Running Interactive Philosophy Classes Online (guest post by Alex Hyun & Scott Wisor)

The following is a guest post* by Alex Hyun and Scott Wisor, both of Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute (one of the Claremont Colleges) in which they provide specific advice on a variety of matters related to teaching philosophy courses effectively online.

[Kamila Richter, “To Err Is Machine”]

Running Interactive Philosophy Classes Online
by Alex Hyun and Scott Wisor

1. Preface

These are unprecedented and chaotic times. You are worried about your loved ones, taking care of yourself, helping those in need, and thinking about how to serve your students as they try to adjust. This might not be the time to relearn how to teach. But . . . since you are already thinking about how to serve your students in a new environment,  it might be worth spending some of your time transitioning your teaching online to revisit the fundamentals. And the start of any pedagogical conversation has to be the question: how do humans learn? You don’t have time to read 10 books in the science of learning. But you probably do have 5 minutes for this excellent post by philosophers Renee Smith and Edward Perez, which summarizes the book Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.

If we were to pick two things from that post to attend to during the transition to an online format, it is that 1) desirable levels of difficulty produce the most learning and 2) students learn by doing (elaborating, generating, reflecting) rather than receiving. Active learning vastly outperforms passive lecturing, and appears to be most beneficial for underrepresented students.  As we scramble to adjust to online teaching, there might be an understandable tendency to make things easier and to move towards providing content, rather than doing interactive work together. But these shifts are likely to harm your students’ overall learning.

We believe that instructors in a virtual classroom have a number of advantages when it comes to abiding by these and other guidelines for effective teaching. First, everyone is in the front row. On a video call, we all appear the same, and are all right there on the screen. This means no slouching in the back or hiding behind the more eager students. Second, you can form small groups (on most video call platforms) using the breakout group feature. This happens in one second, requires no shuffling of desks or chairs, and does not raise the volume in the building. Third, we can all immediately share our work or responses. In person, if I ask for students to develop a thesis, I can call on only one student at a time. Online, we can all put our work in a shared document immediately. This gives the instructor much more information about what is happening in other students’ minds, and gives much more information to the students about what their peers are thinking. Finally, we can easily share tools and information that are time-consuming to share in person. We can quickly all look at the same website, share the same argument map, watch the same short video, or take the same short online quiz.

In what follows, we provide practical advice on how to leverage online instruction to develop highly interactive philosophy classes. In offering this advice, we are drawing on our experience as philosophy professors at the Minerva Schools at KGI, where all courses are taught in a flipped virtual classroom.

TL,DR: Make the tools at your disposal work for the minds of your students.

2. In the classroom

So, what should you say in the virtual classroom? Isn’t the answer to that . . . what I already say in the classroom? Perhaps, but it depends a bit on what you currently do in the classroom. As your students move online, we suspect that they might need a bit more guidance as you set up activities. We also suspect that professors might be inclined to talk more than they normally would in person. That is, you might want to really keep the show going with your voice and knowledge. While it is good to be high energy, students can move things forward if you give them the space. So, try to keep your talk time down. When you do talk, try to be:

  1. Setting up an activity. Students will need explicit instructions that include exactly what it is that they should be doing as individuals (not just where the group will get to). Right after you give the instructions, you might ask a student to repeat the instructions in their own words to make sure everyone knows what is happening before they start.
  2. Calling on students. This can sometimes be very brief. ‘Ximena, what do you think?’ Or medium length. ‘James said Y, which I understood as follows. [Articulate James’ point.] But Izzy, what is a counterargument to that?’ Or longer, ‘Here are the first three premises in this argument. One argument that you can make against the second premise runs as follows. [Explain the argument.] Abigail, what do you think?’
  3. Responding to students. Students need to hear from the professor on their contributions to class. But try to avoid playing tennis (they hit, you hit, they hit, you hit). Try to keep students in conversation with each other by playing baseball (you pitch, they hit, they catch, they throw– then you pitch again). If you respond to everything, this will leave many students disengaged. When a student asks you a question, a good practice is to invite one or two other students to provide the answer, and to offer corrections when necessary.
  4. Summarizing and reflecting. At the end of a task or activity, you can provide a clear closure moment for students. Show them what you think happened in the activity, or have them reflect on what has been accomplished in light of the activity.
  5. Describing next steps. Once you have reflected, you can point students to where things are headed. Explain to them the rest of class, or what will happen before the next class, or how this class relates to what will happen in the future.

If you do lecture, we suggest keeping the lecturing to a minimum in order to keep students engaged. Efforts to keep students engaged are particularly important in an online environment since distractions are just a click away. We find that it is rarely necessary for us to speak for more than 2-3 minutes at a time.

TL, DR: Be conscientious about what you are saying and why. You are extremely important in the class, but do not need to be the center of attention.

3. Working in documents

One tool that everyone has available to them is a shared document. The most common option is Google Docs.  For interactive classes, it is wise to have something that everyone can see in addition to each other’s faces. You can share the link for the document in chat on whatever video platform you are using. The document can then be used to do several different things.

