The Relationship Between Education and Time

In the United States, our educational systems are built on time—12 years of elementary and secondary education (13 if you count kindergarten), two years for an associate’s degree, four years for a bachelor’s degree, two years for a master’s degree, and two to about five years for a PhD. To earn these degrees, students are required to collect a certain number of credits, which are based on the number of hours they spend learning.

One of the biggest disruptions that online learning formats, and especially MOOCs, has brought to higher education is to challenge the relationship between education and time. In a 2011 article for The Next Web, Courtney Boyd Myers notes: “The Internet has changed how we interact with Time. We can be learning all the time now, whenever we want, and wherever we want. And because of that, we’re seeing explosive growth in online education.” EdX President Anant Agarwal has also talked about unbundling education from time. His vision for the future of higher education throws the traditional four-year plan out the window, instead suggesting that students may take their first-year courses via MOOCs, head to campus for a few years, and then continue to take MOOCs throughout their lifetimes. In this vision, higher education is not bounded by time, but rather is a process that continues throughout one’s whole life and career.

The relationship between education and time is well-engrained in our society, but the ideal we strive for is not working in practice. Already more than half of college students don’t graduate in four years, which both adds to their debt load and keeps them out of the job market for an extended period of time. And while going to school longer to earn an advanced degree is associated with higher income, it only works for those who can actually find jobs. In 2011, the number of PhDs who had a job by graduation dipped below 40 percent.

Clearly the idea of isolating people in the educational system for a certain period of time before releasing them into the workforce is becoming less and less effective. In addition, with the rapid pace of change today, that upfront learning—those four or six or eight years spent studying a particular subject—simply doesn’t get you as far as it used to. In some fields, the knowledge and skills you gain in your first year of college may very well be obsolete by the time you graduate. Then what do you do?

Education should not be defined by time, which in itself doesn’t tell us anything about the knowledge and skills acquired. Letting go of our inherited notions about credit-hours, hours spent in class, and even years spent in school will help us both recognize and embrace a new model in which education is defined by learning, and learning is something that happens every day, throughout the entire course of our lives.

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