Newsletter Summer 2014 Taking Philosophy Online

Submitted by Kate Goldyn on
Ann Baker

Philosophy has been called "the great conversation" for centuries and for many of our students and faculty it is hard to imagine having this "conversation" continued and taught in the online environment. However, many students do not have access to the University of Washington, because of schedule or location, and are pursuing the new Social Science Degree Completion Program online, designed to give many students who have started their college course work the opportunity to complete their degree.

Many of our faculty members are working to create online philosophy courses that work in that challenging environment to make sure that the students receive the same high level of education and access to help them understand of material, no matter how the course is taken. We talked to three of our faculty members: Carole Lee, Ann Baker, and Lauren Hartzell Nichols who have created and taught online courses, PHIL 115, Practical Reasoning (Baker and Lee) and PHIL 343, Ethics & the Environment (Hartzell Nichols), to discuss the challenges and successes of teaching online.

How has it been different creating and teaching an online course?

Ann Baker: The main difference is the need to anticipate everything. It is not easy to adjust the course content or requirements once you get started. It is not impossible to adjust, but it is much more difficult. While there are many things that I say each time I explain an assignment, I realize that most of the time I embellish in response to questions or student's facial expressions.

Lauren Hartzell Nichols: I almost feel like it's more appropriate to ask, "How has it been the same?" I tried to step back and fully re-think my approach to teaching for the online environment. In my case, I developed a more advanced version of an environmental ethics course that I already teach, so I had a good idea of the content I wanted to cover, but in terms of delivery I had to really think about how to help online students access our course materials in a way that would work for them. In the end, the basic structure of my online course is similar to that of my on-campus courses, just the delivery is different. For example, for their early assignments I have students both write a short paper and record a video of themselves informally describing their ideas. My idea was that I wanted to make sure students were developing both writing and verbal skills so I needed to get them talking. As I suspected, some students found this redundant but others reported that it was really helpful. Other strategies I used for my online audience were providing introductory videos each week or for each unit in which I informally discussed the unit as a whole and how students might approach working through the relevant materials. I also incorporated a weekly discussion forum that students were required to participate in (and which constituted a large part of their final grade) in order to facilitate discussion, an essential part of any philosophy course (in my view).

What have been your biggest challenges teaching online?

Lee: In a brick and mortar course, students generally show up to class; and, being physically together in the same time slot allows you as the teacher to make announcements, give study tips, convey content, and hear and answer questions as a collective. Sometimes students zone out (as we all do); but, overall, you can be pretty confident they have heard a good deal of what you have conveyed.

In an online course, things are different. Students "show up" on the course website more sporadically. When they enter the website, they can't, by virtue of their mere presence on the site, hear the information they need (as they would in a traditional classroom setting). They need to click on separate, sometimes hard-to-find links for announcements, study tips, content, and questions/answers. Students need to be committed to searching for this information in an active way. Otherwise, they never "hear" it. And, that can really hurt their ability to learn and perform in the course.

Baker: I really miss the interaction with students. Those interactions, both in the classroom and outside it, make the tedious, unrewarding parts of teaching (e.g., grading and reacting to students who aren't trying) endurable.

Hartzell Nichols: I think my biggest challenge is that everything – and I mean everything – needs to be written down or otherwise incorporated into the online course materials. I didn't realize how often I clarify my expectations for an assignment, for example, in class. While I could send announcements to the class while it was happening, it was much more important that my expectations be clear from the get go in an online environment. Some things that are easy to explain in person turned out to be surprisingly hard to explain in an assignment description, for example.

A second challenge, which surprised me, is that I hadn't expected that most students would do all of their work for the class on the weekend. The quarter naturally led to a weekly cycle that started on a Monday, but this didn't work as well as I wanted when it turned out most students were doing their work on the weekend. For example, I had planned on being an active participant in the weekly discussion forums, but I didn't plan on working on the weekends. What ended up happening is that I had to check in on the forums on the weekend to make sure there were no major questions or confusions and then go back through the discussions on Monday or Tuesday and make some summary comments to wrap up the previous week's discussion. Ideally I would want student participation in online classes to happen throughout the week, but I'm not sure that is realistic given the audience.

What teaching strategies did you use that are unique to the online format?

Lee: To deal with this problem, Ann and I started to create quizzes that tested students for their comprehension of some of the links that they needed to find – not about the content of the course – but about the nuts and bolts of how the course is run, as explained in our introductory video guide to doing well in the course. We also required that students post in the online forums, to encourage them to use the available technology for sharing questions/answers as much as possible.

Hartzell Nichols: Introductory videos to each week and assignment; voiced-over PowerPoint presentations; weekly online discussion forum with required participation (twice each week); practice quizzes (and weekly quizzes, but I have these in my regular classes too); video assignments (where students had to record a video of themselves).

