Time Banking: More and more reading.

I’ve spent most of the last week putting together the ideas of time banking, reviewing my reading list and then digging for more papers to read and integrate. It’s always a bit of a worry when you go to see if what you’ve been thinking about for 12 months has just been published by someone else but, fortunately, most people are still using traditional deadlines so I’m safe. I read a lot of papers but none more than when I’m planning or writing a paper: I need to know what else has happened if I’m to frame my work correctly and not accidentally re-invent the wheel. Especially if it’s a triangular wheel that never worked.

My focus is Time Banking so that’s what I’ve been searching for – concepts, names, similarities, to make sure that what I’m doing will make an additional contribution. This isn’t to say that Time Banking hasn’t been used before as a term or even a concept. I’ve been aware of several universities who allow a fixed number of extra days that students can draw on (Stanford being the obvious example) and the concept of banking your time is certainly not new – there’s even a Dilbert cartoon for it! There are papers on time banking, at low granularity and with little student control – it’s more of a convenient deadline extender rather than a mechanism for developing metacognition in order to promote self-regulating learning strategies in the student. Which is good because that’s the approach I’m taking.

The reasoning and methodology that I’m using does appear to be relatively novel and it encompasses a whole range of issues: pedagogy, self-regulation, ethics and evidence-based analysis of how deadlines are currently working for us. It’s a lot to fit into one paper but I have hope that I can at least cover the philosophical background of why what I’m doing is a good idea, not just because I want to convince my peers but because I want volunteers for when pilot schemes start to occur.

It’s not enough that something is a good idea, or that it reads well, it has to work. It has to be able to de deployed, we have to be able to measure it, collect evidence and say “Yes, this is what we wanted.” Then we publish lots more papers and win major awards – Profit! (Actually, if it’s a really good idea then we want everyone to do it. Widespread adoption that enhances education is the real profit.)

Like this but with less underpants collecting and more revolutionising education.

More seriously, I love writing papers because I really have to think deeply about what I’m saying. How does it fit with existing research? Has this been tried before? If so, did it work? Did it fail? What am I doing that is different? What am I really trying to achieve?

How can I convince another educator that this is actually a good idea?

The first draft of the paper is written and now my co-authors are scouring it, playing Devil’s advocate, and seeing how many useful and repairable holes they can tear in it in order to make it worthy of publication. Then it will go off at some point and a number of nice people will push it out to sea and shoot at it with large weapons to see if it sinks or swims. Then I get feedback (and hopefully a publication) and everyone learns something.

I’m really looking forward to seeing the first actual submission draft – I want to see what the polished ideas look like!

Reflecting on rewards – is Time Banking a reward or a technique?

The Reward As It Is Often Implemented
(In Advance and Starting With a B)

Enough advocacy for a while, time to think about research again! Given that I’ve just finished Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, and more on that later, I’ve been looking very carefully at everything I do with students to work out exactly what I am trying to do. One of Kohn’s theses is that we tend to manipulate people towards compliance through extrinsic tools such as incentives and rewards, rather than provide an environment in which their intrinsic motivational aspects dominate and they are driven to work through their own interest and requirements. Under Kohn’s approach, a gold star for sitting quietly achieve little except to say that sitting quietly must be so bad that you need to be bribed, and developing a taste for gold stars in the student. If someone isn’t sitting quietly, is it because they haven’t managed sitting quietly (the least rewarding unlockable achievement in any game) or that they are disengaged, bored or failing to understand why they are there? Is it, worse, because they are trying to ask questions about work that they don’t understand or because they are so keen to discuss it that they want to talk? Kohn wants to know WHY people are or aren’t doing things rather than just to stop or start people doing things through threats and bribery.

Where, in this context, does time banking fit? For those who haven’t read me on this before, time banking is described in a few posts I’ve made, with this as one of the better ones to read. In summary, students who hand up work early (and meet a defined standard) get hours in the bank that they can spend at a later date to give themselves a deadline extension – and there are a lot of tuneable parameters around this, but that’s the core. I already have a lot of data that verifies that roughly a third of students hand in on the last day and 15-18% hand up late. However, the 14th highest hand-in hour is the one immediately after the deadline. There’s an obvious problem where people aren’t giving themselves enough time to do the work but “near-missing” by one hour is a really silly way to lose marks. (We won’t talk about the pedagogical legitimacy of reducing marks for late work at the moment, that’s a related post I hope to write soon. Let’s assume that our learning design requires that work be submitted at a certain time to reinforce knowledge and call that the deadline – the loss, as either marks or knowledge reinforcement, is something that we want to avoid.)

But, by providing a “reward” for handing up early, am I trying to bribe my students into behaviour that I want to see? I think that the answer is “no”, for reasons that I’ll go into.

Firstly, the fundamental concept of time banking is that students have a reason to look at their assignment submission timetable as a whole and hand something up early because they can then gain more flexibility later on. Under current schemes, unless you provide bonus points, there is no reason for anyone to hand up more than one second early – assuming synchronised clocks. (I object to bonus points for early hand-in for two reasons: it is effectively a means to reward the able or those with more spare time, and because it starts to focus people on handing up early rather than the assignment itself.) This, in turn, appears to lead to a passive, last minute thinking pattern and we can see the results of that in our collected assignment data – lots and lots of near-miss late hand-ins. Our motivation is to focus the students on the knowledge in the course by making them engage with the course as a whole and empowering themselves into managing their time rather than adhering to our deadlines. We’re not trying to control the students, we’re trying to move them towards self-regulation where they control themselves.

Secondly, the same amount of work has to be done. There is no ‘reduced workload’ for handing in early, there is only ‘increased flexibility’. Nobody gets anything extra under this scheme that will reinforce any messages of work as something to be avoided. The only way to get time in the bank is to do the assignments – it is completely linked to the achievement that is the core of the course, rather than taking focus elsewhere.