  1. Take notes on an ongoing discussion. It is difficult to both lead an activity and take notes, so it is often helpful to appoint a student to act as ‘scribe’ who will take notes on the discussion as it proceeds. Since acting as the scribe can be challenging, consider selecting strong students for this role. Having an evolving record of the conversation assists students in following along, and it makes it easier for you to direct the class’s critical attention to specific claims asserted by students during the discussion.
  2. Provide students with prompts or cases such as key questions they should be working on, cases they should analyze, or passages they should read. For example, you might post in a shared document an op-ed that students read and then discuss. Or you could post an argument in premise-conclusion form and have students discuss whether it is sound.
  3. Allow students to input answers. One easy way to do this is to build a table that has as many rows as there are students in the class. Then, students enter their initials in the first column, and input their answer to a prompt in the second. For example, you could ask students to write a thesis about whether euthanasia should be legally permitted, and then they write their initials in the first column and write their thesis in a second column. You could include a third column where students vote with an ‘X’ on whether they endorse or reject the thesis proposed by other students.

TL, DR: Keep students active and engaged with each other by working in a document or chat tool that requires them to produce rather than consume.

One additional thought. Many of the problems that you can encounter in teaching online are not immediately easy to diagnose. Consider appointing one student as your online coach–have them notify you anytime something is not working well, not audible, or otherwise not going as the student expects. (We owe this idea to Harry Brighouse.)

4. Sample philosophy activities

There are a number of activities that we use on a regular basis which foster high levels of student engagement and appear to improve student learning. These are roughly the steps we follow in class that tend to produce high quality interactions.

Guided discussion of study questions

  • Before class: Share with students key questions to think about while they are reading the assigned text. Create a document that contains the key questions you hope to discuss in class.
  • Step 1: Share the document you created for this activity with your students. Give them a moment to access it and review its content. Call on a strong student to record peer responses as they come in throughout this discussion.
  • Step 2: Ask a student the first question. Lead a discussion that explores the key issues raised by the student’s answer. For example, you might pose questions to the class about definitions of key terms or the nature of specific philosophical positions that help students get clear on the important ideas raised by the first student’s answer. Alternatively, you may ask more critical questions which lead students to evaluate strengths or weaknesses associated with particular philosophical commitments or positions.
  • Step 3: Repeat step 2 for each of the study questions.
  • Step 4: Ask students if there are any questions they have about the text that are not covered by this document. Respond as appropriate.

Poll Based Debate

  • Before class: Tell students to think about their view on a particular question that will be debated in class. Create a document that states a proposition to be debated and then gives space for students to indicate whether they strongly agree, weakly agree, or disagree with the proposition.
  • Step 1: Share the document you created for this activity with your students. Give students a moment to access it and review its content.
  • Step 2: Read the proposition out loud, and invite students to indicate their level of agreement with the proposition by typing their names or initials next to the attitude they hold (‘strongly agree,’ ‘somewhat agree,’ or ‘disagree’).
  • Step 3: Call on a strong student to record ideas raised by their peers in the following debate. 
  • Step 4: Facilitate a debate. Invite specific students by name to share the reason(s) for their answers, and work together as a class to evaluate these reasons.
  • Step 5: Ask one or two students which points in the debate made them most compelled to change their minds, even if they did not.

Argument Reconstruction

  • Before class: Share with students the relevant reading that contains the passage that presents the argument you will reconstruct in class. Tell them to be prepared to reconstruct the author’s argument for a specific conclusion he/she endorses. Create a document that presents the passage in which the author argues for that conclusion. Include a section in this document to reconstruct the argument contained in this passage.
  • Step 1: Share the document you created for this activity with your students. Give students a moment to access it.
  • Step 2: Tell students to read the passage in the document, and tell them to signal when they are finished.
  • Step 3: Call on a student to state with precision the conclusion of the passage. Call on other students to affirm or revise that conclusion. Correct where necessary and once the class has reached the correct conclusion, have a student type it in the document.
  • Step 4: Call on a student to identify a key premise in the argument. Call on other students to affirm or revise the proposed premise. Correct where necessary and once the class has reached a fair restatement of the premise, have a student type it in the document. Repeat this process until the main premises of the argument have been articulated on the document.
  • Step 5: Tell students to read the reconstructed document. Once students have finished reading, call on students and ask whether anything is missing, or incorrect, in the reconstructed argument.
  • Step 6 (Optional): Call on students to evaluate the argument. Is it valid? If so why, if not why not? Are the premises true? Are there other counterarguments you can think of? Call on a student to record, below the reconstructed argument, the evaluations raised during this step.
  • Step 7: Conclude by calling on a few students to restate the main ideas that came up in the activity.

