This week I was listening to last week’s Freakonomics podcast during one of my walks onto campus. The podcast was talking about the use of incentives and prizes for innovation and the resulting effects, even from the innovation of those who do not win the prize.
Part of the discussion was about Google’s 20% time. Apparently, since Google started, they encourage their employees to use 20% of their paid time to develop their own ideas and projects. This time can be used as one day a week, one week every five weeks, etc. It is up to the employee to decide how this time is used. The underlying assumption is that it is better to get 20 ideas from 20 different people than to put 20 people in a room and get one idea. That one idea may be a good idea, but there is no guarantee of that. Instead, individuals can produce more ideas by themselves, and more ideas are more likely to produce more good ideas among a group of people.
Many things from Google that we now take for granted came from this 20% time. The most noteworthy (at least from my usage) is Gmail. Gmail came about from the use of one person’s 20% time and his personal frustration with the way that other web e-mail services were run. Gmail revolutionized the web e-mail area, but the founders of Google admit that they never would have considered going down that route themselves. Because of the 20% time, Google gained a huge share of the e-mail market and was better off as a company because of that.
One of my first thoughts was that there are parallels between academia and Google, with the use of sabbaticals in academia, as well as time given to professors for their own research projects. While Google benefits in a different way than the university does, both benefit from having their employees engaged in their own work in addition to the work assigned to them by their employer.
I then moved onto thinking about how might students be able to benefit from 20% time. After doing some thinking, I realized that in many ways, students already have this time. While most students take a class load of 15 credit hours, studies have shown that many do not spend more than an hour outside of class studying for every hour in class. If we assume a normal 40 hour work week (which given that college life, for most students, is about their entire lives, seems to be on the low end of things), that means there are 10 hours a week that students can use to study the things that they are interested in.
Although most students have all this time that they can explore their own interests outside of class and develop their own ideas, it seems that students have largely bought into the idea that what you learn and do at college is confined to the classroom and assignments related to the classroom. Many seem to lack the idea of wonder and interest at the big questions of life, or anything that doesn’t directly relate to class. (In fact, some students resent having to take any classes outside their majors that require work.) Instead, they want to spend this time playing video games or doing some other activity that often is uninvolved with these issues.
I am left wondering three things. First, why don’t many students want to develop ideas or critically engage anything that doesn’t relate to their major? Second, what can we do as professors and instructors to help cultivate interest and wonder at a picture of life that embodies the entire person and a bigger picture of the world? Third, what could the university setting look like if students were taking advantage of their 20% time? The answers to that last question excite me and make me want to search hard for answers to the first two.