A stitch in Time saves online

When you are online, Time as you have known it, can change drastically. We are used to fixed sessions, multiple subjects a day and a schedule of assessments in school time. We have a clear separation and purpose for school time and home time. We have a time cadence of terms or semesters and academic years. We have a time delimited certification (12 years of schooling, 4 years for a degree etc.) in our systems.

But when we go online, it is not necessary to stick to the same regimen. Our conception of Time cannot be the same for both a physical school experience and the online medium.

Why not?

How do we understand time in the traditional system? We do this through some form of the Carnegie Unit.

The Carnegie unit is a system developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that based the awarding of academic credit on how much time students spent in direct contact with a classroom teacher. The standard Carnegie unit is defined as 120 hours of contact time with an instructor—i.e., one hour of instruction a day, five days a week, for 24 weeks, or 7,200 minutes of instructional time over the course of an academic year.

The last time we thought of Time in education was in the late 19th century, it seems. (OK, people have thought of more ways to look at time – read WhatIfEDU – but just making an aggravated assertion).

The online medium will cause us to rethink this conception of Time for many reasons.

Firstly. When you are in the bounded space of a classroom and lecture, your learning environment is limited. You are not multi-tasking, there are no back channel conversations, there are no non-linear explorations on the side, and the experience is limited to what the teacher shares and enables. However, the online medium is unbounded, its a multiverse, non-linear and networked.

Secondly, instead of closed, cohesive offline groups, we are open and distributed contributors to online networks. Stephen Downes succinctly summarized this distinction between groups and networks many years ago.

Groups, like in physical classrooms, are cohesive and unified, coordinated (have common process and fixed learning environments), closed (no interaction between classrooms), and centralized & distributive (hierarchical, broadcast, timetables, content etc.)

Networks, on the other hand are diverse, connected, open & democratic, and autonomous. Gone are the thick walls between one classroom and the other, between one subject and the other, between one student or teacher and the other. Learning and teaching are porous and connected.

While offline, group behaviour and organization may be the answer to logistics concerns and maintaining certain teacher-student ratios, when we move online, we need to leverage the power of the networks (for content, expertise, innovation and many other benefits). My favourite example is of Alec Couros calling experts from his network to help comment and interact with his students in an open manner – something imaginable in the confines of a physical class or in the definitions of power in the classroom.

Affordances of online networked learning thus challenge our notions of Time and how we should expect teachers and students to spend it online.

Thirdly, the notion of development of competencies takes on a different set of flavours. While we traditionally talk about proctored term tests and high stakes exams as the way of determining proficiency and ability, in the online world, an equal emphasis has to be placed on learning to learn – the critical literacies that both teachers and students need to build in order to be responsible and autonomous in their own learning, to be able to set and pursue goals and to climb their own thousand plateaus. This shift from learning to know to learning to be – the importance of the capability to learn more than the capability to know – becomes equally important.

Fourthly, how we assess competencies is fundamentally richer online than what we have come to expect in the traditional methods. Just to take an example, a student can now use tools available on the web to research a pandemic using public datasources and expert AI based research – instead of doing a bookish course on AI with a primitive class constrained problem (like we do our programming courses, alas) – and the competency that would be demonstrated building those models and leveraging those technologies would be far bigger than what a term or other traditional test could ever assess.

How will these, and other reasons to rethink Time, manifest for us?

In the online medium, it is important to reconsider the structure of class with respect to time – the online “lesson” needs to have different elements that are more suited to learning online. The notion of class time and the false division of class and home time, has to be rethought. The important piece is to bring in a state of connected-ness and flow of teaching and learning rather than the stock lecture. The tools for learning & collaboration and those for assessments have to be used and built for blurring the boundaries of space-time in teaching and learning.

Interested in knowing more? Keep watching this space.

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