Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Does anybody really know what time it is?

That song was by a band called Chicago. In 1969. Way to show my age ...

The MOOC experiment is cultural as well as educational. Nowhere was this more starkly evident than in the horror generated by the moment at which the first assignment set came due.

It didn't matter that the course policies said Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). The horror split into three main categories:

1. "The deadlines should be in East Coast time, because EdX is in Boston."

2. "The deadlines should be in Pacific time, because Stat2X is in Berkeley."

3. "The deadlines should be in my time here, because I'm here."

All three are understandable, but each has its problems:

1-2. One of the beauties of an online course is that it's not in any fixed physical location. It's in The Cloud, wherever that is. Clouds drift. Where somebody's office is doesn't determine where the work is done. For example, Stat 2.3X won't start till the semester is over in Berkeley; I might handle that one from several different time zones.

3. Students move, even across time zones. We don't want to keep track of where they're working from, and we can't have each student setting his or her own time zone for each assignment, specially when many students aren't clear about time zones at all.

So we stayed with a single time zone - GMT - which is the platform default and is a standard across the world. Using GMT forces us as course developers to do what most of our students do, which is to arrange our working hours to meet deadlines set in a different time zone. It's an excellent way for us to stay aware of how students have to organize their time.

That said, every deadline that appears on the class website should have a time zone attached to it. And that's not happening. Why? Because it's not possible in the current state of the platform. However, EdX is responsive to concerns and is working on it. Let's hope we'll soon be able to display time zones along with times.

Until that happens, we're stating GMT (also spelled out as Greenwich Mean Time) in bold at the tops of assignments, since stating it once didn't do the job.

And that's as much as we're going to do. We will not have countdown clocks nor reminders sent by email shortly before deadlines. There are other priorities for our overworked engineers; most students finish their work long before the deadlines, anyway.

As for the song, a guy walks up to the singer and asks him for the time "that was on my watch," and the singer subjects him to a "does anybody know and does anybody care" philosophical non-response. You can't help feeling sorry for the poor guy who was probably just trying to catch a bus.

Good song, though, for when you're feeling grumpy about the rat race.

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