Monday, July 13, 2009

Plusses and Minuses of Online Readings

I wonder what experience people have had with using online readings. A recent email prompts this query:

"Drs. [Tim] O'Keefe and [George] Rainbolt [from Georgia State University, Atlanta] have become shocked and annoyed at the high cost of intro to philosophy anthologies. We have decided to put together a web site that has the format of a standard anthology but is composed exclusively of materials in the public domain and of materials that authors have given us permission to use for free. We plan to make this available free on the web. We are looking for input about the web address we should use. We hope that you will take a moment to fill out a one-page survey on some options. To take the survey, just click on this link:

Thanks in advance for your time. If you would like to forward this message on to other philosophy students or faculty, please feel free to do so."
I wonder what experience people have had with using online readings. Mine has been mixed: the problem has always been, at least with my students, that too many of them either don't read them and/or don't print them out and/or they don't bring them to class. So, even though a lot of $ could be saved by their using online readings, they seem to unfortunately resist it and so I am forced to try to make them buy sometimes expensive books. Anyone have any better luck out there?


  1. I'm surprised that you think a hard copy makes them more likely to read? But this could be a demographic issue. I have always had a policy of putting a hard copy of any required texts on reserve in the library. When I noticed how frequently those texts were checked out, I began creating e-Readings whenever copyright permits.

    I now use online readings whenever possible, including articles available free on the web, and "e-Reserves" created by my campus library. When those options aren't a possibility, I try to create "e-Texts" that are increasingly available direct from publishers. That way students can buy only the chapters I teach in my course (most anthologies contain about twice as much material as one could teach in a single term). This usually reduces cost by about 50%.

    In my experience, if a student won't read online texts, she won't read hard copies either, and many of my students won't buy an expensive hard copy text (quite honestly, many of them have difficulty affording one) so providing online readings makes it more likely that more of them will come to class prepared. One of the most frequent open-ended comments on my student course evaluations is "thank you for making readings accessible for free online."

  2. Hi. A little more information on the project, for anybody who interested:

    George Rainbolt and I are planning on having the book organized topically. Things are still very much at the beta stage, but right now, there are 4 big 'parts' (God, the self, the external world, and ethics), with topics and readings within each part. Here are the topics (at present):

    PART ONE: God

    (I) Argument’s for God’s existence
    [Ontological, Cosmological, Teleological]

    (II) The Problem of Evil
    [Statements of the problem and various responses]

    (III) Reason and faith
    [Pascal, Clifford, James]

    PART TWO: The self.

    (IV) Mind-body problem.
    [arguments for dualism, identity theory, etc.]

    (V) Personal identity
    [Locke, Reid, Hume, etc.]

    (VI) Death
    [for and against an afterlife, plus questions of whether death is bad for the person who has died]

    (VIII) Free will and determinism
    [hard determinism, libertarianism, compatibilism]

    PART THREE: The external world

    (IX) Skepticism
    [Descartes, Locke, Russell, Hume for now]

    PART FOUR: Ethics

    (X) Ethical Theory
    [Divine command theory, virtue ethics, egoistic hedonism, Kant, Mill, maybe some Nietzsche, maybe some Ross]

    (XI) Ethical problems
    [eating meat/duties to animals for now. Will add more later, e.g., political obligation, abortion.]

    Obviously, we could add a lot more, and we will, although we're not planning on covering every possible topic--we just want to have a good selection of readings in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics that would be suitable for an intro to phl course.

    If you'd like to have more details on the particular readings, plus the public domain (or by author permission) sources, please check out the (beta!) TOC at .

    We'd welcome any feedback. We already got a lead from John Immerwahr (thanks!) for a nice recent public domain translation of some Plato that's better than the Jowett we probably would have gone with initially. We're planning on using a mix of classic and contemporary readings, but for now we're a lot heavier on the classics, as most of the obvious contemporary readings (e.g., Nagel on what it's like to be a bat, Chisholm on agent causation) aren't public domain.

    tokeefe AT gsu DOT edu

  3. I have to agree with Nancy. In my experience, many students don't read the text in any format unless they're prodded into doing so. So, putting the readings online shouldn't make a difference.

    I've put a few readings online in past semesters. This has been fairly successful when paired with an online reading response assignment, which requires them to access the course web site.

    One thing that might partly offset the cost issue: Reading online requires internet access. This means that students without internet access at home will be at a disadvantage.

  4. I'm with Nancy... if they don't read stuff they can easily get online for free, they won't be that much more likely to read it in a book. I liked using online readings when possible just because I couldn't in good conscience have students buy books or a packet when a reading was freely available on the internet.

    And, yes, the prices on those intro anthologies are ridiculous. In case you haven't encountered it, I recommend Steven M. Cahn's "Classics of Western Philosophy." With all or big chunks of 56 works, it's a sizable collection of popular intro pieces. And, at $40 for a new copy, it's dirt cheap (compared to other anthologies or college texts generally, anyway).

  5. At least, however, if they have a book, and they've brought it to class, you can read it in class, i.e., that's something to work with. If they haven't printed out the readings, they've got nothing. For teachers who sometimes address the readings, students having it in hand is very helpful!


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