Fixing The Calendar

My official return to studies is imminent. This will be the most advanced qualification I have attempted at this particular institution. Some of the course will be face-to-face but the bulk of it seems to be offered via an online learning environment. I am a bit angsty about it all. I’m not really sure of the width and the breadth of what I have to do. I want to know what I have to do. I want to get stuck in. I want to discover what comes to me easily and what I will struggle with, and start working towards strategies to tackle the latter.

But I have to wait.

The teaching year is broken up into semesters and terms and weeks and days and sessions. Trainers are taught to ‘chunk’ information into manageable portions. They, quite understandably, don’t want to overwhelm a learner with too much, too soon. But how much is too much? How much is right? It depends on the learner and learners are all different.

One of the things I like about EDCMOOC is that all the course content is available all of the time. If you want to dive into week three content during week one, you can. There’s nobody to slap your hand and tell you you’re doing it wrong.

It isn’t just about starting either, it is also about finishing. You need to demonstrate your ability to understand, explain or do something within a fixed time period.

Salman Khan — of Khan Academy fame — explained some of the problems with this approach during the TED Radio Hour:

The education model is we group kids in these age based cohorts and then we move them together, even when kids clearly have substandard understanding of one concept or another. They got a B or a C or a D on some exam, they don’t know how to multiply decimals or whatever, we say, ‘Oh too bad, your cohort is moving ahead, let’s all move together.’ So what we fix is the calendar and how long students have to learn something, and what’s variable is how well they learn it.

If you haven’t conquered algebra (for example) in the time allocated within this system, you probably never will. Worse still if the understandings you were expected to receive from that lesson underpin future lessons you are in for huge challenges!

Khan explains how valuable learning via online videos can be. Students can watch and rewatch the same video as many times as they need to gain an understanding. They can pause things. They can go back to older concepts they may have forgotten — and, importantly, they can do this without the shame of having to admit it in front of their teacher or their peers. They can do this, too, outside of the constraints of that ‘fixed calendar.’ They can do it in their own time and at their own leisure. They can do it at night, on weekends, during holidays. Adults who need a refresher, as well as ones who never learned this stuff in the first place, can do it easily and freely. And parents wanting to help their children with their homework can get a few pointers too.

We are surrounded by resources and if you want to have anything more than a cursory understanding of anything you really need to dive deep and fully immerse yourself in content. You will have ‘a-ha!’ moments of illumination over time, but not necessarily in the kind of fixed calendar described above. This fixed calendar is a product of economics and organisational structures. A harsh deadline may help some to focus, but it may also result in many feeling overwhelmed or neglected. If ‘life long’ learning is to mean anything it will transcend the classroom and the qualifications and the arbitrary deadlines. We’re not learning for an assessment to be undertaken on our deathbeds. We are learning to understand.

2 comments… add one
  • Khan rocks because it is nearly 100% asyncronous in presentation, but if you need some help from a peer, they might respond in a day, month, or even a year later than your question. Granted, this is probably a non-issue in the very popular courses where a critical mass of students exists nearly every day. Otoh, this drawback might well be just an early stage growing pain until critical mass exists across the entire curricula.

    Also, consider the group dynamics of #EDCMOOC. If you need a lot of diversity and discussion as part of how you learn, it seems you really need to keep up with the group. If you don’t keep up, and post your responses 6 weeks out of sync, my guess is you will only get a fraction of the feedback that you might have experienced by being in sync. Such would seemingly throw a wrench into the constructivist leaning philosophy that surrounds #EDCMOOC. I could however find I am way wrong on this and find that the course is truly asynchronus. Time will tell I guess.

    Bottom line though I tend to agree with you as concerns fixing the calender. The traditional model is not all that great, and if other models even grant just a tiny bit more flexibility, it would be a good step forward..

  • Speaking as an educator, I loved the single class (in 20 years of teaching) I did online. My college is behind the wave here, but they offered the courses for instructors and I took them even though they didn’t have many online choices for students. I hope that changes. For all the reasons you said. Well done, John, and good luck with the new semester!

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