The Paradox of Flexibility

The summer semester started this week and I’m teaching two graduate classes online this semester. I’ve spent the last week or two preparing to get the courses ready for the first day of class. This preparation process usually involves copying and revising materials from previous iterations of the courses. I’ll move around modules, change deadlines, and retool different assignments. I try to get most of the course built before the first day of class so that I can focus on facilitation once the class has begun. I’ve used this metaphor before, but I view online teacher like planning to host a party. If you prepare a lot of the stuff in advance, you can enjoy the party once it’s happening. The same goes for online teaching. When an online teacher prepares a lot of their course in advance, they can focus more on the facilitation aspects once the course has begun. Online teaching as party planning. Or at least that’s the metaphor I’ve used in the past.

But I came across a term recently that has me re-evaluating that metaphor. A student’s paper referenced “the paradox of flexibility” of asynchronous class and I felt the need to find the original paper where the phrase was used. After some quick Google searching, I found a 2018 study by Janine Delahunty in Linguistics and Education. Delahunty uses the phrase early in the paper when she explains the challenges with asynchronous discussion boards. Delahunty writes:

“While the ‘anywhere, anytime’ mode of delivery can attract interest from prospective students, this may have implications for the sociality of ‘learning to connect’, or the opportunities to develop a sense of belonging to a learning community through quality in relationships between group members who may never (physically) meet.” (pg. 12).

Delahunty elaborates by saying that the flexibility of asynchronous delivery “provides just as many opportunities not to engage with others as it does to engage.” Which is where the “paradox of flexibility” emerges. While students can choose to participate whenever is best for them, that flexibility can inhibit the formation of a cohesive learning community where social interaction is fostered. If you believe (as I do) that learning is dependent on social interaction, the flexibility of asynchronous classes can also impact the overall learning experience. Hence the paradox.

So, while I like to describe my online class preparation as planning for a party, I’ve planned “a party” where students attend and participate flexibly and on their own schedules. Which doesn’t make it seem like much of a party at all. Or at least not one where everyone is gathered and interacting at once. That’s not to mean that asynchronous classes can’t be valuable learning experiences for students. I feel that they are. It’s just that I have to more fully accept that how I describe and visualize them may be a far way removed from how they actually are.


Delahunty, J. (2018). Connecting to learn, learning to connect: Thinking together in asynchronous forum discussion. Linguistics and Education, 46, 12-22.


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