Socratic method or online pedagogy? An E-learning lit review


auditorium-benches-chairs-class-207691In the autumn of 2019, I wrote some pieces advocating for online courses in philosophy (here and here). I wasn’t prescient, and I could not have imagined how important online pedagogy would suddenly become to the entire enterprise of higher education in 2020, but my experience with online teaching suggested that there was something worthwhile in online pedagogy, and moreover that there was something worthwhile about teaching philosophy online.

Here’s the thing: good philosophers are not inherently or innately good pedagogues. This is sometimes as a result of gaps in training, and sometimes as a result of the empirically false assumption that “tradition” or “what we have always done” is necessarily best. I have lots of guesses about why this might be the case, but number one is Socrates. Socratic method is what we need to know to teach philosophy, right?

Well, studying philosophy is not the same as studying pedagogy, and there are many reasons to worry that a significant portion of the methods we use in teaching philosophy are neither state of the art of pedagogy, nor necessarily effective for what we are trying to achieve in the philosophy classroom. What’s worse, many of the tools we use to evaluate the quality of teaching do not, in fact, track quality of learning. But, in any case, many of the tools of face to face pedagogy are not available to us – and would not have the same effects – in the online classroom. The immediate back-and-forth of the Socratic method is just not going to work for most of us in the online classroom.

The online context, and the pandemic-necessitated switch to online learning in particular, lays bare the extent to which some portions of our teaching may be by habit rather than by conscious design.

Very few of us had taught online before March 2020, and even fewer had designed a course by ourselves, from the ground up, for online delivery. I would suggest that we are all getting a crash course in philosophy pedagogy, instructional design, and educational technology all rolled into one. And each one of those is a difficult ask. This post is another attempt to disentangle some more strands of The Problem of Teaching (Philosophy) Online. Below is my attempt to organize some resources relevant to online pedagogy, summarize some of my takeaways, and help many of my colleagues figure out what they are going to do in 6 weeks time.

First, a general theme that comes up in the online pedagogy literature, but that I have not highlighted in my annotations because it is so basic: online education is designed for adult learners. There are of course systems in existence for high school courses to be run remotely, and the Covid-19 Pandemic has generated additional non-ideal systems for remote primary education, but much of what is said in this literature – and much of what I will say here – assumes that those individuals accessing online education are adult learners. That turns out to be an important assumption given the tendency for many university professors to use infantalizing techniques for avoiding academic dishonesty, to use social media to mock earnest questions from students, or to turn “It’s in the syllabus” into a meme (or t-shirt slogan). So, if you have only one takeaway from this post, treat your students as adult human beings, capable of being challenged, worthy of your empathy, and embarking on a steep learning curve of their own – one where they are trying to learn how to learn online, and at the same time learn the course material.

In any case: on with the show. Here is my lit review:

General Advice for online course design:

  1. Mary Burns This is a very clear list of 10 techniques for effective online courses. I take this as a clear summary of common practice and received knowledge in the e-learning industry.
  2. “How to be a Better Online Teacher: Advice Guide” by Flower Darby in The Chronicle is a really thoughtful guide to better, more enjoyable online teaching. They write: “The teaching suggestions in this guide are not revolutionary. Once you read them, they’ll probably seem like common sense. But that’s just the point. Professors often fail to make the connection between what we do in a physical classroom and what we do online. This guide aims to make that connection explicit — to help you think about what you do well in person so that you can do those things in your online classes, too.” The advice includes:
    1. Be present in the online class. “Schedule the same amount of time each week to be visibly present and engaged in your semester-long online class.”
    2. Be yourself. “Capture your personality and your passion in ways that are different from what you might do in person, yet authentic.”
    3. Be empathetic. “Try to envision how your students are experiencing the class.” And design for it.
    4. Explain your expectations. “provide as much meaningful support as you can — without going overboard — so that students don’t have to guess what you want them to do.”
    5. Scaffold learning activities.
    6. Provide examples.
    7. Commit to continuous improvements.
  3. Knowlton, Dave S. “A Theoretical Framework for the Online Classroom: A Defense and Delineation of a Student-Centered Pedagogy” New Directions for Teaching and Learning no. 84, Winter 2000.
    • Knowlton explains and advocates for a student-centered approach to learning, especially for the online classroom, them presents (in part III) a practical example of a student-centered course design for an online learning environment. Knowlton explains that “the faculty role is reconceptualized to allow maximum independence among students” (11). Clearly and explicitly delineating goals, objectives, and learning outcomes for the course is part of centering the student: it makes possible student independence and gives students control of their own learning.

