I am currently taking a course in online and hybrid teaching in order to develop my own skills in online teaching as well as meet a requirement in order to be able to teach online in my department. The course’s syllabus describes the course as “…exploring and designing blended and online courses…[with] the overall goal…to understand the theory and practice of digital and hybrid pedagogies by way of designing, developing and assessing a blended or fully online course.”

This page operates to document the required assignments for the course.

Trends in Technology and Teaching (in Philosophy)

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This assignment asks us to consider how contemporary trends in online teaching are being taken up in our own disciplines, mine being philosophy. Traditionally, philosophy is taught as a read/discuss/write class which, on its surface, seems amenable to digital formats. It seems obvious that an instructor can post a reading, host a discussion paper, then demand a written reflection in digital space. As I prepared for this assignment, however, it became apparent that it may not be so clear cut. First, and prior to the act of teaching philosophy online, there is a notable lack of reflection regarding the standard education modalities (i.e. in-class reading/discussing/writing) and the impact to these of being presented in digital space. Second, the few resources I found that were reflecting on digital philosophy pedagogy highlighted a schism between in-class instruction and digital instruction (specifically regarding philosophy), made more apparent by the lack of discipline-wide reflection. Out of these discussions, however, I am beginning to construct an image of what I would like an online philosophy course to look like. These three ideas – lack of reflection, in-class/digital schism, and my own constructions – are discussed below.

As any good digital user, my search began with a Google search. Through a handful of permutations of “teaching philosophy online”, “digital philosophy”, and “philosophy courses on the internet”, I came across only two resources that took the conversation up in earnest. This could be because of the equivocation of “teaching philosophy” with a “philosophy of teaching”, confusing the search engine, but that is a conversation for a different time. At the very least, it does suggest that philosophy instructors will have a difficult time finding resources aimed at helping create productive digital learning environments. Additionally, and as philosophy is heralded as an ideally reflective discipline and one that lies at the root of the education system, it is concerning that there is a seeming lack of reflection on the teaching of our own discipline. This makes me think that it is likely not being done as well as it could be or, at least, being done very inconsistently with only accidental successes.

One of the resources I found – a blog called In Socrates’ Wake – is a blog that self-reportedly focuses specifically on teaching the discipline of philosophy. As I searched through the blog’s content, I came across a post titled “Philosophy via Web-based courses: A NetGener speaks” that tells of the experience of a student who took a (bad) philosophy course online while taking a (good) history course online. The juxtaposition of these two experiences is telling and helps to highlight the reasons that our discipline needs to reflect on our own pedagogical assumptions. The student explains that while the philosophy professor “assumed…that putting the content on the Web would give his students more flexibility to shape their own learning experience”, the lack of institutionalized discipline, professor engagement, and peer interaction rendered the class “…exactly what [the student] despised: a one-dimensional exercise in regurgitating facts”. This reflects an assumption that merely reading and testing for reading comprehension is sufficient of philosophical engagement – a philosophy itself that relies on the outmoded conception of knowledge transfer and learning as a mere transfer (or regurgitation) of relevant facts. In contrast, the (good) history class assigned texts with follow-up hosted discussions, written reflections, essays, and peer interaction through the reconstruction of each other’s arguments. The writer appreciated these methods, concluding that “Though completing the exercises seemed effortless at the time, they held us accountable for the reading and engaged us in the material”. So, at this point in my preparation for this assignment, I have learned that: [1] I need to honestly reflect about my digital pedagogies with the explicit recognition that philosophy may not be best learned by a reading/testing model, [2] there aren’t a lot of resources to help me in this reflection, and [3] students will appreciate a class where they feel engaged, are held accountable, and have the opportunity to interact with the instructor and their peers.