Thirdly, a student can choose not to use it. Under almost every version of the scheme I’ve sketched out, every student gets 6 hours up their sleeve at the start of semester. If they want to just burn that for six late hand-ins that are under an hour late, I can live with that. It will also be very telling if they then turn out to be two hours late because, thinking about it, that’s a very interesting mental model that they’ve created.

But how is it going to affect the student? That’s a really good question. I think that, the way that it’s constructed, it provides a framework for students to work with, one that ties in with intrinsic motivation, rather than a framework that is imposed on students – in fact, moving away from the rigidly fixed deadlines that (from our data) don’t even to be training people that well anyway is a reduction in manipulate external control.

Will it work? Oh, now, there’s a question. After about a year of thought and discussion, we’re writing it all up at the moment for peer review on the foundations, the literature comparison, the existing evidence and the future plans. I’ll be very interested to see both the final paper and the first responses from our colleagues!

Time Banking and Plagiarism: Does “Soul Destroying” Have An Ethical Interpretation?

Yesterday, I wrote a post on the 40 hour week, to give an industrial basis for the notion of time banking, and I talked about the impact of overwork. One of the things I said was:

The crunch is a common feature in many software production facilities and the ability to work such back-breaking and soul-destroying shifts is often seen as a badge of honour or mark of toughness. (Emphasis mine.)

Back-breaking is me being rather overly emphatic regarding the impact of work, although in manual industries workplace accidents caused by fatigue and overwork can and do break backs – and worse – on a regular basis.

Is it Monday morning already?

But soul-destroying? Am I just saying that someone will perform their tasks as an automaton or zombie, or am I saying something more about the benefit of full cognitive function – the soul as an amalgam of empathy, conscience, consideration and social factors? Well, the answer is that, when I wrote it, I was talking about mindlessness and the removal of the ability to take joy in work, which is on the zombie scale, but as I’ve reflected on the readings more, I am now convinced that there is an ethical dimension to fatigue-related cognitive impairment that is important to talk about. Basically, the more tired you get, the more likely you are to function on the task itself and this can have some serious professional and ethical considerations. I’ll provide a basis for this throughout the rest of this post.

The paper I was discussing, on why Crunch Mode doesn’t work, listed many examples from industry and one very interesting paper from the military. The paper, which had a broken link in the Crunch mode paper, may be found here and is called “Sleep, Sleep Deprivation, and Human Performance in Continuous Operations” by Colonel Gregory Belenky. Now, for those who don’t know, in 1997 I was a commissioned Captain in the Royal Australian Armoured Corps (Reserve), on detachment to the Training Group to set up and pretty much implement a new form of Officer Training for Army Reserve officers in South Australia. Officer training is a very arduous process and places candidates, the few who make it in, under a lot of stress and does so quite deliberately. We have to have some idea that, if terrible things happen and we have to deploy a human being to a war zone, they have at least some chance of being able to function. I had been briefed on most of the issues discussed in Colonel Belenky’s paper but it was only recently that I read through the whole thing.

And, to me today as an educator (I resigned my commission years ago), there are still some very important lessons, guidelines and warnings for all of us involved in the education sector. So stay with me while I discuss some of Belenky’s terminology and background. The first term I want to introduce is droning: the loss of cognitive ability through lack of useful sleep. As Belenky puts in, in the context of US Army Ranger training:

…the candidates can put one foot in front of another and respond if challenged, but have difficulty grasping their situation or acting on their own initiative.

What was most interesting, and may surprise people who have never served with the military, is that the higher the rank, the less sleep people got – and the higher level the formation, the less sleep people got. A Brigadier in charge of a Brigade is going to, on average, get less sleep than the more junior officers in the Brigade and a lot less sleep than a private soldier in a squad. As an officer, my soldiers were fed before me, rested before me and a large part of my day-to-day concern was making sure that they were kept functioning. This keeps on going up the chain and, as you go further up, things get more complex. Sadly, the people shouldering the most complex cognitive functions with the most impact on the overall battlefield are also the people getting the least fuel for their continued cognitive endeavours. They are the most likely to be droning: going about their work in an uninspired way and not really understanding their situation. So here is more evidence from yet another place: lack of sleep and fatigue lead to bad outcomes.

One of the key issues Belenky talks about is the loss of situational awareness caused by the accumulated sleep debt, fatigue and overwork suffered by military personnel. He gives an example of an Artillery Fire Direction Centre – this is where requests for fire support (big guns firing large shells at locations some distance away) come to and the human plotters take your requests, transform them into instructions that can be given to the gunners and then firing starts. Let me give you a (to me) chilling extract from the report, which the Crunch Mode paper also quoted:

Throughout the 36 hours, their ability to accurately derive range, bearing, elevation, and charge was unimpaired. However, after circa 24 hours they stopped keeping up their situation map and stopped computing their pre-planned targets immediately upon receipt. They lost situational awareness; they lost their grasp of their place in the operation. They no longer knew where they were relative to friendly and enemy units. They no longer knew what they were firing at. Early in the simulation, when we called for simulated fire on a hospital, etc., the team would check the situation map, appreciate the nature of the target, and refuse the request. Later on in the simulation, without a current situation map, they would fire without hesitation regardless of the nature of the target. (All emphasis mine.)

