipated completion date.
  • Locked-in class times and deadlines that might not fit with your lifestyle.
  • Costs are often very high.
  • Sitting through required introductory coursework even though your work experience puts you at an advanced level.

"Unfortunately, the traditional education system in the U.S. puts all students on the same regimented path and timeline: first grade is first grade, and it takes everyone the entire year to get through first grade," says Hurst. "That's not the way we naturally learn. We naturally learn by working on something until we have mastered it, and then we move on to whatever is next," he says.

Along those lines, not every type of degree program will suit every student, which is why it's important to research your options, both traditional and online colleges, to find the one that suits your needs, helps you achieve your goals, and gives you the tools that allow you to succeed. Self-paced courses may be in their infancy, but they could be worth looking into for anyone interested in a unique online learning experience.