The second resource I found was the Teaching Resources page on the website of one of our discipline’s powerhouses (the American Philosophical Association). Although this page considers a range of issues in teaching philosophy such as inclusive classrooms, broadening the definitions of seminal and core texts, and general reflection on in-class instruction, it only held a handful of resources considering digital pedagogy. Of these, the most relevant to me was a blog that outlines different digital tools and apps that can be used to teach philosophy online. It is not that the specific tools stood out to me, but a broader point that was only implicitly made. Many of the tools discussed are made for student engagement through devices other than their computers and laptops, such as tablets and cell phones. This point gave me pause – I certainly engage differently in digital spaces through my cell phone than I do through my computer, and I see the younger generations spending much of their time on their cell phones. What would it like to have a course designed with the intent to engage through your cell phone (at least in part)? Could I use a third-party app such as Socrative to engage students in times that they aren’t around their computers? Would this allow a more distributed engagement with the course, meaning that they are engaging more often but for less time per engagement?

Since our beginning, philosophy has held that discussion is central to being a great philosopher – perhaps I could prompt student’s discussion with their own communities by designing a course with the intent that they use their cell phones to prompt discussion during their personal interactions. I can imagine a scenario where one of my students was out with their friends and received a notification to consider a philosophical case. Perhaps a mere question such as “is it better to walk on the grass or on the sidewalk” that would prompt a discussion with their peers. The would be required to respond within a relatively short time-frame with a short-discussion of their answer. This would allow them to apply what they were learning in ways that prompted creativity, prompted discussion with their friends, and demanded accountability to the course at large. This would also have the benefit of dispersing philosophical thought throughout their day instead of concentrating it only in those times where they were logged into the online course module. Of course readings would be required, with some sort of managed discussion board and required reflections, but as an additional assignment this could take advantage of these generations’ use of other technologies.

Anyways, I have do not yet have a fully articulated conceptualization of this method, but I can say that I promise to reflect more critically on my own teaching assumptions than my discipline has and take seriously the schism between in-class/digital spaces. I want my course to by multi-dimensional in real, tangible ways, avoiding the criticisms of the student quoted above, namely that a digital philosophy course can quickly fall into “a one-dimensional exercise in regurgitating facts”.

Research Article Review — Online Discussion and Social Presence

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This week’s assignment asks us to review a research article that evaluates some dimension of online teaching. As philosophy is traditionally taught (and perhaps best learned) through engaged discussion, I specifically searched for any articles relating to the use of discussion in online learning environments. From my Google Scholar searches, one article stood out: Karen Swan and Li Fang Shih’s (2005) “On the nature and development of social presence in online course discussions”. My intuition is that a considerable obstacle to online discussion is the sociality (or lack thereof) of participants. It does not seem that the way people relate to each other in the classroom can be translated directly to online discussions – this means that something is lost in assuming online discussion can happen the same way as it can in traditional classroom settings.

Swan and Shih’s paper takes this up in earnest. Their study explores the relationship between online social presence – defined, generally and following from Short et al. (1976), as “the capacity of the medium itself to present the ‘salience of the other person in [interpersonal] interaction’” (116) – and course satisfaction, the ways in which student’s own perceptions of social presence impacts the ways they project their presence into the online space, and the relationship between student’s perception of social presence and their perception of the online discussions (118). These three research questions are grounded in the recognition that the sociality of online spaces may be constructed in ways that may impact student’s satisfaction with the course, their participation with it, and/or their perception of the efficacy of the discussions. This study, of course, seems critical to my own worries about online discussion.

After a well-developed literature review that cites the burgeoning need for more focused study of online discussion dynamics, Swan and Shih detail the mixed methods approach they used. This consists of both quantitative surveys of online graduate course students (focused on gathering “demographic and experiential information about the respondents and to obtain their rankings of their perceptions of the social presence of their peers and instructors, their perceived learning from online discussions, and their perceptions of interaction among discussion participants” (119), and qualitative methods (interviews focused on better understanding the perceptions and experiences of the students).

