Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Philosophy via Web-based courses: A NetGener speaks

We've talked a fair bit here at ISW about teaching with technology and teaching the technology-infatuated Millennial generation. Carie Windham's piece about her own learning experiences as a Net Generation student (air warning: it's a PDF) is a pleasant burst of fresh air: A self-aware student thinking about the challenges of teaching and learning in a technological environment. At one point, Windham describes her experience with a Web-based Introduction to Philosophy course:

Philosophy was my nemesis. For five semesters, I cleverly evaded its call—pointedly skipping over the requirement in the dim hope that a registration glitch might fill the spot. But as graduation grew closer, the empty spot hadn’t budged. With a feeling of dread, I decided to budge instead.

As I dutifully joined the roll for Philosophy 205, my only consolation was that Introduction to Philosophy was finally being offered as a Web-based course. I had never tried an entirely “virtual” class before, thinking such endeavors were better suited to distance education students or those with full-time jobs. But philosophy? That could be an exception.

The class was set up with trust in the student. Reading assignments from the text were listed on the course Web site. For grading, we were asked to periodically turn in homework questions from the text and to take occasional quizzes and exams. Every exam was open notes and open book, with a three-hour window of time. The homework was loosely graded.

For the first exam, I read every chapter and highlighted the notes from the study guide. I finished the test in less than thirty minutes. For the second, with the full weight of a sixteen-hour semester upon me, I did the reading but skipped the highlighting. I finished in an hour. For the next exam, with two test experiences under my fingertips, I skipped the reading altogether and simply searched for the answers in the text. The test took nearly two hours. Each time, the grade was the same. By the end of the semester, I couldn’t tell the theory of relativity from utilitarianism. But speed-reading? I was a master.

The professor had assumed, while crafting his course, that putting the content on the Web would give his students more flexibility to shape their own learning experience. We could read at our own pace. We could respond to message threads at our leisure. We could even take tests with the full support of our text and our notes. What he hadn’t expected, perhaps, is that the advent of the Internet and the opportunity of the online classroom had not diminished the need for traditional educational principles such as discipline, engagement, and interaction. Instead, my online course had turned “learning” into exactly what I despised: a one-dimensional exercise in regurgitating facts.

A counterexample was a Web-based course in Latin American history. As in my philosophy course, we were asked to read from an assigned text. But instead of taking quizzes and tests, we were asked to periodically turn in essays and papers. The main difference was that each week we were required to participate in online discussions relevant to our text or to readings found on the Web. Some weeks, we were required to simply post our responses. Some weeks, we were to counter the arguments made by others. Some weeks, we were to evaluate and critique our classmates’ arguments. Though completing the exercises seemed effortless at the time, they held us accountable for the reading and engaged us in the material.

As technology improves and the “virtual classroom” becomes more popular, there is a tendency on the part of institutions and students to turn to online courses. Web-based classes save institutional resources and can accommodate more students. They are more flexible for students who have busy schedules or who commute. But as these examples demonstrate, the online class must be crafted with the same care and expectations as are used in the traditional class.

Students crave interaction with others in the class. The professor must find a way for the students to interact. Discussion forums are a natural solution and can be facilitated by posing questions for students’ response and discussion. The professor must be an active participant and facilitator, however, or students will diminish the importance of the exercises. Another solution is virtual group work. Asking students to collaborate on projects or assignments forces them to meet and exchange ideas with their peers and fulfills their need for group interaction without actually meeting in a classroom.

It’s a common misconception that students take online courses to avoid the rigor and workload of a traditional class. When students choose an online classroom, they still want to be challenged. They still want exploration. And they still want creativity. Net Gen learners are not likely to excel in an environment in which we are simply handed material and expected to recite it back. Most of us log on to online courses because we despise this traditional format of lecture and regurgitate. We feel we learn better in an environment in which we can teach ourselves. The online professor should therefore find ways to offer students a method of exploration and research within the curriculum. ... The simple rule is to engage the students, to move them beyond being mere participants in the class to becoming active learners and discoverers.
I admire how Windham sees that the advantages of Web-based teaching have to balanced with traditional teaching values and techniques: flexibility and discipline, challenge and convenience, rigor and creativity, trust and engagement. I'd be interested to hear reactions from those who've done Web-based teaching — or who are considering moving their teaching in that direction.


  1. I think that there are some advantages to web-based course especially in introductory level courses. However I think there are at least three potential problems that need to be addressed: 1) cheating and plagarism, 2) grade inflation, and 3) not needing as many teachers and overloading existing ones.

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