Here, perhaps, is the first inkling of what I realised I meant by soul destroying. Yes, these soldiers are overworked to the point of droning and are now shuffling towards zombiedom. But, worse, they have no real idea of their place in the world and, perhaps most frighteningly, despite knowing that accidents happen when fire missions are requested and having direct experience of rejecting what would have resulted in accidental hospital strikes, these soldiers have moved to a point of function where the only thing that matters is doing the work and calling the task done. This is an ethical aspect because, from their previous actions, it is quite obvious that there was both a professional and ethical dimension to their job as the custodians of this incredibly destructive weaponry – deprive them of enough sleep and they calculate and fire, no longer having the cognitive ability (or perhaps the will) to be ethical in their delivery. (I realise a number of you will have choked on your coffee slightly at the discussion of military ethics but, in the majority of cases, modern military units have a strong ethical code, even to the point of providing a means for soldiers to refuse to obey illegal orders. Most failures of this system in the military can be traced to failures in a unit’s ethical climate or to undetected instability in the soldiers: much as in the rest of the world.)

The message, once again, is clear. Overwork, fatigue and sleeplessness reduce the ability to perform as you should. Belenky even notes that the ability to benefit from training quite clearly deteriorates as the fatigue levels increase. Work someone hard enough, or let them work themselves hard enough, and not only aren’t they productive, they can’t learn to do anything else.

The notion of situational awareness is important because it’s a measure of your sense of place, in an organisational sense, in a geographical sense, in a relative sense to the people around you and also in a social sense. Get tired enough and you might swear in front of your grandma because your social situational awareness is off. But it’s not just fatigue over time that can do this: overloading someone with enough complex tasks can stress cognitive ability to the point where similar losses of situational awareness can occur.

Helmet fire is a vivid description of what happens when you have too many tasks to do, under highly stressful situations, and you lose your situational awareness. If you are a military pilot flying on instruments alone, especially with low or zero visibility, then you have to follow a set of procedures, while regularly checking the instruments, in order to keep the plane flying correctly. If the number of tasks that you have to carry out gets too high, and you are facing the stress of effectively flying the plane visually blind, then your cognitive load limits will be exceeded and you are now experiencing helmet fire. You are now very unlikely to be making any competent contributions at all at this stage but, worse, you may lose your sense of what you were doing, where you are, what your intentions are, which other aircraft are around you: in other words, you lose situational awareness. At this point, you are now at a greatly increased risk of catastrophic accident.

To summarise, if someone gets tired, stressed or overworked enough, whether acutely or over time, their performance goes downhill, they lose their sense of place and they can’t learn. But what does this have to do with our students?

A while ago I posted thoughts on a triage system for plagiarists – allocating our resources to those students we have the most chance of bringing back to legitimate activity. I identified the three groups as: sloppy (unintentional) plagiarism, deliberate (but desperate and opportunistic) plagiarism and systematic cheating. I think that, from the framework above, we can now see exactly where the majority of my ‘opportunistic’ plagiarists are coming from: sleep-deprived, fatigued and (by their own hands or not) over-worked students losing their sense of place within the course and becoming focused only on the outcome. Here, the sense of place is not just geographical, it is their role in the social and formal contracts that they have entered into with lecturers, other students and their institution. Their place in the agreements for ethical behaviour in terms of doing the work yourself and submitting only that.

If professional soldiers who have received very large amounts of training can forget where there own forces are, sometimes to the tragic extent that they fire upon and destroy them, or become so cognitively impaired that they carry out the mission, and only the mission, with little of their usual professionalism or ethical concern, then it is easy to see how a student can become so task focussed that start to think about only ending the task, by any means, to reduce the cognitive load and to allow themselves to get the sleep that their body desperately needs.

As always, this does not excuse their actions if they resort to plagiarism and cheating – it explains them. It also provides yet more incentive for us to try and find ways to reach our students and help them form systems for planning and time management that brings them closer to the 40 hour ideal, that reduces the all-nighters and the caffeine binges, and that allows them to maintain full cognitive function as ethical, knowledgable and professional skill practitioners.

If we want our students to learn, it appears that (for at least some of them) we first have to help them to marshall their resources more wisely and keep their awareness of exactly where they are, what they are doing and, in a very meaningful sense, who they are.

Time Banking: Aiming for the 40 hour week.

I was reading an article on metafilter on the perception of future leisure from earlier last century and one of the commenters linked to a great article on “Why Crunch Mode Doesn’t Work: Six Lessons” via the International Game Designers Association. This article was partially in response to the quality of life discussions that ensued after ea_spouse outed the lifestyle (LiveJournal link) caused by her spouse’s ludicrous hours working for Electronic Arts, a game company. One of the key quotes from ea_spouse was this:

Now, it seems, is the “real” crunch, the one that the producers of this title so wisely prepared their team for by running them into the ground ahead of time. The current mandatory hours are 9am to 10pm — seven days a week — with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behavior (at 6:30pm). This averages out to an eighty-five hour work week. Complaints that these once more extended hours combined with the team’s existing fatigue would result in a greater number of mistakes made and an even greater amount of wasted energy were ignored.

The badge is fastened with two pins that go straight into your chest.

This is an incredible workload and, as Evan Robinson notes in the “Crunch Mode” article, this is not only incredible but it’s downright stupid because every serious investigation into the effect of working more than 40 hours a week, for extended periods, and for reducing sleep and accumulating sleep deficit has come to the same conclusion: hours worked after a certain point are not just worthless, they reduce worth from hours already worked.

Robinsons cites studies and practices coming from industrialists as Henry Ford, who reduced shift length to a 40-hour work week in 1926, attracting huge criticism, because 12 years of research had shown that the shorter work week meant more output, not less. These studies have been going on since the 18th century and well into the 60’s at least and they all show the same thing: working eight hours a day, five days a week gives you more productivity because you get fewer mistakes, you get less fatigue accumulation and you have workers that are producing during their optimal production times (first 4-6 hours of work) without sliding into their negatively productive zones.

As Robinson notes, the games industry doesn’t seem to have got the memo. The crunch is a common feature in many software production facilities and the ability to work such back-breaking and soul-destroying shifts is often seen as a badge of honour or mark of toughness. The fact that you can get fired for having the audacity to try and work otherwise also helps a great deal in motivating people to adopt the strategy.