The study did find strong relationships between social presence, satisfaction, and interaction with online discussions. Interestingly, the study indicates that “the social aspects of online discussion are even more important to students than the interactive ones” (129), suggesting that it is not merely supporting interaction but supporting the right type of interaction (read: quality not quantity) that improves social presence. The study also found that the social presence of the instructor was a much more reliable indicator of overall satisfaction than other students’ presence. The paper concludes with three suggestions for practice: [1] “Discussion topics…[should] encourage the sharing of personal experience[s]” (131) in order to develop social presence, [2] instructors should recognize the importance of their own behavior and engagement with online discussions as instructors are a key variable in the development of social presence, and [3] at the outset of online courses there should be a discussion with the students regarding “both the importance of social presence and social learning and ways of perceiving and projecting it in online course discussions” (131).

Although I generally appreciate the study, I find it a little underwhelming in its findings and prescriptions. The authors recognize the studies limitations of being itself limited in scope and scale, as well as using for data only classes taught by experience online instructors. Aside from these worries, it feels as if the authors are assuming quite a lot on the part of the reader regarding just what it takes to build social presence. The prescription for an instructor to be aware of their engagement and behaviors is somewhat empty without specific recommendations for which behaviors are acceptable. I do think that the general prescriptions can be incorporated, and perhaps if I were to read more into “social presence” I would find some of these more specific recommendations.

Regardless of the underwhelming-ness of the study, I do think it taps into something important, namely that interaction itself is insufficient – it is the quality of that interaction that drives good online discussions. My take away from this is that I need to reflect on the quality of online discussion questions, taking advice from the first prescription to develop discussions in ways that encourage personal experience rather than factual-regurgitation. This aligns well with my own teaching philosophies. Second, the nature of my own involvement in discussion should be as a community-building participant and not as a disengaged observer. If my own interaction is a key variable to the development of social presence and the development of social presence is a key variable to course satisfaction, then it is critical that I reflect on my interactions in ways that support the learning objectives of the course.

Short, J., Williams, E., & Christie, B. (1976). The social psychology of telecommunications.

Swan, K., & Shih, L. F. (2005). On the nature and development of social presence in online course discussions. Journal of Asynchronous learning networks, 9(3), 115-136.

Course Design Proposal — Environmental Ethics and Governance

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Over the course of the semester, I will be developing a fully online course that I will be teaching next summer (2019). The course is Philosophy 342 – Environmental Ethics, specifically focused on “Ethical perspectives on humanity's use of and relationship to nonhuman animals, the land, future humans, and the ecosystem itself” (from MSU Philosophy’s web page). The generality of this description gives me considerable leeway in how I approach the environment. In discussions with the department chair, I’ve begun developing a concept for the course that turns focus from theories environmental ethics per se to the ways that these different theories get taken up into environmental discourse and governance.

Shifting the focus from the theories themselves to the impact of the theories allows me to do a few things: First, I am able to introduce the theories in context, something that I feel is very important (and reflected in my own work); Second, I am able to connect philosophy with people’s real-world experiences which seems like it can help satisfy the prescriptions of my last post, namely to connect discussions to lived experiences; Third, it allows me to show how philosophy can engage itself with the world in productive ways that my students can take with them into the job market (something that is often missing in philosophical education); and Fourth, it allows my course to appeal to a broader audience then philosophy students since many environmental fields (policy, science, studies, etc.) may be interested in the uptake of ethics into discourse. Shifting the focus in this way allows me to design a course that satisfies the requirements of the discipline, engages students in ways that promotes their online learning, and appeal to a broader audience.

Given that this course is directly aligned with my own work, there will be some aspects of its development that I will find relatively easy. I suspect that the way the course is organized, the readings, and my own understanding of the material will come relatively easy. Of course I am certain to find that I want my students to read too much and/or expect that they are already better versed in the literature than they are. These are general worries when a relative-expert tries to teach relative non-experts. I’ll have to reflective about this.

As can be seen in my previous posts, my biggest worries regarding this course is engagement with online discussions. I need to think hard about the ways in which I want to structure the discussions – the questions I ask, how I expect them to be answered, the technology I want to use to support them, etc. – in order to provide the best online experience possible. At this point, this is my critical worry. Other than that, I am very excited to begin designing this course!

