MIT Students Operate On Hawaii Time! by Chancellor Eric Grimson
MIT's learning environment supports a wide range of learning styles and experiences.
Spring term classes started a few weeks ago, and hence all of us (students, faculty and staff) are back into the rhythm of the academic season. This may sound like we simply fall back into a well-worn rut, but in fact MIT is quite remarkable in its constant pedagogical experiments and innovations. Some of the most successful examples are outside of the classroom: UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program), UPOP (Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program) and of course OCW (Open Course Ware). But MIT also is remarkably active in exploring innovations to classroom-based experiences as well.
For example, the course I typically teach, known as 6.001 or “Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs,” is normally taught in lecture-recitation-tutorial mode: students spend two hours per week attending lecture (as a class of 300); plus two hours per week participating in recitation (in groups of 25); plus one hour per week actively engaged in tutorial (in groups of 4 to 5). An important point is that virtually all of our recitations are taught by faculty members (often very experienced faculty) so that students get an opportunity to engage in active learning in a well-designed setting. While this format of lecture-recitation-tutorial is highly refined after years of polishing, we are always looking for improvements.
A few years ago, one of my colleagues (Prof. Tomas Lozano-Perez) and I engaged in an online experiment: we took all of the lectures for 6.001 and created audio-annotated PowerPoint presentations for each lecture. (Recording these was already an interesting experience. In order to make the audio engaging and dynamic, I would give an actual lecture – replete with hand gestures, bad jokes, pacing back and forth – to an inscrutable audience of one: the microphone! Fortunately no one ever walked in on me spending hours at a time talking animatedly to myself.) We created an online tutor that allowed students to listen and watch these lectures, together with interspersed micro-problems that were designed to test a student’s understanding of the concepts from that part of the lecture. These lectures (including a PDF file that contains all of the lecture slides and associated transcripts) are available to students as a kind of online textbook: they can be searched for key words so you can review concepts; you can repeat sections of any lecture to prepare for quizzes; and the printed version provides a visual as well as textual delivery of the material.
Associated with these online lectures, we built a fully automated tutoring system, with problem sets that supported immediate feedback and provided hints to help students work through problems. Today, we still provide this online version of the course as an adjunct to the live lectures, but for several terms we experimented with simply using the online versions in place of live lectures. In support of this, we created a monitoring system that would let recitation instructors know how many students had listened to (or at least downloaded) each lecture, as well as how many problems on the tutor they had attempted and how many they had solved – this was a great way of allowing a section instructor to refine his or her material for recitation, based on a snapshot of what the students had done.
One element of the tutor was that we could also monitor (anonymously) how many students had listened to a lecture, and when. I was amazed to discover that for every hour of the day there was at least one person listening to my recorded voice. More amazing was discovering that the peak hour for viewing a 6.001 online lecture was between 1AM and 2AM!! When I asked some students to help me understand why, the response was: “It’s simple. MIT students operate on Hawaii time!” This struck me as a great encapsulation of a fact of life that governs MIT education: while faculty work hard to create effective learning environments, it is ultimately the students who set the tone for what is effective, since they are the customers. Giving a great lecture at 10AM is not effective if the students are not present because they work on problem sets till 4AM and don’t get moving until noon! The lesson I learned was to always keep in mind that students may run on a different clock, and to be open to unusual patterns of learning. While I hope that when you arrive at MIT you develop a traditional diurnal rhythm (with time allowed for sleep!), I know that you will find MIT’s learning environment supports a wide range of learning styles and experiences. Or maybe we should just shift to the Hawaii time zone!