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Intercontinental Academia launches online course on "Time"

by Richard Meckien - published Mar 26, 2021 06:40 PM - - last modified Feb 22, 2022 12:08 PM
Rights: Original version in Portuguese by Mauro Bellesa.

Logo ICA e UbiasOn April 14, the IEA and Nagoya University's Institute for Advanced Research (IAR) will launch the massive open online course (MOOC) "Off the Clock: The Many Faces of Time," which will be available on the Coursera platform.

The launch will take place during the 6th UBIAS Directors' Conference, which will gather representatives from institutes for advanced study linked to universities on all continents. This will be possible thanks to the partnership between USP's Dean of Research and Coursera.

The MOOC is the result of debates undertaken by 13 young researchers from various fields and several countries participating in the first edition of the Intercontinental Academia (ICA) in 2015 and 2016. Organized by the IEA and the IAR, the project's theme was "Time."

The ICA is a UBIAS program in which two institutes for advanced study from different continents organize periods of immersion in conferences and debates on an interdisciplinary theme. The fourth edition will be held in 2021 and 2022 around the theme "Intelligence and Artificial Intelligence."

Facets of time

The aim of the course is to present a comprehensive overview of the main formulations about time in science, philosophy, and the arts. The discussed issues range from the dynamic or static time of the pre-Socratics to Heidegger's phenomenology, from the discussion about the arrow of time towards the future to the inexistence of the concept of time in quantum gravity, and from geological time to the circadian cycles that control the human organism.

During the periods of intense activity at the IEA (April 2015) and the IAR (March 2016), the young researchers had the opportunity to participate in dozens of conferences by senior specialists on the conception and importance of time in anthropology, physics, neurobiology, chronobiology, psychoanalysis, environmental sciences, and other areas.

So that a synthesis of the debates raised by these conferences and the working meetings could reach a wide audience, the researchers were tasked with producing a MOOC.

IEA's director at the time of ICA's first edition and a member of the senior committee of the project, Martin Grossmann recalls that the idea of producing the MOOC came from chronobiologist Till Roenneberg (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich - LMU) during a meeting of the committee at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS), in September 2014.

Consisting of 17 video classes divided into four modules and a total length of five and a half hours, the course has been produced by six of the young researchers.

The content coordination has been in charge of Nikki Moore (Wake Forest University), Marius Müller (Federal University of Pernambuco), and Valtteri Arstila (University of Turku). Eduardo Almeida and Helder Nakaya, both affiliated to USP, and David Gange (University of Birmingham), have participated as creators and exhibitors.

The filming, under the audiovisual direction of Priscila Lima, took place at the "Clarimundo de Jesus" Research Base of USP's Oceanographic Institute (IO), in Ubatuba, coast of the Brazilian state of São Paulo, in 2017.

According to Grossmann, the MOOC has met the objectives of the ICA, since "the expectations in relation to the results were quite broad and not very well defined."

He considers that the course format has become even more relevant due to the demands of today: "The position of teachers, who still attribute a secondary role to MOOCs in education, tends to change in the face of the reality of online interactions during the pandemic." Grossmann says that he used to consider the format to be very limited, as it tried to reproduce the classroom formula, "but the result achieved by the researchers' work surprised me."

Gravação do Mooc 'Off the Clock'
Preparation for recording one of the MOOC classes

For him, the interdisciplinary course on "Time" is introductory and influenced by the cultural and scientific universe of the young researchers of the ICA. "There is no ambition to address issues more assertively."

He finds it difficult to define the MOOC's audience. He believes that the course will attract graduate students from different areas in addition to "restless undergraduates with the need to venture into different fields."

According to Grossmann, the course also leaves a legacy of confirmation that the UBIAS network can work with such initiatives and propose similar ones in the future.


Participants' experience

Two of the six researchers involved in the production of the MOOC, Eduardo Almeida and Marius Müller, will act as pedagogical coordinators of the course at Coursera.

Almeida classifies the experience of producing the course as "incredible," as it required "the harmonization of visions, knowledge, and interpretations from areas as diverse as literature, mathematics, history, psychology, biology, physics, bioinformatics, arts, and philosophy in a discussion that would make a minimum of sense for everyone involved."

For Müller, it has been a difficult process "not only in relation to the theme but also in terms of intercultural interaction." Despite the difficulties, he considers that the work "was a great and very rewardinglearning experience."

The choice of the theme "Time" has been an advantage, according to Almeida, "because it is a dimension of existence that permeates any area of knowledge and is challenging in all disciplines."

Two obstacles stood out in the execution of the work, in his opinion. One of them is the fact that the greater the specialization in an academic area, the more difficult it is to understand the perspectives (conceptual basis, problematic aspects, theoretical questions, history) of the other areas, although "philosophy sometimes acts as a bridge between some of these knowledge islands." The other is the difference between languages from different areas ("even having English as a language of communication"), which "makes understanding the concepts themselves very difficult." For him, this is due to the adoption of a jargon typical to each discipline "and, I believe, even by the ways of thinking and arguing that differ between people who represent these areas."

All of the topics addressed by the MOOC were challenging, says Almeida. In his case, the topics that are not part of his scope of action as a scientist in the biological field were especially demanding. "The discussion about the physical nature of time is difficult because the mathematical basis or the very abstraction of theories is counterintuitive at first; the perspective of time in a work of art follows principles even more distinct from those that I consider reasonable for my perspective as a scientist."

He reported that his participation in the production of the course caused a mixture of curiosity and skepticism ("I think something somewhat enigmatic") among his department colleagues, because it was something different from the usual activity of researchers.

"I gave a seminar on the topic in the department and several colleagues were curious to know a little more. At the time, the MOOC had not yet been completed. It will be interesting to find out if the course can generate reflections in the colleagues who attend it."

Almeida stated that the online course has been his first experience in scientific dissemination on a larger scale, as his common activity in the area takes place through lectures, extension courses, and small fairs. Müller said that he had already participated in scientific dissemination, "but that the production of a MOOC was very specific and a valuable experience."

According to Almeida, the discussions among the participants have evidenced the feeling that everyone had their academic activities influenced by their work. He said he was more skeptical about some certainties and more attentive to the perspectives that varied disciplines bring about some subjects. He also believes he has become more careful about communicating ideas and being able to speak to an audience broader than his closest circle.

For Müller, participating in the project has influenced his academic mind and "opened up the interest in working and acting in different academic areas in the future."

Both the ICA on "Time" and the production of MOOC were sponsored by the Itaú Cultural Foundation with support from the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), FRIAS, the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study (WIAS), and the Center for Advanced Studies (CAS) at LMU Munich.