November 21, 1999
Re: On-line courses in Philosophy
I am working on a couple of on-line courses in Philosophy, and I think that the Department of Philosophy should offer them by the Fall of 2000. The courses as such ( 101 Introduction to Philosophy and 490 Special Topics: Philosophy and Literature) are approved by the Curriculum Committee, and are/can be offered by the Department, but they have to be adapted to an on-line format.
Reasons for offering the above courses:
1. In the not so distant future much of Higher Education will take place "in cyber space." Ten thousands of student are already taking on-line courses all over the country, and many of them are pursuing degrees almost entirely by being registered at "virtual universities." A good number of Philosophy courses will soon be available on-line, and it can only be to our advantage if we make our knowledge available to the new kind of student, too.
2. Computer literacy is now expected of all college graduates; the ability to locate, evaluate, and communicate Internet resources, in other words, has become a generally expected skill for the modern workforce. It will therefore be useful even for traditional resident students to take at least some courses on-line in order to refine these skills.
3. Regular students like the option of on-line courses because they feel that they are wasting time in mandatory class room sessions. (They often feel bored, slowed down by other students, or just not ready to concentrate at the scheduled time. Many resent the supervision and regulations that may be appropriate for high school students, but seem somewhat out of place at institutions where effective learning depends to a large degree on self-motivation.) By taking on-line courses students can concentrate and learn when they are ready, and thus make a much more efficient use of their time and energy.
4. Nontraditional students like the on-line option because they do not have to rush to some distant campus after a day at work, because they do not have to fight heavy traffic or bad weather, and because they do not have to spend time and money for scarce parking spaces, etc. And like regular students they like the flexibility that comes with "time-shifting."
5. Teachers may profit because they can concentrate on the subject matter and its logical presentation, instead of having to contend with a captive audience's poor manners, distracted presence, disruptive activities, etc. Too much energy, it seems, goes into maintaining discipline and "interest" in highschool-like class rooms; too little energy goes into actual teaching and learning. Interaction and the "human factor"--often cited by critics of the "virtual campus"--can be important. But when one takes a sober look at what goes on in the average class room these days, they can also be seen as highly overrated.
6. In the foreseeable future many courses will be taken on-line, both by distant and resident students. Within each university system there will be a tendency not to duplicate courses. ("Why should the Philosophy Department at FSU offer a particular course, if that course is already offered by another department on-line?") Departments will probably not be abolished as a result of the computer revolution, but many will undoubtedly be be reduced in size. Departments that will offer on-line courses may well be the ones that will retain their positions.
The teaching of an on-line course should consist in:
1. Presenting the subject matter of the course in a pedagogically suitable manner. (The teaching of an on-line course is somewhere between the writing of an academic book and the live presentation of the material in a class room. It is neither the one nor the other. It is a format sui generis.)
2. Specifying the exact and "measurable" learning goals that a student is expected to reach. (This can be a comprehensive list of questions that a student must be able to answer, and/or a number of topics on which a student should be able to write a structured essay under rigorous exam conditions.)
3. Testing the student's success in reaching the specified learning goals. (This would require a one-time physical appearance on campus or some learning center where a proctor checks a photo ID and supervises a two-hour or so written exam.)
Looking over a number of proposals for on-line courses, one gets the impression that some course designers try far too hard to imitate class room courses in a medium that is not altogether suited for that purpose. An on-line course should not be a cheap (labor-saving) imitation of a class room course, but an alternative to it. The new medium should be understood on its own terms; it has its own advantages and virtues. Distance in every sense can be one of its virtues.
Students and teachers for whom personal contacts are essential should not teach or take many on-line courses; for them traditional colleges are more or less alright as they are. (Traditional class room courses can, in fact, be improved by emptying them of those students who would rather not be there.) On-line "chatrooms" are a poor substitute for real interaction. On-line courses are most suitable for those students for whom the "human contact" of prescribed class room sessions is not only meaningless, but often of positive annoyance. They are for self-motivated students who are eager to concentrate on the subject matter as intensively as they can, and who take care of their social needs in other ways. It is obvious, after all, that today's campuses and class rooms are not the lively centers of intellectual curiosity and learned exchange that one may wish them to be, but institutions that have taken on quite different functions.
For those pedagogues for whom a future of disembodied e-campuses is a horror vision, the following reminder may be helpful: On-line and traditional class room courses need not be exclusive alternatives. Most students, I believe, will prefer to take some on-line courses, while also enrolling at schools that have something to offer along the lines of social stimulation. Offering on-line courses need not be a preparation for the total abolition of physical campuses, but can simply be taken as a useful enrichment of what we have now.
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