Baker: The voice-over-Powerpoint strategy is certainly unique to the online format. Carole and I shared in the development of our lessons, and I think that she was better at creating conceptually unified and engaging sets of slides than I was. If I did this again, I would study different ways of creating this kind of content. And I really like Lauren's idea of creating a short video for each week.

What do you think students gain and lose in the online learning environment compared to the classroom environment?

Baker: I think that students gain the flexibility of being able to control when they work on the course. They also gain the ability to return to parts of the lecture when they realize that they didn't quite understand what was going on. They don't waste time sitting in a classroom listening to things they already understand. But they lose that sense of community that can be developed in a classroom environment. They lose that sense of responsibility to the teacher that sometimes keeps them working.

Lee: I think that having a shared time and place where we all take part in a simultaneous conversation is powerful. Not only does it ensure that students get exposed to the information they need to excel in the course but tt also provides a space where you can begin to develop more intimate interpersonal relationships, expectations, and motivations – things like trust, commitment, and reciprocity. If online learning is the wave of the future, then I think its best implementation will preserve the in-person aspect by holding in-person sections to supplement online content. I do my best to cultivate pedagogically virtuous interpersonal interaction and motivation in my forum and email interactions. But, at the first exam, when I physically see my online students individually and collectively for the first time, I feel a bit like I am in a room full of strangers, even though we have been conversing regularly through forum and email interactions. Those online interactions don't quite feel like they add up to the same thing.

Hartzell Nichols: To be honest I wasn't sure how well the online environment would work for my class. I was pleasantly surprised by how much students got out of the class. (Though how much students got out of the class was significantly impacted by how much effort they put into it, and I had far more students than usual who didn't put in much effort.) I do think that something is lost in the online environment because of the lack of in-person discussion. But that said, I was pleasantly surprised by how engaged many of the students were. We had very active discussions on our discussion boards in which students really engaged with one another. And the quality of the students' work – at least from those students who actively engaged with the course – was as high as it is from my on-campus students.

One thing that I think students lose out on in an online environment – and instructors too – are the relationships that form out of in-person course meetings. While I do feel like I started to get to know my students in my online class, I didn't have the kind of informal conversations I have with my on-campus students on a regular basis – before and after class, in the department, in office hours, etc. All of my contact with students in the online class was motivated by course content. I really missed both the individual relationships with students that I develop in on-campus classes and the sense of community that developed in a classroom. I will say that I did see a different kind of community develop in the online discussion forums, but it wasn't as rich or deep as the community that develops in a classroom when we spend a lot of time discussing really challenging topics together.

Which students have been the most and least successful in your online course?

Hartzell Nichols: This sounds obvious, but the students who made an effort were all successful and, not surprisingly, those who didn't make an effort (e.g., who failed to participate in the discussion forum every week or made only superficial, minimal comments) weren't successful. I'm not sure if this tracked a specific demographic or not, in part because I don't know as much about my students as I would if I met them in person.

Lee: The students who do best are extremely self-motivated and self-disciplined learners.

Baker: Because I don't really know most of my students, this question is really hard to answer. But I did get to know one student from the fall course who was very, very successful. He worked full-time. He had quit college when he was young to raise a family. After putting two boys through college, the family decided that it was dad's turn. But he still can't quit his job, so he has to take online courses. He will be a natural candidate for the new ISS degree. He was very motivated. I'm guessing, but I think that the least successful students are our regular day students who mistakenly believe that all online courses are super easy, requiring no work at all.

Do you think that some courses are better suited for the online environment than other courses?

Baker: I initially thought that a course like ours, a skills-based course, would be the best, since philosophical discussion about the content is not really necessary for learning how to acquire the skill. When the students have questions about the tools they are learning to employ, they can ask those questions in the discussion forum. But I'm starting to think that it would be good to have some interesting philosophical content to stimulate discussions thereby building some sense of community in the discussion forum.

Hartzell Nichols: Probably, but it's hard to say. Like I said above I wasn't sure that my course was a good candidate for an online environment, yet in the end I think I developed a strong course that serves students pretty well. I think even more important than the course content is how online courses are developed. I really think it requires radically rethinking how course materials are delivered, and I know I have a long way to go in this domain before my online course will be as good as it could be.

Did anything surprise you while teaching online?

Baker: I was surprised by how much I missed interacting with the students. Given my teaching style, online teaching requires me to pay the cost (incredible upfront preparation, trying to anticipate all the ways students might need clarification/grading/dealing with unmotivated students) without receiving the benefits (personal interactions) of teaching.

I was also surprised by how few students came to office hours.

Hartzell Nichols: How well it worked!

If you are interested in finding out more about the Bachelor of Arts in Integrated Social Sciences online undergraduate degree completion program and online learning at the UW please visit the website: