Online Philosophy Part II: On Design

A couple of weeks ago, I posted here about the virtues of online teaching for accessibility. One portion of my argument boiled down to this: online teaching is significantly more accessible than Face to Face (F2F) teaching. Provided that we keep this accessibility in mind when designing our online courses, this accessibility provides reasons to prefer online teaching. Amongst the reasons to reject online teaching in philosophy, two candidates derive from an aspiration to have online courses ‘feel like’ their F2F counterparts. This aspiration, I argue, is a mistake, and a better aspiration is to hold ‘learning outcomes’ and ‘pedagogical aims’ constant across formats. Design your online course to keep the learning outcomes constant, and do so by relying on best practices in online pedagogy.

A couple of comments online and offline have reminded me to foreground and examine some implications of my previous post. One implication is that our latent pedagogical aims may become apparent to us in the process. If your fundamental aim in teaching philosophy is to develop critical thinking, that can be designed into your course. If, however, a significant pedagogical aim (perhaps alongside critical thinking) is to prevent cheating and academic dishonesty, you will find that this, too, has to be designed into your online course. But the good news is that it can be done.

But this response, like much of what I said in the previous post, requires a lot of effort and time at the design phase. So a second implication is that I take my emphasis in design to imply that course instructors ought to be course designers and vice versa, and that course designers ought to be compensated for their work and time. I have been in the position of teaching an online course designed by someone else, and I fell into all of the traps: Too much marking, too many emails, high student attrition, and a low success rate for the course. The experience opened my eyes to the existence of best practices in online teaching, and to recognition that they differ in significant ways from the traditional F2F lecture format.

In my case, part of the overwhelm arose because the course had been designed with a small registration in mind, and an administrator (who was very far removed from the praxis and motivations of the course designer) had significantly changed – then eventually removed – the registration cap. So, a course that was designed for a 40-student registration cap eventually ended up with 178 students registered. My experience was not unique, and the problem persists. A friend was recently hired on short notice as an adjunct, and taught an online course that had not been adequately designed with the instructor’s perspective in mind. When you are hired on short notice as an adjunct (ask me how I know), whether for a F2F course or an online one, you typically do not have enough time to make any significant impact in redesigning the course. You can be bound quite significantly by how the course has been taught previously. In an academic facebook group of which I am a member, a discussion arose about how anyone could be expected to teach an online course that they did not design. Although I have done it, I tend to agree. Or, at least, to the extent that anyone is the teacher for an online philosophy course they become the de facto designer. I ended up on the Ship of Theseus, trying to keep the course in motion while redesigning it constantly.  The course I ended up teaching was very different from the one I inherited, but the university viewed the one I inherited as the *true* course (or Ship of Theseus).

The economic model of higher education that most strongly incentivizes the shift to online teaching and online learning (one in which each student pays to register for each course, but instructors and teachers are seemingly viewed as an expensive administrator rather than playing an essential pedagogical role), does not tend to view ‘course design’ as an ineliminable part of the online course instructor’s role. And the economic model tends not to compensate (or not to compensate adequately) the course design part of the role. I’m careful here not to suggest that compensation is exclusively in the form of payment. Payment and employment as a course designer, inasmuch as it can be distinguished from payment or employment as a course instructor, might also be a mistake. Course release might be appropriate in some cases. A default guarantee that the paid designer will be the instructor – or that they will retain copyright of the online course or online materials- might also be appropriate. Employment or payment or designated time allocated as a course designer for every iteration of course instructorship would be appropriate.

But when none of those options are available, the recognition that the design takes time, the design is a process, and that in a strong sense the design is the course is important. So, to the extent that my previous post advocated for design as solving many of the problems with online pedagogy, I want to foreground that design is a process, design takes time, and design ought to be compensated. And that the employment conditions of online instructors, online course designers, and the economics of online pedagogy are also the product of problematic design choices.

So, I still think that Academic Philosophy should embrace online philosophy courses, and should do so for accessibility reasons. But Academic Philosophy nonetheless ought to seriously examine the conditions under which online philosophy operates. Online philosophy is a reality and should be an opportunity. But it can be designed (at the institutional level, at the departmental level, or at the individual level) badly, and we ought to guard against those possibilities.

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One response to “Online Philosophy Part II: On Design

  1. Pingback: Reinventing the Wheel and DIY Online Instructional Design | Digital Ethics

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