Close Reading

  • Before class: Suggest to students certain key pages or passages that they should focus on when reading to be prepared for this activity. Create a document that presents the passage(s) you will analyze and evaluate in class.
  • Step 1: Share the document you created for this activity with your students. Give students a moment to access it and review its content.
  • Step 2: Tell students to read the first passage in the document, and tell them to signal when they are finished.
  • Step 3: Call on a student to restate the position or line of reasoning the author is trying to express. Call on other students to affirm or revise that restatement.
  • Step 4: Ask appropriate questions of students based on the passage under discussion. For example, why might author X think Y? What is a counterargument to this line of thinking? What is an implication of this position? How does this passage fit into the broader body of thought of this philosopher? How does the position developed here relate to what we read last class?
  • Step 5: Repeat steps 2, 3 and 4 for each of the passages you want to discuss.
  • Step 6: Invite students to comment on how each of the passages relate to each other. Call on additional students to extend this synthesis.
  • Step 7: Call on students to evaluate whether, in light of these passages, they are inclined to accept the philosophical position of the philosopher in question, and why or why not.

For each of the activities above, you can modify one or more of the steps by doing them in breakout groups rather than the full class. This depends on the video tool you want to use. Working in smaller groups will often be a way to keep more students more engaged than if you stay in the full classroom.

5. Technical Details

Set expectations

Since the online learning environment will be new for students, it is important to set expectations from the beginning regarding what class will be like, what they can expect from you, and what you expect from them.

Teacher Audio: 

Nothing can ruin an online class like a bad audio connection from a professor. If you are choppy and hard to hear, then everything can fall apart.

Test: If at all possible, test your audio with another caller before you teach. Use the same headphones/headset, computer, and internet connection you will use for class.

Use a microphone: If you don’t do this, you pick up a lot of audio from background noises. Which of course might include your kids or pets or partner working from home.

Microphone location: If your microphone is too close to your mouth, students are going to hear a lot of breathing. If your microphone is too far from your mouth, you sound like you are really far away. If your microphone is dangling by your collar, you get a ton of ruffling.

Microphone selection: Even cheap earbuds have a workable microphone. If you want a high end product, they run about $70-$100, and are very valuable for increasing the quality of your voice for the students. One of us uses this and finds it works well.

Speak up:  Err on the side of being loud. Students can turn you down if they need to. But if your voice is not coming through clearly, turning up the volume won’t help.

Student audio:

Microphone: Encourage students to use a microphone if possible. They very likely already own earbuds for their phone that will work well. Otherwise, you hear all of their background noise (likely worse than yours) when they are talking.

Muting: Encourage all students to mute, unless they are talking, when they are likely to need to be reminded to unmute. If you don’t do this, then you can have noises overtake the main speaker, and the video stream often defaults to show whoever has the main audio feed.

Your visual: 

Your image will likely be the first thing students see when they log in. Try to present yourself however you do in class. That is, be professorial. If you are slumped up against some pillows in your bed, this will set the tone for them that online class is not serious, and they do not need to be dialed in.

We choose to teach in front of our books, or in front of a blank wall, and dress how we would in person. We also choose to teach standing up (which may be how your students are used to seeing you) which helps with audio projection. To teach standing up, it is helpful to have a standing desk (one of us is happy with this one). An impromptu standing desk can be created with a pile of books.

Internet speed:

If you have a weak internet connection, it will make all aspects of the online interaction difficult. There are a few things to improve your chances of success. 1) If possible, plug in to ethernet rather than run off of wifi 2) If possible, make sure other devices are not streaming on the same network 3) Run a connection test at . If you seem to have a weak connection (as compared to what the tool you are using recommends), consider bumping up your connection with your internet provider. In most cases something like $15 extra will get you more speed. It is also worth encouraging your students to use this connection test prior to class to ensure that their connection is adequate.

Their visual:

Encourage students to also find a location where they can present themself as active learners (again, not slumped over in bed) and don’t hesitate to call out students who don’t appear ready to learn.

Non-verbal communication:

When we are all in the front row, we can see how everyone is responding to what is being said. It might be advantageous to set a few standard forms of non-verbal communication. For example, tell everyone that two thumbs up is ‘Yes, I support this view’ and two thumbs down is ‘No, I disagree with this view’. Then, you can periodically call on everyone to weigh in on what is happening. You can comment on what you see. “Okay, I see about 60% are pro-X, 20% are anti-X, and the remaining are not sure.’ This is a way of communicating with everyone, and allowing everyone to communicate with each other.

TL, DR: Make sure you can be heard and seen, and make sure students know how to verbally and non-verbally communicate.

6. Conclusion

We are aware that some of our colleagues will find this article’s advice unsuitable for the crisis in which we find ourselves. As many philosophy instructors are being asked to teach online for the first time, many of them will find it challenging enough just to get by. It’s tempting to feel like it is unrealistic to aim for best practices of online education at a time like this.

We certainly acknowledge that many instructors don’t have the time right now to figure out how to run interactive philosophy classes online. But consider two final thoughts in reply. First, it is not clear how long this pandemic will last. It may be that philosophy instructors will need to teach from a virtual classroom during the coming Summer and Fall semesters. If this is so, then there will be time to catch our breath and devote some time to figuring out how to make our online classes more engaging for the sake of our students. And second, it is our hope that the advice in this article will actually save time for some instructors as they transition to a virtual classroom. Some instructors are already in the habit of leading interactive philosophy classes in traditional settings. We have offered some thoughts about how they can most easily continue their normal practices in an online environment.

Thanks to Christine Looser, Kevin Connolly, Geneva Stein, and James Genone for comments on a draft of this post.

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