Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Considering the world's time...

Time is a major factor in a mooc.
There are people in every timezone.
How can we be considerate?
How can we be fair?

Some of the most common problems I have seen in the forums regard deadlines.

The Coursera site does "know" what timezone you are in and automatically adjusts the official deadlines to the student's local time.

We need to put deadlines in more obvious locations than the "official" locations. Also, we must announce deadlines in e-mail announcements. So, these automatic localizations will not always function.

Students are often unhappy with deadline times which happen at awkward times of the day or on awkward days for their part of the world. It seems there is no way to make everybody happy.

When we can't make everybody happy we must look for what is fair, logical, and simple.

My first reaction is to make it easy for myself by writing all times in Eastern time and scheduling releases and deadlines on my schedule. This does have benefits. The most important is that it is easier to respond to problems in the delivery of the lesson. Say I release a week at 8:00 PM EDT, if there are problems with the lesson they may not be addressed till the next morning when I wake up and have a look.

There are numerous issues with Eastern time. The first is complicated math. Students must figure out the equation to translate from Eastern time to their local time. While that sounds trivial it can actually be quite complicated. I know that I have trouble with "time zone math" even though I pride myself on my mathematical abilities. The second issue is daylight savings time, which we just entered, and which just caused numerous people to miss an important deadline. The third issue is the 12 hour clock, by using a twelve hour clock and AM/PM the math becomes even more difficult.

How are we to be fair? The only way I can imagine to be fair is to use our worldwide time standard(UTC), and always use a 24 hour clock.. With this decided, I must reformulate all deadlines.

This actually brings up two questions:

1. If I say the week's lessons releases on Friday, what time on Friday, and in what time zone?
  • My preference would be to have my local Friday to release the content, 12:00 noon would be nice.
  • To be fair I will release it at 00:00 UTC Saturday which ends up being 8:00 PM on Friday Eastern Daylight Time.
2. If an assignment is due on Monday, what does that mean? Do they have the whole day on Monday to submit, or is it due before Monday? If we say it is the whole day, then when does the day end?
  • My preference would be to say 6:00 PM EDT, nice and clean for me.
  • To be fair, I will set any Monday due date to be due on Tuesday 00:00 UTC.
The next issue is the number of deadlines. I would like to make the policy clear and simple. So, I have attempted to combine deadlines whenever possible. I will make assignments and quizzes due on the same day, and assessments and new material come out at the same time. This has led to a simplified schedule:

  • The week's video lectures will be released at 00:00 UTC on Saturdays.
  • Peer review assessments deadline is 00:00 UTC on Saturdays.
  • Assignment deadline is 00:00 UTC on Tuesday.
  • Quiz deadline is 00:00 UTC on Tuesday.
  • Quizzes will be accepted up to one day late: 00:00 UTC on Wednesday.

To facilitate easy coordination of calendars, I have also created a Google calendar that will be embedded in the schedule page and I will include XML HTML and iCal links in the class schedule announcement.

Honestly, I have not been clear enough or made it easy enough for the community to know the deadlines. Mainly this is because I had not given it enough thought(a major mistake in my preparation). To be effective, a mooc teacher must have a habit of global thinking. This has become a major challenge for me and I am delighted to take on this kind of thinking. As the planet's population becomes more connected we will have to become sensitive to timezones and how we schedule. This is a benefit for me as a teacher of a mooc, but also a lesson that we can transfer on to our students.

In considering my solution I do find it euro-centric, and I hate to continue that tradition, but the benefits of easy math for all and a clean time/date policy are enough to convince me that it is the correct solution.

The next challenge is announcing this to the class in an "unmisunderstandable" way.

Finally, I have decided to include the students in this blog itself. I want to be open and clear and if students want to see my justification for setting the schedule this way they can view this post. So, I will include a link to this post in the class scheduling announcement.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for all your efforts Loudon,

    Just to be crystal clear though: on the new course calendar it says:

    "Week 2 quiz deadline, Tue, March 19, 12am – 1am" So, this means all quizzes from week 2 (e.g., Quiz: The DAW, Quiz: Tracks and Files, etc.) are now due on Tuesday March 19 at 12 am (not March 15th as listed in the old schedule and in the quiz itself).

    I just want to make sure this is correct. My concern is that if the schedule in the quiz settings itself has not changed it may shut out access to students).