Why spend so many hours in the office? Remember when I said that it’s sometimes hard for people to see what I’m doing because, when I’m thinking or planning, I can look like I’m sitting in the office doing nothing? Imagine what it looks like if, two weeks before a big deadline, someone walks into the office at 5:30pm and everyone’s gone home. What does this look like? Because of our conditioning, which I’ll talk about shortly, it looks like we’ve all decided to put our lives before the work – it looks like less than total commitment.

As a manager, if you can tell everyone above you that you have people at their desks 80+ hours a week and will have for the next three months, then you’re saying that “this work is important and we can’t do any more.” The fact that people were probably only useful for the first 6 hours of every day, and even then only for the first couple of months, doesn’t matter because it’s hard to see what someone is doing if all you focus on is the output. Those 80+ hour weeks are probably only now necessary because everyone is so tired, so overworked and so cognitively impaired, that they are taking 4 times as long to achieve anything.

Yes, that’s right. All the evidence says that more than 2 months of overtime and you would have been better off staying at 40 hours/week in terms of measurable output and quality of productivity.

Robinson lists six lessons, which I’ll summarise here because I want to talk about it terms of students and why forward planning for assignments is good practice for better smoothing of time management in the future. Here are the six lessons:

  1. Productivity varies over the course of the workday, with greatest productivity in the first 4-6 hours. After enough hours, you become unproductive and, eventually, destructive in terms of your output.
  2. Productivity is hard to quantify for knowledge workers.
  3. Five day weeks of eight house days maximise long-term output in every industry that has been studied in the past century.
  4. At 60 hours per week, the loss of productivity caused by working longer hours overwhelms the extra hours worked within a couple of months.
  5. Continuous work reduces cognitive function 25% for every 24 hours. Multiple consecutive overnighters have a severe cumulative effect.
  6. Error rates climb with hours worked and especially with loss of sleep.

My students have approximately 40 hours of assigned work a week, consisting of contact time and assignments, but many of them never really think about that. Most plan in other things around their ‘free time’ (they may need to work, they may play in a band, they may be looking after families or they may have an active social life) and they fit the assignment work and other study into the gaps that are left. Immediately, they will be over the 40 hour marker for work. If they have a part-time job, the three months of one of my semesters will, if not managed correctly, give them a lumpy time schedule alternating between some work and far too much work.

Many of my students don’t know how they are spending their time. They switch on the computer, look at the assignment, Skype, browse, try something, compile, walk away, grab a bite, web surf, try something else – wow, three hours of programming! This assignment is really hard! That’s not all of them but it’s enough of them that we spend time on process awareness: working out what you do so you know how to improve it.

Many of my students see sports drinks, energy drinks and caffeine as a licence to not sleep. It doesn’t work long term as most of us know, for exactly the reasons that long term overwork and sleeplessness don’t work. Stimulants can keep you awake but you will still be carrying most if not all of your cognitive impairment.

Finally, and most importantly, enough of my students don’t realise that everything I’ve said up until now means that they are trying to sit my course with half a brain after about the halfway point, if not sooner if they didn’t rest much between semesters.

I’ve talked about the theoretical basis for time banking and the pedagogical basis for time banking: this is the industrial basis for time banking. One day I hope that at least some of my students will be running parts of their industries and that we have taught them enough about sensible time management and work/life balance that, as people in control of a company, they look at real measures of productivity, they look at all of the masses of data supporting sensible ongoing work rates and that they champion and adopt these practices.

As Robinson says towards the end of the article:

Managers decide to crunch because they want to be able to tell their bosses “I did everything I could.” They crunch because they value the butts in the chairs more than the brains creating games. They crunch because they haven’t really thought about the job being done or the people doing it. They crunch because they have learned only the importance of appearing to do their best to instead of really of doing their best. And they crunch because, back when they were programmers or artists or testers or assistant producers or associate producers, that was the way they were taught to get things done. (Emphasis mine.)

If my students can see all of their requirements ahead of time, know what is expected, have been given enough process awareness, and have the will and the skill to undertake the activities, then we can potentially teach them a better way to get things done if we focus on time management in a self-regulated framework, rather than imposed deadlines in a rigid authority-based framework. Of course, I still have a lot of work to to demonstrate that this will work but, from industrial experience, we have yet another very good reason to try.

Time Banking: Foresightedness and Reward

You may have noticed that I’ve stopped numbering the time banking posts – you may not have noticed that they were numbered in the first place! The reason is fairly simple and revolves around the fact that the numbers are actually meaningless. It’s not as if I have a huge plan of final sequence of the time banking posts. I do have a general idea but the order can change as one idea or another takes me and I feel that numbering them makes it look as if there is some grand sequence.

There isn’t. That’s why they all tend to have subtitles after them so that they can be identified and classified in a cognitive sequence. So, why am I telling you this? I’m telling you this so that you don’t expect “Time Banking 13” to be something special, or (please, no) “Time Banking 100” to herald the apocalypse.

The Druids invented time banking but could never find a sufficiently good Oracle to make it work. The Greeks had the Oracle but not the bank. This is why the Romans conquered everywhere. True story!

If I’m going to require students to self-regulate then, whether through operant or phenomenological mechanisms, the outcomes that they receive are going to have to be shaped to guide the student towards a self-regulating model. In simple terms, they should never feel that they have wasted their time, that they are under-appreciated or that they have been stupid to follow a certain path.

In particular, if we’re looking at time management, then we have to ensure that time spent in advance is never considered to be wasted time. What does that mean to me as a teacher, if I set an assignment in advance and students put work towards it – I can’t change the assignment arbitrarily. This is one of the core design considerations for time banking: if deadlines are seen as arbitrary (and extending them in case of power failures or class-wide lack of submission can show how arbitrary they are) then we allow the students to make movement around the original deadlines, in a way that gives them control without giving us too much extra work. If I want my students to commit to planning ahead and doing work before the due date then some heavy requirements fall on me:

  1. I have to provide the assignment work ahead of schedule and, preferably, for the entire course at the start of the semester.
  2. The assignments stay the same throughout that time. No last minute changes or substitutions.
  3. The oracle is tied to the assignment and is equally reliable.