Universal Design and Accessible Design:

  1. Kavita Rao, Patricia Edelen-Smith & Cat-Uyen Wailehua (2015) “Universal design for online courses: applying principles to pedagogy,” Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 30:1, 35-52, DOI: 10.1080/02680513.2014.991300
    • The Basic argument for universal design in online education (just like in face-to-face pedagogy) is that you have to design your course before you know who is going to be in that course. The students may turn out to have a range of accessibility concerns, and universal design allows everyone – or, at least, a wide range of students – to access the course. Universal design ‘[creates] environments that provide options, learning scaffolds and structures for students with non-apparent disabilities, while also increasing clarity and choice for all learners in the course.”
  2. Ashman, A. (2010). “Modelling inclusive practices in postgraduate tertiary education courses.” International Journal of Inclusive Education, 14, 667680.
    • Ashman (2010) is a reflection on two post-graduate courses using universal design in an online professional development course… about accessible pedagogy in education. Clear discussion of what elements were included in the course design, how they worked, and why they were included. Models the types and frequency of communication with students.
  3. Silver, Patricia, Andrew Bourke and K. C. Strehorn “Universal Instructional Design in Higher Education: An Approach for Inclusion” Equity & Excellence in Education 31: 2 (September 1998): 47-51.
    • Basic explanation of Universal Instructional Design. UID takes the burden away from students to identify themselves and request case-by-case accommodations, and instead builds flexibility and accessibility into course design for all students. “With UID, students may find that many of the instructional accommodations they would request are already part of the faculty members’ overall instructional design. Furthermore, these approaches may benefit all students in the class.”
  4. Jacquart, Scott, Hermberg, and Bloch-Schulman (2019) “Diversity is Not Enough: The Importance of Inclusive Pedagogy” Teaching Philosophy 42 (2) 107-139.
    • This article comes out of a workshop organized by the American Association of Philosophy Teachers, and highlights the difference between (merely) diversifying a syllabus and adopting inclusive pedagogical techniques. Although some of the techniques discussed relate to use of the (physical, face to face) classroom space, the principles are all highly relevant to building an inclusive online learning environment. My argument for online pedagogy in philosophy is primarily about accessibility, this examination of what ‘Inclusive Pedagogy’ means in philosophy is absolutely relevant even though it is based on the face-to-face classroom.

Specific Pedagogical Design goals: Design for building community; designing for academic integrity; Designing appropriate assessments

  1. Dolan, Joane, Kevin Kain, Janet Reilly, Guarav Bansal (2017) “How Do You Build Community and Foster Engagement in Online Courses” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 151, Fall 2017. Designing a good online course can be more time consuming that designing a good classroom course, but with that caveat, the authors suggest (and find empirical evidence that) higher levels of community are possible with appropriate instructional design. Building community requires:

    • Establishing Teaching Presence: regular communications, regular feedback to learners, presence in discussion groups, modelling discussion participation, use of authentic voice and communications: “Modeling desired behavior and creating a safe and supportive environment are two additional ways instructors can facilitate discussions to improve community. In the early stages of an online course, it is important that the instructor appropriately model discussion responses.”

    • Forging Social Presence: Include additional discussion forums for water-cooler chat (pets! hobbies! etc.) and humanize the experience; include introductions; allocate grades/marks for a community building exercise; reward group interactions; require netiquette standards
    • Enhancing cognitive presence: pose challenging questions, use of authentic discussions; problem-based learning
  2. Patricia McGee (2013) “Supporting Academic Honesty in Online Courses” Journal of Educators Online 10 (1).
    • “While there is a perception that more academic dishonesty occurs in online environments, there is little evidence to support that this is the case.”
    • “The author takes the position that if instructors and designers construct courses strategically, they can promote a culture of ethical behavior while making cheating and plagiarism unattractive, difficult to achieve, and apparent to the student.”
    • “Five forms of academic dishonesty are evident in online courses: collusion, deception, plagiarism, technology manipulation, and misrepresentation.”

