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Time is of the essence. Why don’t we spend more time teaching it?

Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash - a clock on a pink and blue background

This blog is written by Dr Terry O’Sullivan, Senior Lecturer in Management in the OU Business School. Terry's subject-based research focuses on the use of marketing in the arts and for positive social change. The original blog was published on 29 May 2020 and can be accessed on the SCiLAB website.

Sure you’ve got the time to read this? Then I’ll be as quick as I can.

You see time seems to be the key barrier to learning online.

Thanks to support from the OU’s Enhanced Employability and Career Progression Programme I’ve been reviewing literature on how people learn skills from online resources like MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) for my CORES project (Connecting Open Routes to Employability Skills) and come across the issue of time all the time. Learners using open educational resources like MOOCs often start out thinking they have plenty of time, then get thrown off course by the lack of it. This results in a lot of valuable skills going to waste, not only for the individuals concerned, but for the economy as a whole.

A Swedish research team talked to people doing MOOCs about why completion rates are typically less than 10% (Eriksson, et al., 2017). Their findings make interesting reading.
Some of the reasons cited for non-completion are things that just happen. Unexpected life events like family illness or a crisis at work throw even the most determined learner off course.

Other problems look more fixable. Many learners stop because they simply misunderstood what the MOOC had to offer. Clearer information might help with this one, though the amount of upfront guidance MOOC providers can offer in practice is often very limited. Usually, the only way to find out exactly what a MOOC covers is to sign up. If it turns out to be a blind alley, no wonder learners bail out early (or at the point where they find what they were looking for, as you would in a reference book).

But the number one problem cited in the Swedish research was lack of time. That is surely an issue we can all do something about. After all, with the possible exception of Dr Who, everybody gets the same number of hours in a day. But we’re busy people, and one of the allures of online learning is the prospect of being able to cram it into already crowded schedules. Apparently not something many people succeed in doing.

As a result, educators have to treat time, or how we manage it, as the key skill that unlocks all the other skills that online learning has to offer.

There is some great work going on around this already. The OU FutureLearn MOOCs I’ve had experience with are designed to help people manage their time for effective study. Videos are short and pithy, with timings right up front from the start. The platform’s step by step approach creates learning episodes which typically take no longer than 20 minutes, each building on the next so you can pick up where you left off after an interruption. There’s nothing there that doesn’t need to be. On-screen graphics show just how far you’ve got in a week, and congratulatory messages sparkle into view at milestones throughout the course, to keep you going.

US MOOC platform Coursera takes a slightly different tack, giving timings not only for videos but for readings – which is very helpful in deciding what to study when. Coursera MOOCs tend to be video-intensive and sitting through a succession of talking heads can add weight to the notion that ‘brevity is the soul of wit’. Those FutureLearn clips are short for a reason. But Coursera gives you a very clear overview of what’s in store each week, making you more likely to get through it.

French academics Nawrot and Doucey (2014) argue that MOOCs should feature time management skills support as a standard ingredient. I’d second that, for online and distance learning in general. I remember when introductory tutorials on OU modules regularly featured a spot on how to find time to study the course. Participants filled in a pie chart representing a typical day with slices for sleeping, working, travelling, watching TV, doing housework, relating to their nearest and dearest, and so on. They inevitably emerged shocked at how little time this left for studying, implying hard choices and the need for a supportive attitude from friends and families.

It also implies the need for time management skills to be wrapped into online learning on a routine basis. The emphasis on time that I have noted in MOOC design is becoming business as usual in general teaching at The Open University (with meticulous attention to estimating realistically how long students will spend on learning and assessment each week). But we could, and should, do more to expose the central importance of time management in effective online learning, and help students develop and practice the necessary skills.

As soft skills go, time management is a pretty hard one to crack. But without it all our carefully conceived online learning resources may end up looking like – a waste of time.


  • Eriksson, T., Adawi, T. and Stohr, C. (2017) ‘‘‘Time is the bottleneck’’: a qualitative study exploring why learners drop out of MOOCs’, J Comput High Education, Vol 29, pp. 133–146 DOI 10.1007/s12528-016-9127-8
  • Nawrot, I. and Doucet, A. (2014)’Building Engagement for MOOC Students – Introducing Support for Time Management on Online Learning Platforms’, 23rd International World Wide Web Conference (WWW’14), Workshop on Web-based Education Technologies (WebET 2014), April, Seoul, South Korea [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 6 March 2020)