I just finished teaching my first course fully online. It was a summer class, so it was a bit different than usual. Nevertheless, I thought it would be useful to reflect on the experience, especially for anyone considering teaching a philosophy course online as well.
Not everyone is a fan of online teaching, and rightly so. A survey of the faculty in my own department found that a majority of us (myself included) believed the quality of instruction would be worse in a purely online environment. My university requires faculty members to receive certification from the Distance Learning office (which I did), but that spends little time on working to improve the quality of instruction. So I first want to talk about why I decided to teach a course this way.
The biggest reason why I choose to teach online was to increase student access to philosophy. The economic situation of my region and of many students at my university limits their coursework. They seem to increasingly be turning to online options for at least some of their courses. They are trying to get classes done when they can around work or family schedules, and they appear interested in whatever online classes will fulfill a requirement. Our four- and six-year graduation rates are not what we’d like. So by offering Introduction to Philosophy online, I’m trying to allow more students to take the course for a requirement that otherwise wouldn’t get any philosophy at all during the undergraduate studies, and also (I hope) helping more of them graduate on time.
Aside from wanting to expose more students to philosophy who would otherwise miss it, there are a few other reasons I taught online. First, whether we like it or not, it’s here to stay, and it will only continue to grow. More deans and more universities will look to online teaching to cut costs. If I’m already doing it, I’m prepared. And if I’m already teaching online, it could make an effective argument to keep philosophy around if a president or dean is looking to make cuts due to sudden budget constraints.
There’s also the old adage, “Don’t knock it till you try it.” I’ve long been skeptical of online only courses (even after I’ve taken some on statistics since finishing my PhD), but nothing teaches better than experience. Lastly, I wanted the challenge of forcing my self to adapt my pedagogy to a new environment. Given the limitations of teaching online, how could I figure out new ways to teach my students to at least partially overcome some of those challenges.
I won’t go into complete detail here about how I constructed my course. The main thing I did was create almost 13 hours of videos for my students, which I posted on YouTube. These videos did most of the work replacing class time. For my Intro to Philosophy course, I assign mostly primary texts (Chalmers, Fricker, Frankfurt, Nagel, Hume, for example) that I do not expect them to understand at first. As I tell them, the point of the reading is to get confused. In case we talk about the reading. I go over key passages, often in detail, answer questions, and help piece everything together so the whole argument becomes clear. In my videos, I’ve done much the same thing. The videos show the same passages covered in class, as well as PowerPoint versions of anything I put on the board.
A common pedagogical method in online courses is to post one’s PowerPoints with extensive notes added and let students click through. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that terribly ineffective. That feels ridiculously boring. Videos, to me, seem a better option, albeit much more time intensive to produce.
I didn’t require discussion board participation, though I might in the future. Such participation always seems contrived, and I loathed it as a student. Discussion boards were open, with sections prepared for every reading to ask questions after watching the videos. They could ask about what still didn’t make sense, and I would answer.
The other main component to the class were three dialogue projects. These are assignments I also do normally as well. Students have to pair off and have a dialogue about the material we’ve covered, talking with each other about their views and arguments for those views. At first I give them prompts to discuss, but by the last one, the students are required to prepare their own. 20% of the grade is for submitting the audio recording showing they actually talked for as long as they were supposed to. The other 80% is based on each student’s individual written summary of the dialogue, where the emphasis is on explaining their partner’s views and arguments. This is to encourage them to try to do more listening to the other person that talking themselves.
Drawbacks and Lessons Learned
The biggest drawback to teaching online, as I expected, was the lack of student interaction. They asked far, far fewer questions than when they’re in the classroom with me. I have less of a sense of what’s clear and what isn’t until exams a graded.
Two things surprised me. First, several students clearly didn’t bother to watch the videos, or at least very few. YouTube shows the number of views each video had, and it was always fewer than the number of students enrolled. Plus, some students answers on exam questions made it apparent they were trying to figure this out on their own.
This surprised me since I’ve had students in regular sections request video or audio recordings of classes so they could replay them to review later. Maybe the lack of viewers was partly due to the course running in the summer. There were no quizzes over the videos to encourage watching, since those always seemed to me lame and superfluous. The test for whether you watched was the exam. Why add a second thing?
The other surprise, related to the first, was the extensive plagiarism. I’ve never had a section with so much plagiarism. Clearly, many students didn’t watch (which I take in this case to be akin to skipping class all term) and tried to Google, for example, Hume’s view on personal identity and then slightly modify whatever site they found.
So, would I do it again? Yes, but I may make some changes. If you’ve taught an all online course and had some things work really well or not at all, let me know.