    • McGee advocates: Make academic integrity expectations clear; select appropriate forms of assessment for what is being assessed; low stakes assessments are less likely to trigger cheating; make the most of the technology including randomized testing and confirming test-taker identity; and use pedagogical strategies such as engaging the learner to make choices and take responsibility for their learning;
    • one strategy that McGee advocates that I have found immensely helpful: have students apply personal experience or current events to material.
    • Institutional policies, such as honor codes and orientation to academic integrity policies, help support academic integrity both on and off campus.
    • Note that plagiarism detection software is imperfect, and may have the unintended consequence of orienting students towards certain types of academic dishonesty other than straight copy-and-paste plagiarism.
  3. Gulbin Ozcan-Deniz, “Best Practices in Assessment: A Story of Online Course Design and Evaluation” 2017 Assessment Conference Drexel University, Conference Proceedings.
    • Ozcan-Deniz notes that learning outcomes will be the basis for the design of learning assessments, and ought to be designed first, and made explicit to students. Exams worth a large percentage of the grade (20-30% or more) might not sufficiently track progress over time. Smaller, more frequent assessments throughout the semester do a better job of tracking progress over time. Formative assessments rather than summative assessments work best for online learning environments.

Specific Pedagogical Techniques

  1. Norm Friessen “The Lecture as a Transmedial Pedagogical Form: A Historical Analysis” Educational Researcher Vol. 40, No. 3 2011, pp. 95-102.
    • Argues that ‘The Lecture’ is an adaptable pedagogical form, and that it can bridge oral communication with technology and written communication. Something I found relevant and useful to the online teaching question of lecture length: Lectures are a pre-printing press way of disseminating text. They were historically transcribed, and require significant note taking. When you record or assign a long (asynchronous, pre-recorded) lecture, you are effectively assigning a long text.
  2. Rob Loftis “Beyond Information Recall: Sophisticated Multiple Choice Questions in Philosophy” AAPT Studies in Pedagogy Online First December 20, 2019.
    • Loftis argues that multiple choice tests should be used in philosophy wherever essay evaluations are used, and that multiple choices tests can be very good for formative assessment. Loftis’s argument is that “Multiple-choice questions should be a part of a diversified portfolio because 1) they consolidate problematic subjectivity in a way that makes it easier to manage fairly, 2) they increase the diversity of evaluation portfolios in a way that balances out the virtues and vices of writing assignments, and 3) by increasing the diversity of the evaluation portfolio they increase the inclusiveness of the course.”
    • My hot take: Multiple Choice questions – which are auto-marked by course management software – are extra useful for managing medium to large online courses. Here’s why: first, they can provide immediate feedback to students, which (according to Dolan et. al.) means that they help build community and establish teacher presence in the course. Secondly, they can test skills that are higher on Bloom’s taxonomy, yet low stakes and part of a larger pool of questions, which means that (according to McGee) they can be part of a strategy for disincentivizing academic dishonesty. And thirdly, for the instructor, they locate the subjective and high stress part of student assessment at the stage of designing the test, and are therefore MUCH less onerous to mark, and more fair and equitable to students.

Higher Education Policy and Online Learning

  1. Christopher Hill and William Lawton (2018) “Universities, the Digital Divide and Global Inequality” Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management 40:6, 598-610.
    • Explores global inequality with respect to higher education, and examines the disruptive potential of online higher education. Hill and Lawton find that online and distance education do not fulfill their potential to disrupt inequalities, but rather maintain the status quo.
  2. Feenberg, Andrew (2017) “The Online Education Controversy and the Future of the University” Foundations of Science 22, 363-371.
    • Feenberg worries that neo-liberal economic pressures on higher education are driving the move to online education. Although he supports technology use to support academic life, he argues that economics and technology are driving the agenda, rather than educational and academic values being supported by technology. He ends with this reminder: “it is up to faculty and students to steer educational technology in a direction that enhances rather than degrades higher education. They must resist attempts to change the very meaning of education to accommodate the limited features and capabilities of the available technology and instead pursue the ‘‘art of living with technology’’ creatively.” (370). Feenberg is particularly concerned about the suggestion that some administrators and administrations in higher education view online education as cost saving and income generation.



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