How do I introduce the course in the least boring way possible?

This week’s assignment asks us to think about how an online course introduction might look. When a student first signs into their course management tool, what do they see? How is the course introduced/presented? Will the first page guide them through the site itself, will it provide content, both, or neither? This is where the rubber meets the road as I develop this online course.

Initially, I’m thinking about what I want the introduction to do and how best to do that. In general, I want the introduction to lay out the semester’s plan, including what we will learn, how we will learn it, and how the course is structured. I want it to be clear what expectations I have of the students and help them develop their own expectations of me and my course. Specifically, I think the introduction needs to do two things: [1] Introduce course content, including general themes, specific objectives, and course structure; and [2] Introduce the platform itself so that the students are comfortable with the layout of the course and navigation within it.

As I’m writing this, I’m thinking that the introduction page should take on these two considerations in reverse. This means that the introduction page, itself, is designed to walk the students through the platform/course layout. I suspect that I will have a small blurb describing this goal with links and descriptions that they will click through, kind of like a treasure hunt. So, in the initial blurb, there will be a link to the course schedule page where there will be another blurb with a link to the assignments page, where there will be another blurb and link, and so on. This way they are engaged with the different pages and the content that each page holds. As well, this allows me to put some sort of deliverable on the last page so that I know they’ve completed the “treasure hunt”.

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While the students are navigating the course platform, I can provide them content related to that specific page (e.g. explain the course schedule on the course schedule page), so that I meet my second objective of a course introduction, namely to introduce the course themes, objectives, and structure. I would like to use more than just blurbs in the “treasure hunt” to introduce the course, but until I get in the weeds with actual development, I’m not sure what this amounts to. Possibly short video clips that illustrate the range of issues we’ll be discussing or audio recordings of me describing specific pages such as the course schedule. I feel that engaging students with a variety of methods (text, video, audio, etc.) will help keep the interest of the students, especially as introductions tend to be boring.

Structuring discussion in an online course

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Discussion is of critical importance to the teaching/learning of philosophy. When two people engage in discussion in the non-digital world, they have access to a wealth of communicative resources that allows them to reflect and adjust on their own communication in order to navigate the discussion. These resources – non-verbal cues, intonation, pace, etc. – are at best difficult to communicate in digital spaces and are often entirely missing. This is at least one reason why digital discussions are difficult. So, how do I structure online discussion to make it as valuable as it can be?

First, I need to reflect on my purpose in having discussion. To me, this is twofold. First, discussion helps to clarify our own thoughts by forcing us to explain them to others which includes a feedback function that forces us to restructure our arguments if they are not fully understood. Second, discussion can be a great tool to help understand difficult concepts. These two are, of course, connected but they are separate objectives. In the former, I see discussion being used in a clarifying fashion. In the latter, I see it being used in a learning fashion. Presumably, the latter requires a participant that is familiar enough with the conversational content so that they can answer questions as they come up. This could be either classmates or the instructor. It makes sense that these types of discussion take place within the classroom. The clarifying function, however, may not need to take place inside the classroom (digital or otherwise). Must all classroom discussion take place with classmates? Given the asynchronicity of digital courses, it may make sense to foster a student’s discussion with their peers and colleagues that are not in the class. This is the type of discussion that I am currently thinking about.

I want to design an assignment where students engage their own communities in course-related discussion and then report-out/reflect in writing. Unstructured dialogue with close companions can be very different than structured dialogue with an instructor or classmates, especially given the constraints of digital technology. I think an assignment like this would work best if the prompts were more commonsensical than traditional philosophy prompts are. This means asking something like “is it better to walk on the grass or the sidewalk” without any reference to the readings. The written reflection would summarize the dialogue and apply the philosophical concepts we are learning in class. This is not meant to be a replacement for classroom discussion, only a different avenue with a different purpose. Also, this may not make sense in which case I will have to rethink EVERYTHING (perhaps a little hyperbolic).

