Posts Tagged 'Unix Time'

It’s About Time (in Part): MOOC Planning – Part 10

 A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor embarking on his first massively open online course.

Well, lectures have ended and the course has now switched gears. For those still left in the course (17% of the final enrollment total of 64,045), the next two weeks are focused on trying to make sense of everything they have learned, and working on the final exam — which in the case of my course involves peer evaluation.

Calibrated Peer Review is not new. A study of its use in the high school system by Sadler and Good, published in 2006, has become compulsory reading for those of us planning and giving MOOCs that cover material that cannot be machine graded. [If you want to see how I am using it, just enroll in the class and read the description of the “Peer Review system”. There is no obligation to do anything more than browse around the site! No one will know you are not simply a dog that can use a computer.]

As I was working on my course, Coursera was still frantically building out their platform to support peer evaluation. There was a lot of just-in-time construction. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to go behind a user-friendly interface and dig into the underlying code to do something on a computer, and the programming languages have all changed since I last did that.

One thing I had to learn was one of the ways networked computers keep time. I now know that at the time of writing these words, 7:00AM Pacific Daylight Time on October 22, 2012,  exactly 1,350,914,400 seconds have elapsed since the first second of January 1st, 1970, Eastern Standard Time. That was the start of Unix Time.

I needed to learn to work in Unix Time in order to set the various opening times and completion deadlines for the exam process. I expect that by the time the next instructor puts together a MOOC, she or he will be greeted by a nice, friendly Coursera interface with pulldown menus and boxes to tick — which probably will come as a great relief to any humanities professors reading this, who don’t have any programming in their background.

[By coincidence, Unix was the last programming language I had any proficiency in, but I did not need to know Unix to use Unix Time. I just used an online converter. Unix was developed in 1969 at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Hence the 1970 EST baseline.]

In fact, time conversion issues in general turned out to be a  continuing, major headache in a course with students all over the world. One thing we will not do again is have 12:00PM Stanford Time, aka Coursera Time (i.e., PDT), as any of the course deadlines. It might seem a nice clean stopping point, and there are all those memories of Gary Cooper’s deadline in the classic Western movie High Noon, but many students missed the deadline for the first submitted assignment because they thought 12:00PM meant midnight, which in some parts of the world made them a whole day late.

The arbitrary illogicality of the AM/PM distinction is not apparent to those of us who grew up with it. But my course TA and I are now very aware of the problems it can lead to! In future, we’ll stick to unambiguous times that stay away from noon and midnight. But even then, with local computer systems usually working on local time, to say nothing of the different Summer and Winter Times, which change on different dates around the world, timing events in MOOCs is going to remain a problematic issue, just as it is for international travelers and professionals who collaborate globally over Skype and other conferencing services. (When I used the Unix Time conversion app, I had to remember that Unix thinks New Jersey is currently just two hours ahead of California, not the three hours United Airlines uses when it flies me there. Confusing, isn’t it?)

The reason why times are an issue in my course is that it is a course. At first glance, it may look little different from Khan Academy, where there are no time issues at all. But Khan Academy is really just an educational resource. (At least, that’s the part most people are familiar with and use, namely the video library that started it all. People use it as a video version of a textbook — or more precisely a video equivalent to that good old standby Cliffs Notes, which got many of us through an exam in an obligatory subject we were not particularly interested in.)

In contrast, in my case, as I’ve discussed earlier in this blog series (in particular, Part 6), my goal was to take a standard university course (one I’ve given many times over the years, at different universities, including Stanford) and make it available to anyone in the world, for free. To the degree I could make it happen, they would get the same learning experience.

That meant that the main goal would be to build a (short-lived) learning community. The video-recorded lectures and tutorials were simply tools to make that happen and to orchestrate events. Real learning takes place when students work on assignments on their own, when they repeatedly fail to solve a problem, and when they interact (with the professor and with one another) — not when they watch a lecture or read a book.

To achieve that goal, the MOOC would, as I stated in Part 6, involve admissions, lectures, peer interaction, professor interaction, problem-solving, assignments, exams, deadlines, and certification. To use the mnemonic I coined early on in this series, the basic design principle is WYSIWOSG: What You See Is What Our Students Get.

As we go forward, I intend to iterate on the course design, based on the data we collect from the students (and 64,000 students very definitely puts us into the Big Data realm). But my basic principle will remain that of offering a course, not the provision of a video library. And the reason for that should be obvious to anyone who has been following this blog series, as well as some of the posts on my other blogs Devlin’s Angle and profkeithdevlin.org. The focus is not on acquiring facts or mastering basic skills, but on learning to think a certain way (in my case, like a professional mathematician). And that requires both a lot of effort and (for most of us) a lot of interaction with others trying to achieve the same goal.

Our ancestors in the 11th Century started to develop what to this day remains the best way we know to achieve this at scale: the university, where people become members of a learning community in which learning takes place in a hothouse atmosphere that involves periods of intense interaction as deadlines loom, sustained by the rapidly formed social bonds that emerge as a result of that same pressure.

While I will likely experiment with variants of this model that allow for participation by students who have demanding, full-time jobs, I doubt I will abandon that basic model. It has lasted for a thousand years for a good reason. It works.

To be continued …


I'm Dr. Keith Devlin, a mathematician at Stanford University. I gave my first free, open, online math course in fall 2012, and have been offering it twice a year since then. This blog chronicles my experiences as they happen.

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