In Praise of Online Philosophy

Over the past several years, I find myself increasingly coming to the defence of online teaching, and especially to the defence of online philosophy teaching. The defence usually arises in response to concerns falling into one of two categories. Neither of these worries is entirely without merit:

  1. It will not be “the same as” F2F for the students. This objection may include worries that it will not be as rigorous, or as comprehensive, or ‘feel’ the same for the students as F2F.
  2. It will not be “the same as” F2F for the instructor. It will be an overwhelming burden to teach, and it will be without emotional connection. It will take the fun out of teaching.

The two worries are related, and unfortunately push in opposing directions. Many attempts to remedy (1) – such as keeping standard F2F assignment structures or lecture style – lead to an overwhelming burden of constant email and marking for the instructor. The more that we attempt to build emotional connection through personalized email responses and extensive feedback, the greater the burden and time commitment for the instructor. Attempts to remedy (2) can depersonalize the online experience for students, and lose many even if not all of the advantages and innovations of online pedagogy. Both are valid concerns, but both sets of shortcomings can be avoided by designing a course using best practices in accessible, online pedagogy.

I have come to believe that using best practices for online pedagogy, we can achieve an academically rigorous, challenging, and interesting course for students, while maintaining manageable workloads for instructors. The key is letting go of the phenomenological identity requirement. An online course will not be or feel the same as F2F for anyone, nor should it aspire to be. Ultimately, the differences are a good thing, and are the reason we should embrace online pedagogy. 

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As university administrations increasingly push online and blended course offerings, philosophy departments are increasingly under pressure to develop and redevelop their online offerings. From an administrator’s perspective, these courses can easily be portrayed as net benefit to the university. After all, once the course and content is up and running, multiple sections can be offered in a given time period, registration caps can be raised or even removed, and the course can be offered well beyond the geographic boundaries of the university. Despite many valid misgivings about online teaching in philosophy, I have come to believe that online philosophy courses do offer a net benefit and many new possibilities, but they ultimately require rethinking philosophy pedagogy from the ground up. In particular, adapting ‘traditional’ face-to-face (F2F) content and format for online is unlikely to achieve the same outcomes or course aims; instead, the switch to online teaching requires us to think explicitly about learning outcomes and course aims for each component of the course, and aim to hold these constant as we shift formats, to use course aims and outcomes as fundamental in our online course design. 

Some F2F formats and assignments survive the shift, but to the extent that The Lecture persists as a pedagogical form, or that a teacher-centred pedagogical approach remains appropriate, these necessarily undergo another transformation in online and distance education. 

The first step is to familiarize yourself with online pedagogy, and with available techniques and practices. At this point, if not before, it should become apparent that a 1 hour lecture video is never appropriate for an online course. (A 1 hour plus didactic lecture may not be appropriate in F2F contexts either, but that is a discussion for another time and venue.) Think in terms of small, bite sized pieces of content such as:

  • Lecture videos of 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Short ‘guided reading’ documents with questions to think about alongside the readings.
  • Discussion prompts.
  • Shorter readings, including academic blog posts.

Your students will not all engage with the content in the same way, at the same time. Design your course around this fact. Allow for individual scheduling, and try to make it easy and clear by making use of tools like checklists and gamefication.

To that end, organize these bite-sized pieces into ‘modules‘, perhaps thematically. These may or may not correspond to something like ‘weekly’ expectations, but should involve roughly the same time commitment and structure for the sake of student /learner expectations.

I have moved towards unproctored  open book quizzes, tests and exams for online students.  I became a fan of multiple choice forms of assessment ‘automatically’ marked by the course management software. It takes time to develop a good (challenging, rigorous) bank of questions, but it dramatically eases the marking burden. Create as large a question bank as possible, and set up the test or quiz to randomize questions. 

And absolutely, fundamentally, design the course with accessibility and diversity of learners in mind. I first taught an online course at a time when I had an infant at home and limited ability to predict my schedule, let alone leave the house. And that turned out to offer me insight into the motivations of students in distance education that is not always available to online educators, and can easily be lost or hidden from the view of online instructors and administrators in distance education.  I think there are genuine accessibility reasons that students choose online courses over F2F even when distance to campus is not one of them. To canvas a few: full time work commitments or irregular part time shift work commitments, primary caregiver for children or parents or spouses, mental health concerns not limited to diagnosed concerns, undiagnosed mental health concerns, chronic illness with unpredictable flare ups. Accessibility is, I argue, the ultimate reason we should embrace online philosophy. And on that basis, accessibility should be at the forefront of our thinking about online pedagogy and design. (This is obviously true in F2F as well as online). 

Of course, online courses can be designed in inaccessible ways if we lose sight of principles of universal design. For example, we should ensure that all videos are captioned, all text is readable by text-to-speech software, and that time limits for quizzes or tests can be adjusted on an individual basis. Better yet – do away with timers, and design thoughtful open book quizzes and assignments where the thought is the effort, and measuring using a timer is not necessary. 

So, embrace the fact that online courses will not feel the same as F2F, and design them in recognition of the uniqueness of online pedagogy. It is not inherently more work for the instructor, nor inherently less personal, and it can be deeply and genuinely engaging to students for whom F2F is not.



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2 responses to “In Praise of Online Philosophy

  1. Pingback: Online Philosophy Part II: On Design | philojen

  2. Pingback: Gamification, habituation, motivation | philojen

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