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Chancellor Eric Grimson

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!

24 responses to “MIT Students Operate On Hawaii Time!”

  1. Nina says:

    “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!”

    It’s so true. smile I’m so glad professors realize this.

  2. Snively says:

    Wow! What a nice thing of you to do! See, I was thinking of just setting my laptop on my little chair/table thing in lectures and just using a camera or a webcam to record the lectures, but hey! If there’s gonna be a powerpoint, w00t!

  3. Evan '10 says:

    I can personally speak to how hard it is to make a 10 AM lecture. It’s been easier this week than usual, but those online lectures are a lifesaver.

    I think it’s a bad sign, though, that I’m starting to like Scheme. I’ve even caught myself trying to use Polish notation in C.

  4. Utkarsh says:

    I am one of the coming class of MIT,can you please somehow give me alist of books required for course 6. I want to study them brfore I come to MIT.

    If possible please also give me a detailed syllabus of course 6 atleast the first year

  5. Gni says:

    Utkarsh, how do you know?

  6. Anonymous says:

    He doesn’t know. No decisions have been finalized yet, let alone released (except for the EA acceptances back in December).

    Utkarsh you must not get people’s hopes up prematurely.

  7. Anonymous says:

    He could be an EA admit – though I think it’s funny he’s already committing himself to a major, when a lot of people get here and end up changing their mind ten times before they actually choose.

    A simple MIT Google search will point Utkarsh to the information he is seeking, with a list of Course 6 requirements, their class websites, syllabi, etc.

  8. Basant says:

    Good evening professor,

    Thanks for this great article. Actually, I already use most of the stuff meant for Course 6 from OCW… Yeah, including the Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs… Oh, it’d be soooooo nice to spend the whole night solving psets… Can’t wait!!!

  9. Solomon says:

    Utkarsh and Bhushan, don’t you think you are rushing into things. Why don’t you wait go to MIT and sample the courses before you start thinking about a list of books and studying Course VI. If you have too much free time, get some kids in your neighbourhood and give them free tutoring. That would be changing the world instead of setting yourself up for regrets………………………

  10. Yuki says:

    Ahh, that’s amazing — I definitely can sympathize with being most effective at awkward hours of the morning

  11. Yasemin G says:

    I am reading a book on biological rhythms now (Rhythms of Life by Foster and Kreitzman) and I really loved the “Hawaii time” phrase grin

  12. Melissa '11 says:

    So I guess instead of trying to adjust to three hours forward, I should go three hours back when I go to MIT?

    Yay California =)

    PS – yes, some of us EA’s are lurking here

  13. bhushan says:

    Utkarsh great idea as soon as u get them please do mail them to me tooooooooooo

  14. V says:

    This is for Anonymous No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, … … n

    Indeed! As far as changing thy mind ten times concerned, I’d like to say, even though you have acted like a wiz-kind who just can’t select the programs because he will revolutionize everything that he will choose. So the major concern here, which field needs you most? It is quite a question; in search of whose answer; the whole civilization has evolved. What turbulency of the mind; which hasn’t decided yet, for what he is going to qualify, in MIT, I mean.
    In the end, it concludes something like, “hey, I am gonna save the world but I dont know how…”. You are not a Super-Man, it has been understood, but this flickering mentality (forget here how much this thing’s practiced anywhere; just see the fact), is awesome. It displays skills of the finest category, which are universal in every possible sense. So you find yourself eligible for Nuclear Physics and Anthropology, simultaneously. Einstein once said- there is nothing like relativity.
    He should have seen you.

  15. V says:

    I am on vacation. So, if there are any bright neuron response you bright people have about the above not-so-bright posting, then -unfortunate as this would have to be- I’ll be unable to see them.
    Utkarsh I am impressed.

  16. Dear All

    It is “intrinsic property” of the most of the indian students, that they always want to finish the course/syllabus as soon as possible.

    Utarksh, is most probably the name of Indian, so I am least astonished at his comment!

    This is just to make all those of you, who were unaware of this “intrinsic property”, that there is no need about making so much of fuss. Why? The “result/final outcome” is more important than who starts studying early!

  17. Amjad says:

    that’s amazing. i really like OCW.

    I guess you should just shift to the Australian time zone. that would save one day. I’m talking about the Admissions Decisions.

  18. Lendz says:

    Yes, free math tutoring is a great way of changing the world… it is true, and i thought i was the only one that did it. One thing you learn (out of many) is that EVERYONE in the world, has the potential to do great things, all we have to do… is show them they can. Although im not sure how well an automated tutor would be… ive seen some… ugg… dispickable ones. Tutoring is an art, one that can either make a student stronger… or ruin them. I Have always said instructors can sometimes do more harm than good.

    Making my job nie on impossible sometimes.

  19. Utkarsh says:

    You all just stunned me!!!YES I am an Indian Its not that I am over confident, neither do I want to raise anyone’s expectations prematuarely. Its just because maybe I am over excited to be at MIT.

    Solomon I am not rushing at things.Maybe you are underestimating MIT, maybe there are people who know better than you and surely you don’t want to land up in a situation where you know the least in your class.Its better to know the most.

    In the worst case if not MIT, I’ll be joining atleast some univ. in US, so why not start preparing.

    For all the geeks seeking my contact here is it [email protected]

    And yes Bhushan I will give you the list provided I have you e-mail id!!!

    And Proxima Centauri – Indians have an intrinsic property to outshine others, no matter what it takes.And probably that’s the reason why Indians are the most demanded brains on this planet.

    Hope that answered all what you had to say about my post.

  20. Utkarsh says:

    And my uncle studied @MIT, and the best thing he told me was if you are not prepared for MIT be prepared to fail.As in MIT grading is relative and who knows if you have a BILL GATES OR EINSTEIN sitting next to you.

  21. GY says:

    Thank you very much for your informative and funny posts! I’d really appreciate your advice on something. I am a prospective biology (and/or) neuroscience major wishing to go on to medical school. I am currently taking computer science at my high school, and I also really like that. Do you think double majoring in biology and computer science is a good idea? How much can computer science help a biology student?