This requires a great deal of forward planning and testing but, more importantly, it requires a commitment from me. If I am asking my students to commit, I have to commit my time and planning and attention to detail to my students. It’s that simple. Nobody likes to feel like a schmuck. Like they invested time under false pretences. That they had worked on what they thought was a commitment but it turned out that someone just hadn’t really thought things through.

Wasting time and effort discourages people. It makes people disengage. It makes them less trustful of you as an educator. It makes them less likely to trust you in the future. It reduces their desire to participate. This is the antithesis of what I’m after with increasing self-regulation and motivation to achieve this, which I label under the banner of my ‘time banking’ project.

But, of course, it’s not as if we’re not already labouring under this commitment to our students, at least implicitly. If we don’t follow the three requirements above then, at some stage, students will waste effort and, believe me, they’re going to question what they’re doing, why they’re bothering, and some of them will drop out, drift away and be lost to us forever. Never thinking that you’ve wasted your time, never feeling like a schmuck, seeing your ideas realised, achieving goals: that’s how we reward students, that’s what can motivate students and that’s how we can move the on to higher levels of function and achievement.


Time Banking: Foundations

Short post today because I’ve spent so much time looking at research and fixing papers and catching up on things that I haven’t left myself much time to blog. Sorry about that! Today’s post is talking about one of the most vital aspects of time banking and one that I’ve been working on slightly under the radar – the theoretical underpinnings based on work in education, psychology and economics.

Foundations: More complex than they first appear.

Today we’ve been looking at key papers in educational psychology on motivation – but the one that stood out today was Zimmerman (90), “Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: An overview.” in Educational Psychologist, 25.  I want my students to become their own time managers but that’s really just a facet of self-regulation. It’s important to place all of this “let’s get rubber with time” into context and build on the good science that has gone before. I want my students to have the will to learn and practice, and the skill to do so competently – one without the other is no good to me.

This is, of course, just one of the aspects that we have to look at. Do I even know how I’m planning to address the students? Within an operant framework of punishment and reward or a phenomenological framework of self-esteem? How am I expecting them to think? These seem like rather theoretical matters but I need to know how existing timeliness issues are being perceived. If students think that they’re working in a reward/punishment framework then my solution has to take that into account. Of course, this takes us well into the world of surveying and qualitative analysis, but to design this survey we need sound theory and good hypotheses so that we can start in the ballpark of the right answer and iteratively improve.

We’re looking at motivation as the key driver here. Yes, we’re interested in student resilience and performance, but it’s the motivation to move to self-regulation that is what we’re trying to maximise. Today’s readings and sketching will be just one day out of many more to come as we further refine our search from the current broader fan to a more concentrated beam.

What of the economic factors? There is no doubt that the time bank forms a primitive economy out of ‘hours’ of a student’s time but it’s one where the budget doesn’t have to balance across the class, just across an individual student. This makes things easier to an extent as I don’t have to consider a multi-agent market beyond two people: the student and me. However, the student still has private information from me, the quality, progress and provenance of their work, and I have private information from them, in terms of the final mark. Can I make the system strategy proof, where students have no incentive to lie about how much work they’ve done or don’t try to present their private information in a way that is inherently non-truthful? Can I also produce a system where I don’t overly manipulate the system through the construction of the oracle or my support mechanisms? There’s a lot of great work out there on markets and economies so I have a great deal of reading to do here as well.

So, short post – but a long and fascinating day.

Time Banking IV: The Role of the Oracle

I’ve never really gone into much detail on how I would make a system like Time Banking work. If a student can meet my requirements and submit their work early then, obviously, I have to provide some sort of mechanism that allows the students to know that my requirements have been met. The first option is that I mark everything as it comes in and then give the student their mark, allowing them to resubmit until they get 100%.

That’s not going to work, unfortunately, as, like so many people, I don’t have the time to mark every student’s assignment over and over again. I wait until all assignments have been submitted, review them as a group, mark them as a group and get the best use out of staying in the same contextual framework and working on the same assignments. If I took a piecemeal approach to marking, it would take me longer and, especially if the student still had some work to do, I could end up marking the same assignment 3,4, however many times and multiplying my load in an unsupportable way.

Now, of course I can come up with simple measures that the students can check for themselves. Of course, the problem we have here is setting something that a student can mis-measure as easily as they measure. If I say  “You must have at least three pages for an essay” I risk getting three pages of rubbish or triple spaced 18 point print. It’s the same for any measure of quantity (number of words, number of citations, length of comments and so on) instead of quality. The problem is, once again, that if the students were capable of determining the quality of their own work and determining the effort and quality required to pass, they wouldn’t need time banking because their processes are already mature!

So I’m looking for an indicator of quality that a student can use to check their work and that costs me only (at most) a small amount of effort. In Computer Science, I can ask the students to test their work against a set of known inputs and then running their program to see what outputs we get. There is then the immediate problem of students hacking their code and just throwing it against the testing suite to see if they can fluke their way to a solution. So, even when I have an idea of how my oracle, my measure of meeting requirements, is going to work, there are still many implementation details to sort out.

Fortunately, to help me, I have over five years worth of student data through our automated assignment submission gateway where some assignments have an oracle, some have a detailed oracle, some have a limited oracle and some just say “Thanks for your submission.” The next stage in the design of the oracle is to go back and to see what impact the indications of progress and completeness had on the students. Most importantly, for me, is the indication of how many marks a student had to get in order to stop trying to make fresh submissions. If before the due date, did they always strive for 100%? If late, did they tend to stop at more than 50% of achieved marks, or more than 40% in the case of trying to avoid receiving a failing grade based on low assignment submission?

