I will get to the point in ... three... two... one...
Yet more and more I find myself convinced that time is the essential variable in education. The course design question isn't what needs to be taught but what can be taught in the amount of time we're given. And by teach I mean leading the students through a series of experiences that create a changed way of thinking about a subject, the world or even themselves. After all, cognitive scientists have long known that mental models change slowly.
Nevertheless, time continues to be meted out in the standard 16 or eight-week units at most colleges and universities. Daytime classes at my institution, for example, come in two varieties: three-days a week for 50 minutes, or twice a week for 80 minutes. Whatever a course has to accomplish must be introduced, learned and given its final assessment in this discrete, finite allotment. But why shouldn't a student's achievement be assessed over a year or two or 10? What if there were developmental benchmarks along the way and it didn't matter in which time box they occurred, only that they occurred?
Maybe time is on my mind because I've spent the last few days re-configuring a two-day a week first-year seminar into three days a week. And it's not as easy as you might think. For one thing, the three-day a week model is actually a net loss of 10 minutes per week (or an entire week over the full semester). More importantly, there are some strategies (i.e., in-class writing) that work better in the 80 minute period. It just seems that I can get a bit deeper into an idea or a discussion with more than 50 minute blocks. And yet I can't teach all of my classes on the two-day a week plan. I'd go mad.
Compounding the time problem is the sped up whir of information today. Just look at on-line ads. They now come with tiny countdown clocks specifying when you will get the content (or even when you are allowed to skip past the ad). Each time we encounter these ads, we're doing a quiet mental calculation. Is the information payoff worth 20 seconds of my attention? My students are doing a version of this calculation in my classes at nearly every moment.
Even so, we professors still teach as if our jobs operate on the economic principle of scarcity. We think the students need us because we alone possess and can grant access to the prized expertise and knowledge. But scarcity and access are hardly problems in an information economy. Let's face it: nearly all of what we teach can be found elsewhere and often for free.
Indeed, certain theorists like Richard Lanham have argued the so-called information economy is misnamed. He suggests we ought to think in terms of an attention economy because it's human attention that's scarce, not information or access. What the students are paying for these days is my ability to distill, to edit and to package ideas and information into 50 or 80 minute units. Just as importantly, they're paying me to do this in a way that is worthy of an increasingly precious commodity: their attention.
I have a few ideas on how I might begin to do this better, but maybe I should save it for another post. In the age of Twitter, long blog posts usually earn the dreaded TL;DR.