The elements of physical space in online interactions

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Space. This week’s assignment asks us to reflect on the elements of learning spaces “that [we] have found engaging throughout [our] learning career…school spaces, or ‘third spaces’ that [we] have used to be productive, feel creative, etc.”. The goal is to reflect on what has worked for us and then discuss how we can emulate these spaces in a digital classroom.

Thinking about this, I must first reflect on my own preferences that help me appreciate that spaces that have engaged me. First, this question seems like it will have very different answers depending on the discipline of the student and the work/learning preferences of the student. A student in studio arts may answer something to the effect that the physical space is itself the most important factor whereas a philosophy student may answer differently, prioritizing the impact of intellectual space that prompts engaged discussion. These two – physical/intellectual – are as neatly cleaved as I’ve presented them and will undoubtedly influence each other. However, given that my disciplinary background has been predominantly in the “intellectual” space, it seems obvious that I would appreciate those spaces that provide for engaged and critical discussion – often comfortable physical spaces with only a few people in close quarters and all facing each other, preferably with a drink in hand.

Although not the best model, perhaps, bars tend to do this quite well. My interactions with fellow philosophy students around a bar table with drinks have been some of my most productive discussions. It is intimate – we are in necessarily close quarters – and there is plenty of background noise which reverses the sterilizing settings of many academic spaces. There is plenty of opportunity to come and go in the conversation with needs for the restroom, taking calls outside, ordering drinks, etc. This allows participants to manage their own engagement in discussion without a hierarchical pressure to participate. The general ambiance of the bar provides a space where discussion is punctuated by emotional response, providing a critical dimension to conversation that is often missing in the academic settings (cause, remember, we must be objective!). Although not necessarily a space I would want to recreate in an online setting, the bar highlights elements that I feel are important: [1] Fewer participants, [2] close quarters, [3] participants facing each other, [4] background stimuli, [5] room to enter/leave the discussion without detriment, and [6] recognition of the import of emotional response.

Secondly, and apart from disciplinary preferences, each person has ideal work/creative spaces that may vary greatly and thus must be reflected on independently. For me, I prefer unstructured social situations for developing and testing creative arguments, whereas I prefer structured personal space for working through the details of arguments and producing requisite materials. For the latter, I prefer a large computer monitor (or, preferably two large monitors), on a relatively small desk that can support my scattered notes and stacks of papers/books – all with the required coffee mug within ready reach. However, I can’t speak for other’s preferences. I have colleagues that prefer coffee shops on a laptop, some that prefer lying down in bed with a laptop, or at home with their pets at a desk. Some prefer park benches, and some prefer bars. Each of these has elements that serve to distinguish them from the others, and of which I cannot work in. Luckily, the modality of online courses allows for this diversity in ways that should not influence the required products. For me, this is a case of “you do you”, or allowing each student to find their own work space that works best for them, and use it. That being said, it is worth reflecting on my assignments to make sure that they in fact allow this diversity of working space.

All in all, and reflecting earlier posts, I feel that structuring discussion in an online format is the biggest challenge for me. How do I get my 6 elements in online space? I am not sure yet, but I will continually test new options and figure out what works best for me and my students!

Class Demo

I’m still figuring out how to get all the tech up and running, but below is officially my first ever published video. It quickly goes through my bare-bones course — content to the course structure still needs to be added. I have a few questions that I need help thinking through still:

  1. What is the best way to host Zoom meetings? Is this something through D2L itself, or do I host them separate?

  2. What issues do you see arising with my use of the embedded Google file for discussion? I wanted to find a way to have students chat in real time and have a record of it, so I thought the Google file might work well. Not sure though — thoughts?

  3. I haven’t started thinking about accessibility in earnest, but I need to. One thing that I know is an issue is my syllabus word doc that does not (against better advice) make use of headings structures. I’ll need to modify this. What else can you see that I need to think about?