Are there significant and measurable differences between assignments with an oracle and those that have none (or a ‘stub’, so to speak)? I know what many people expect to find in the data, but now I have the data and I can go and interrogate that!

Every time that I have questions like this about the implementation, I have a large advantage in that I already have a large control body of data, before any attempts were made to introduce time banking. I can look at this to see what student behaviour is like and try to extract these elements and use them to assist students in smoothing out their application of effort and develop more mature time management approaches.

Now to see what the data actually says – I hope to post more on this particular aspect in the next week or so.

Time Banking III: Cheating and Meta-Cheating

One of the problems with setting up any new marking system is that, especially when you’re trying to do something a bit out of the ordinary, you have to make sure that you don’t produce a system that can be gamed or manipulated to let people get an unfair advantage. (Students are very resourceful when it comes to this – anyone who has received a mysteriously corrupted Word document of precisely the right length and with enough relevant strings to look convincing, on more than one occasion from the same student and they then are able to hand up a working one the next Monday, knows exactly what I’m talking about.)

As part of my design, I have to be clear to the students what I do and don’t consider to be reasonable behaviour (returning to Dickinson and McIntyre, I need to be clear in my origination and leadership role). Let me illustrate this with an anecdote from decades ago.

In the early 90s, I helped to write and run a number of Multi User Dungeons (MUDs) – the text-based fore-runners of the Massively Multiplayer On-line Role Playing Games, such as World of Warcraft. The games had very little graphical complexity and we spent most of our time writing the code that drove things like hitting orcs with swords or allowing people to cast spells. Because of the many interactions between the software components in the code, it was possible for unexpected things to happen – not just bugs where code stopped working but strange ‘features’ where things kept working but in an odd way. I knew a guy, let’s call him K, who was a long-term player of MUDs. If the MUD was any good, he’d not only played it, he’d effectively beaten it. He knew every trick, every lurk, the best way to attack a monster but, more interestingly, he had a nose for spotting errors in the code and taking advantage of them. One time, in a game we were writing, we spotted K walking around with something like 20-30 ’empty’ water bottles on him. (As game writers, wizards, we could examine any object in the game, which included seeing what players were carrying.)

A bit like this, but all on one person’s shoulders and no wheels.

This was weird. Players had a limited amount of stuff that they could carry, and K should have had no reason to carry those bottles. When we examined him, we discovered that we’d made an error in the code so that, when you drank from a bottle and emptied it, the bottle ended up weighing LESS THAN NOTHING. (It was a text game and our testing wasn’t always fantastic – I learnt!) So K was carrying around the in-game equivalent of helium balloons that allowed him to carry a lot more than he usually would.

Of course, once we detected it, we fixed the code and K stopped carrying so many empty bottles. (Although, I have no doubt that he personally checked each and every container we put into the game from that point on to see if could get it to happen again.) Did we punish him? No. We knew that K would need some ‘flexibility’ in his exploration of the game, knowing that he would press hard against the rubber sheet to see how much he could bend reality, but also knowing that he would spot problems that would take us weeks or months of time to find on our own. We took him into our new and vulnerable game knowing that if he tried to actually break or crash the game, or share the things he’d learned, we’d close off his access. And he knew that too.

Had I placed a limit in play that said “Cheating detected = Immediate Booting from the game”, K would have left immediately. I suspect he would have taken umbrage at the term ‘cheating’, as he generally saw it as “this is the way the world works – it’s not my fault that your world behaves strangely”. (Let’s not get into this debate right now, we’re not in the educational plagiarism/cheating space right now.)

We gave K some exploration space, more than many people would feel comfortable with, but we maintained some hard pragmatic limits to keep things working and we maintained the authority required to exercise these limits. In return, K helped us although, of course, he played for the fun of the game and, I suspect, the joy of discovering crazy bugs. However, overall, this approach saved us effort and load, and allowed us to focus on other things with our limited resources. Of course, to make this work required careful orientation and monitoring on our behalf. Nothing, after all, comes for free.

If I’d asked K to fill out forms describing the bugs he’d found, he’d never have done it. If I’d had to write detailed test documents for him, I wouldn’t have had time to do anything else. But it also illustrates something that I have to be very cautious of, which I’ve embodied as the ‘no cheating/gaming’ guideline for Time Banking. One of the problems with students at early development stages is that they can assume that their approach is right, or even assert that their approach is the correct one, when it is not aligned with our goals or intentions at all. Therefore, we have to be clear on the goals and open about our intentions. Given that the goal of Time Banking is to develop mature approach to time management, using the team approach I’ve already discussed, I need to be very clear in the guidance I give to students.

However, I also need to be realistic. There is a possibility that, especially on the first run, I introduce a feature in either the design or the supporting system that allows students to do something that they shouldn’t. So here’s my plan for dealing with this:

  1. There is a clear no-cheating policy. Get caught doing anything that tries to subvert the system or get you more hours in any other way than submitting your own work early and it’s treated as a cheating incident and you’re removed from the time bank.
  2. Reporting a significant fault in the system, that you have either deduced, or observed, is worth 24 hours of time to the first person who reports it. (Significant needs definition but it’s more than typos.)

I need the stick. Some of my students need to know that the stick is there, even if the stick is never needed, but I really can’t stand the stick. I have always preferred the carrot. Find me a problem and you get an automatic one-day extension, good for any assignment in the bank. Heck, I could even see my way clear to making this ‘liftable’ hours – 24 hours you can hand on to a friend if you want. If part of your team thinking extends to other people and, instead of a gifted student handing out their assignment, they hand out some hours, I have no problem with that. (Mr Pragmatism, of course, places a limit on the number of unearned hours you can do this with, from the recipient’s, not the donor’s perspective. If I want behaviour to change, then people have to act to change themselves.)

