Why a Luddite like myself likes teaching an online course.

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm a Luddite who composes her posts on wax tablets before uploading them.* So it may seem curious that nearly every semester I teach at least one section of my Philosophy of Science course online.

What would possess me to do such a thing? The ability to make active student learning inescapable.

Let me first give you a bit of background on where Philosophy of Science fits into the curriculum at my university. As I described it a long time ago:

[A]t this university, th[e] philosophy of science course satisfies the upper division general education requirement in science.

Yes, that's right. Students can dodge taking an actual science course by taking a philosophy of science course instead. This yields throngs of students who are scared silly of anything scientific, and who know exactly one fact about philosophy: it's in the Humanities college. (Humanities = fluffy, unthreatening classes where you read novels or watch films or look at paintings, and it's all about what you think is going on, with no right or wrong answers. At least, this is what certain of my students assume before enrolling for this course.)

So, the class attracts lots of students who aren't necessarily interested in philosophy or in science so much as they are interested in getting three units that fill the upper division science requirement so they can graduate. Many of these students, owing to how freaked out they are by science, have put these three units off until the absolute last minute. That is to say, they're seniors (sometimes Nth year seniors where N is greater than 5). As such, many of them are hunting for jobs or already ensconced in jobs. They're toiling on senior projects in their majors. As often as not, they have important and consuming family obligations.

If sometimes they convey the impression of wanting their three units with as little commitment of time and energy as possible, it's kind of understandable.

In the classroom version of the course, then, we're typically looking at class sizes of 40 or more. In this sort of context, even if you're committed to engaging students in discussion on a regular basis (rather than just lecturing, administering tests, and collecting papers), there is always a subpopulation of students who Just Will Not Talk. Some of this may come down to shyness, or insufficient rest and caffeination, but it really does seem like some of the students are asserting their right to be a carbon blob in a seat and still get their three units.

Here's where the genius of online course delivery persuaded even a Luddite like me.

The students in my online course do all the same reading, and write just as many papers, as the student in the live sections. But a significant portion of their course grade (20%) comes from weekly discussions of the reading assignments, in smallish groups (of 8-10), with their classmates. They are free to opt out of the reading discussions as long as they are willing to kiss that 20% of the possible points goodbye.

And indeed, participating in the reading discussions is hugely advantageous to the students because these include discussions of fairly challenging readings that they have to grapple with in their essays. The way the course is set up, they don't have to grapple with those readings all by themselves -- they get to work through them together. The way they discussions are evaluated, they get just as much credit for posing good questions (whether about the reading itself or about one of the other discussants' interpretation of the reading) as they would for figuring out just what the author was trying to say on the first try. Each group discussing the reading is trying to make it make sense to everyone in the group. The writing students do in these online discussions is more clearly aimed at communication than the writing in many typical student papers.

Just as I do in my classroom sections of the course, I have the students write their essays on the challenging readings before I lecture on them. (Online, the lectures are streaming videos that are released each week, usually the evening of the day an essay has come due.) The point of this is to push the students to be able to extract something meaningful from complicated philosophical texts -- and to be able to explain it in plain English -- relying on their own skills in reading and thinking critically. My job is not to pour knowledge directly into their heads. Once they have the units they need to graduate, they'll be released into the world where they will have to learn all manner of things on their own. My job is to help them hone their skills while guiding them through intellectual terrain that is unfamiliar to them.

Online it's much harder to maintain the fiction that you're going to learn enough to pass the course through osmosis. Online, you see your classmates engaged in shared labor directed at understanding the material, not only on its own but as part of a larger picture of what science is and how science builds knowledge. Some people are resistant to the idea of learning as a community activity, rather than a contest of individual against material with the professor as the judge. However, the "learning community" set up gives me access to external manifestations of what's going on inside people's heads, which means I can provide better help. Moreover, the fact that so much of the writing students do for the online course is figuring-things-out writing for an audience of their peers (rather than trying-to-look-smart writing aimed at the person deciding what grade to award) ends up making all of the student writing for the course better.

WebCT is still clunky as all get out from the point of view of setting up bits of an online course, but helping students overcome their tendency toward carbon blobbishness so that they can discover what effective learnings they can be -- even of material that frightens them -- is totally worth it.

*Possibly I'm exaggerating about the wax tablets.

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I also had a good experience in a number of years of teaching online. The difference between a good online class and a poor one is, I think, the degree of interaction.

Providing lots of teacher-student interaction online is time-consuming for the teacher, but the advantage is that online students can't hide in the back of the room until the class time runs out. I used to make a regular habit of checking in on my classes around two or three in the mornings, as well as a number of times throughout the night the two nights before an assignment was due. It's amazing how many previously disinterested students became at those times suddenly willing both to ask questions and to struggle to understand the answers.

I'd say your pretty far from a luddite, when compared to the professor I had for an online course a few years ago who communicated to us through regular US Mail.

Wait a second, wait a second, wait a second... Do you offer this online course too students that are on campus with you?

By Herb West (not verified) on 23 Aug 2007 #permalink

*Possibly I'm exaggerating about the wax tablets.

Not really. That book thing you write in is way closer to a wax tablet than the computers most of us compose (or even take notes on) :)


Is it possible for non students to see the online lectures?

By Donalbain (not verified) on 24 Aug 2007 #permalink

What software do you use for teaching? Can the students communicate with each other though internal messages? Can they work together on a project at the same time?