It’s not about time.

A few summers ago, I read the entire Twilight series.  After hearing my wife and her friends discuss the challenges in Forks, WA, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  I decided to read the first book, get a better idea of the greater pop culture conversation and call it quits.  After reading the first book, however, I was drawn into the characters and the storyline and found myself reading the whole series.  I spent several weeks that summer reading all four books and tackling the awkward romance detailed in those 3,000 pages of prose.  It was quite the effort.

Despite its potential embarrassing nature, I’m sharing this story as an example and as a comparison point.   I’m not trying to disparage the Twilight books in any way but I want to examine time as a metric.  Looking solely at the time I dedicated to reading the Twilight series, one may conclude that they were challenging.    While the story of Bella, Jacob and Edward was compelling, the time I spent was not that cognitively difficult.   Stephenie Meyer’s writing is crisp and straightforward and the story itself was easily consumed.  Despite dedicating weeks to read the books, I never felt mentally taxed.  While I was absolutely entertained by the books, I don’t know how much I grew personally from the process.

I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately, specifically how time is used to evaluate instructional rigor. Somehow, over the course of history in higher education, time in seats became the measure for the rigor of courses in the academy.  A course that required five hours a week to complete is considered more rigorous than one that requires three hours.  Using that view of class time solely, the process of reading the Twilight series would be considered more rigorous than reading a book like The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Friere.  At 186 pages, Friere’s revolutionary examination of education took me a few days to read initially but has taken me years to fully understand.  Clearly, learning is not just about time in seats.

The great thing is that in this world of flipped classes, blended courses and online instruction, time in seats is harder to measure.  This difficulty is forcing us to re-examine instruction and learning and how we value and evaluate its worth and rigor.  This weekend, I co-facilitated a workshop on Blended Course Design.  Time was on everyone’s mind.  The participants wanted to know what percentage of time should a blended course still meet in a face-to-face environment.  While I provided some national data on the issue, I explained that some of it would depend on the course and the learners.  While this made sense to the group, some attendees still worried that a course could be devalued in some way if they didn’t consistently meet during the semester.  Others wondered if their institutions would reduce credit hours if a class didn’t mean in a face-to-face format as often.

I explained that stopwatches and clocks can’t really measure learning.  As educators, we should value the rigor of a course not by the time spent in classrooms but by the cognitive difficulty of the concept and the amount of learning that has occurred.  By the end of the workshop, I could see that the participants were beginning to change their perceptions on time and rigor.  One participant described not wanting to be “a prisoner of time” and another lamented about “time being in the driver’s seat.”  While time will always be a pressing issue, we need to sever the unnatural fusion between time in seats and rigor.  After all, it’s not about the time but the learning.

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