My design needs to keep the load down, the rewards up but, most importantly, the rewards have to move the students towards the same goals as the primary activity or I will cause off-task optimisation and I really don’t want to do that.

I’m working on a discussion document to go out to people who think this is a great idea, a terrible idea, the worst idea ever, something that they’d like to do, so that I can bring all of the thoughts back together and, as a group of people dedicated to education, come up with something that might be useful – OR, and it’s a big or, come up with the dragon slaying notion that kills time banking stone dead and provides the sound theoretical and evidence-based support as to why we must and always should use deadlines. I’m prepared for one, the other, both or neither to be true, along with degrees along the axis.


Time Banking II: We Are a Team

In between getting my camera ready copy together for ICER, and I’m still pumped that our paper got into ICER, I’ve been delving deep into the literature and the psychological and pedagogical background that I need to confirm before I go too much further with Time Banking. (I first mentioned this concept here. The term is already used in a general sense to talk about an exchange of services based on time as a currency. I use it here within the framework of student assignment submission.) I’m not just reading in CS Ed, of course, but across Ed, sociology, psychology and just about anywhere else where people have started to consider time as a manageable or tradable asset. I thought I’d take this post to outline some of the most important concepts behind it and provide some rationale for decisions that have already been made. I’ve already posted the guidelines for this, which can be distilled down to “not all events can be banked”, “additional load must be low”, “pragmatic limits apply”, “bad (cheating or gaming) behaviour is actively discouraged” and “it must integrate with our existing systems”.

Time/Bank currency design by Lawrence Weiner. Photo by Julieta Aranda. (Question for Nick – do I need something like this for my students?)

Our goal, of course, is to get students to think about their time management in a more holistic fashion and to start thinking about their future activities sometime sooner the 24 hours before the due date. Rather than students being receivers and storers of deadline, can we allow them to construct their own timelines, within a set of limits? (Ben-Ari, 1998, “Constructivism in Computer Science Education”, SIGCSE,  although Ben-Ari referred to knowledge in this context and I’m adapting it to a knowledge of temporal requirements, which depends upon a mature assessment of the work involved and a sound knowledge of your own skill level.) The model that I am working with is effectively a team-based model, drawing on Dickinson and McIntyre’s 1997 work “Team Performance Assessment and Measurement: Theory, Methods and Applications.”, but where the team consists of a given student, my marking team and me. Ultimately our product is the submitted artefact and we are all trying to facilitate its timely production, but if I want students to be constructive and participative, rather than merely compliant and receptive, I have to involve them in the process. Dickinson and McIntyre identified seven roles in their model: orientation, leadership, monitoring, feedback, back-up (assisting/supporting), coordination and communication. Some of these roles are obviously mine, as the lecturer, such as orientation (establishing norms and keeping the group cohesive) and monitoring (observing performance and recognising correct contribution). However, a number of these can easily be shared between lecturer and student, although we must be clear as to who holds each role at a given time. In particular, if I hold onto deadlines and make them completely immutable then I have take the coordination role and handed over a very small fragment of that to the student. By holding onto that authority, whether it makes sense or not, I’m forcing the student into an authority-dependent mode.

(We could, of course, get into quite a discussion as to whether the benefit is primarily Piagiatien because we are connecting new experiences with established ideas, or Vygotskian because of the contact with the More Knowledgable Other and time spent in the Zone of Proximal Development. Let’s just say that either approach supports the importance of me working with a student in a more fluid and interactive manner than a more rigid and authoritarian relationship.)

Yes, I know, some deadlines are actually fixed and I accept that. I’m not saying that we abandon all deadlines or notion of immutability. What I am, however, saying is that we want our students to function in working teams, to collaborate, to produce good work, to know when to work harder earlier to make it easier for themselves later on. Rather than give them a tiny sandpit in which to play, I propose that we give them a larger space to work with. It’s still a space with edges, limits, defined acceptable behaviour – our monitoring and feedback roles are one of our most important contributions to our students after all – but it is a space in which a student can have more freedom of action and, for certain roles including coordination, start to construct their own successful framework for achievement.

Much as reading Vygotsky gives you useful information and theoretical background, without necessarily telling you how to teach, reading through all of these ideas doesn’t immediately give me a fully-formed implementation. This is why the guidelines were the first things I developed once I had some grip on the ideas, because I needed to place some pragmatic limits that would allow me to think about this within a teaching framework.  The goal is to get students to use the process to improve their time management and process awareness and we need to set limits on possible behaviour to make sure that they are meeting the goal. “Hacks” to their own production process, such as those that allow them to legitimately reduce their development time (such as starting the work early, or going through an early prototype design) are the point of the exercise. “Hacks” that allow them to artificially generate extra hours in the time bank are not the point at all. So this places a requirement on the design to be robust and not susceptible to gaming, and on the orientation, leadership and monitoring roles as practiced by me and my staff. But it also requires the participants to enter into the spirit of it or choose not to participate, rather than attempting to undermine it or act to spite it.

The spontaneous generation of hours was something that I really wanted to avoid. When I sketched out my first solution, I realised that I had made the system far too complex by granting time credits immediately, when a ‘qualifying’ submission was made, and that later submissions required retraction of the original grant, followed by a subsequent addition operation. In fact, I had set up a potential race condition that made it much more difficult to guarantee that a student was using genuine extension credit time. The current solution? Students don’t get credit added to their account until a fixed point has passed, beyond which no further submissions can take place. This was the first of the pragmatic limits – there does exist a ‘no more submissions’ point but we are relatively elastic to that point. (It also stops students trying to use obtained credit for assignment X to try and hand up an improved version of X after the due date. We’re not being picky here but this isn’t the behaviour we want – we want students to think more than a week in advance because that is the skill that, if practised correctly, will really improve their time management.)

My first and my most immediate concern was that students may adapt to this ‘last hand-in barrier’ but our collected data doesn’t support this hypothesis, although there are some concerning subgroups that we are currently tearing apart to see if we can get more evidence on the small group of students who do seem to go to a final marks barrier that occurs after the main submission date.

I hope to write more on this over the next few days, discussing in more detail my support for requiring a ‘no more submissions’ point at all. As always, discussion is very welcome!

Deadlines and Decisions – an Introduction to Time Banking

I’m working on a new project, as part of my educational research, to change the way that students think about deadlines and time estimation. The concept’s called Time Banking and it’s pretty simple. Some schools already give students some ‘slack time’, free extension time that the students manage to allow them to manage their own deadlines. Stanford offers 2 days up front so, at any time in the course, you can claim some extra time and give yourself an extension.

The idea behind Time Banking is that you get extra hours if you hand up your work (to a certain standard) early. These hours can be used later as free extensions for assignment, up to some maximum number of days. This makes deadlines flexible and personalised per student.

Now I know that some of you already have your “Time is Money, Jones!” hats on and may even be waggling a finger. Here’s a picture of what that looks like, if you’re not a-waggling.

“Deadlines are fixed for a reason!”

“We use deadlines to teach professional conduct!”

“This is going to make marking impossible.”

“That’s not the right way to tie a bow tie!”

“It’s the end of civilisation as we know it!” (Sorry, that’s a little hyperbolic)

Of course, some deadlines are fixed. However, looking back over my own activities during the past quarter, I have far more negotiable and mutable deadlines than I do fixed ones. Knowing how to assess my own use of time in the face of a combination of fixed and mutable deadlines is a skill that I refine every year.

If I had up late, telling me to hand up on time or start earlier doesn’t really involve me in the process that’s required: making a decision as to how I’m going to manage all of my commitments over time, rather than panicking when I run into a deadline.

I can’t help thinking that forcing students to treat every assignment deadline as fixed, whether it needs to be or not, doesn’t deal with the student in the way that we try to in every other sphere. It makes them depend upon the deadline from an authority, rather than forcing them to look at their assignment work across a whole semester and plan inside that larger context. How can we produce students who are able to work at the multiplicity or commitment level, sorry, Perry again, if we force them to be authority-dependent dualists in their time management?

Now, before you think I’ve gone mad, there are some guidelines for all of this, as well as the requirement to have a good basis in evidence.

  1. We must be addressing an existing behavioural problem. (More on this later.)
  2. Some deadlines are immutable. This includes weekly dependencies, assignments where the solutions are revealed post submission, and ‘end of semester’ close-off dates.
  3. The assessment of ‘early and satisfactory’ must be low effort for the teacher. We don’t want to encourage handing up empty assignments a week ahead. We want to encourage meeting a certain standard, preferably automatically assessed, to bring student activity forward.
  4. We have limits on the amount you can bank or spend, to keep assessment of the submitted materials inside the realm of possibility and, again, to reduce unnecessary load on the staff,
  5. We don’t tolerate bad behaviour. Cheating or system fiddling immediately removes the system from the scheme.
  6. We provide up-front hours to give all students a base line of extension.
  7. We integrate this with our existing ‘system problem’ and ‘medical/compassionate problem’ extension systems.

Now, if students don’t have a problem, there’s nothing to fix. If our existing fixed deadline system encouraged students to start their work at the right time and finish in a timely fashion, then by final year, we wouldn’t need anything like this. However, my data from our web submission system clearly indicates the existence of ‘persistently’ late students and, in fact, rather than getting better, we actually start to see some students getting later in second, third and honours years. So, while this isn’t concrete, we’re not seeing the “Nope, no problem here” behaviour that we’d like. So that’s point 1 dealt with – it looks like we have a problem.

Most of the points are technical issues or components of an economic model, but 6 and 7 address a more important issue: equity. Right now, if your on-line submission systems crash the day before the assignment is due, what happens? Everyone who handed in their work has done the right thing but, because you have to grant a one day extension, they actually prioritised their work too early. Not a huge deal in many ways, because students who get their work in early probably march to a different drum anyway, but it makes a mockery of the whole fixed deadline thing. Either the deadline is fixed or it isn’t – by allowing extension on a broad scale for any reason, you’re admitting that your deadline was arbitrary.

We’re trying to make them think harder than that.

How about, instead, you hand out 24 hours of time in the bank. Now the students who handed up early have 24 hours to spend later on and the students who didn’t get it in before the crash have a fair chance to get their work in on time. Student gets sick, your medical extensions are now just managed as time in the bank, reflecting the fact that knock on effects can be far greater than just getting an extension for a single assignment.

But we don’t go crazy. My current thoughts are that we’d limit the students to only starting to count early about 2 days before the assignment is due, and allow a maximum of 3 days extension (greater for medical or compassionate). This keeps it in our marking boundary and also, assuming that you’ve placed your assignments in the context of the appropriate knowledge delivery, keeps the assignments roughly in the same location as the work – not doing the assignment at the beginning of the term and then forgetting the knowledge.

So, cards on the table, I’m writing a paper on this, identifying exactly what I need to look at in order to demonstrate if this is a problem, the literature that supports my approach, the objections to it and the obstacles. I also have to spec the technical system that would support it and , yes, identify the range of assignments for which it would work. It won’t work for everything/everyone or every course. But I suspect it might work very well for some areas.

Could we allow team banking? Course banking? Social sharing? Community involvement (donation to charity for so many hours in the bank at the end of the course)? What could we do by involving students in the elastic management of their own time?

There’s a lot more but I’d love to hear some thoughts on it. I look forward to the discussion!