Six Ways to Use Tech to Design Flexible, Student-Centered Philosophy Courses (guest post by Paul Blaschko)


As the pandemic continues, there are lots of uncertainties about how universities will function in Fall 2020, but it is likely that many courses will be taught entirely online or have substantial online elements. In this guest post*, Paul Blaschko provides some advice for making those courses go well.

Dr. Blaschko is assistant teaching professor in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and assistant director at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. He is digital curriculum lead for God and the Good Life and, as of this summer, is heading up a digital curriculum redesign program for the Mellon-funded “Philosophy as a Way of Life” project.


[Gabriel Dawe, “Plexus” (detail)]

Six Ways to Use Tech to Design Flexible, Student-Centered Philosophy Courses
by Paul Blaschko

 As we’ve been reminded from all directions lately: post-COVID instruction will certainly not be the same as it was before. One of the biggest changes, at least in the short term, will undoubtedly be the role that educational technology will play in our courses, since the expectation going forward will be that any course not entirely online will be flexible enough to accommodate in-person and remote students simultaneously. This is stressful. Even more so given how quickly faculty are being expected to design such “digitally integrated” courses. But here are six evidence-based recommendations from my experience co-designing a digitally integrated course, and, more recently, walking alongside philosophy faculty at other schools who are doing likewise.

1. Put your students at the beginning of your design process

To make sure you’re keeping your students and their needs at the center of your course design, I recommend starting the course design process by brainstorming about your biggest picture goals for your students. This process, sometimes called “backward design” can help you orient yourself when tough design decisions come up later on, and will make sure that you have a set of concrete, measurable goals to fall back on when things inevitable don’t go as planned during the semester. A great first step in the backward design process is to complete an “empathy map.” This exercise can be done quickly, but will help you sort out what you absolutely need to include in your course (e.g. meaningful assignments and key texts), from things to experiment with only if you have time (e.g. fancy, AI-moderated discussion boards).

2. When it comes to tech: keep it simple!

The biggest finding of research into online education is also pretty common sense: desirable student learning outcomes are strongly correlated with clear communication in the context of a simple, easy to use platform. As we all now know too well, even a casual chat on Zoom can be draining because of all the extraneous cognitive processing that is required. And these effects are multiplied as students access texts and video, click through course content, and find their way into digital classrooms.

Step one is to find a simple place for your course to live. You might choose a website (like WordPress or GoogleSites), platform (like TopHat or Campuswire), or “Learning Management System” (like Sakai or Canvas). But, ideally, whatever you use will accommodate every type of content you’ll be using so students don’t have to hop between platforms. In choosing your course’s online home you’ll want to consider elegance, but you should also think about whether your campus OIT can provide you with quick support should you need it. The course I most often teach started on a simple (free) WordPress site. I’ve combined GoogleSites with the discussion tool “Slack” to great effect. I once ran a course almost entirely on Facebook (which I ultimately don’t recommend). There are tradeoffs to whatever you choose, but the key here is determining what will work best for you and your students.

3. Relatedly: manage essential processing by segmenting content and assignments and creating a clear (daily and weekly) “workflow” for your students.

Another way technology can help decrease the cognitive load for your students is by providing them with daily and weekly workflows that encourage good learning habits and minimize extraneous processing. On our site, students can access all of the information for the course, and don’t need to log into an LMS (or reference PDFs by email, etc) to find assignments, deadlines, or course policies. We also created a clickable calendar of readings that direct them to distinct pages for each day, further broken down into what they need to read, watch (we assign a video for each class), and do (we also have short homework questions). If you’re going to send a weekly email, use a similar structure or format, carefully select the information you share, and send it at roughly the same time each week (if possible). 90% of our course days are identical in structure, and I send just one email per week, two hours after the last in-person session for that week. Once a student has mastered the daily and weekly flow, she can devote all her cognitive resources to diving into the Nicomachean Ethics or the Meditations.

 4. Work hard to promote genuine and engaging peer-to-peer interactions.

Students enrolled in online courses with engaged peers have markedly better learning outcomes than those without such peer engagement, or in courses where peers are less active. So it makes sense to spend time and energy finding a way to get students to interact with each other in meaningful ways.

To get discussion going, I recommend avoiding arcane or counter-intuitive “discussion boards” like those found in many “Learning Management Systems” (this may be the rare exception where it’s better for those using an LMS to invest in a second platform to facilitate discussion). Once you’ve got a platform, make your expectations clear, and make sure those expectations are consistent with engaging discussion. For instance, instead of requiring each student to post one, 200 word response in a forum per class period, ask students to form small discussion groups that live chat for 30 minutes once per week, or require that students engage in short bursts of conversation on discussion platforms where they are responding to at least one of their classmates by name. Enlist their help, too, in setting clear norms to make sure they’re comfortable conversing with you and each other.

Finally, make sure that online discussion factors into your in-class time in some significant way. Make sure to raise and answer questions that come out of discussion, or to refer to students by name in class to ask them to expound upon something they’ve posted.

5. Take every opportunity you can to increase personal presence in the design of your course and communication.

Another strong predictor of student success online is feeling like they have strong personal connections with the instructor and their peers. You can use more or less traditional strategies in promoting this goal, e.g.:

  • Include a picture in your email signature, and always indicate your willingness to answer student questions directly (if this is possible).
  • Hold “virtual office hours” by creating Zoom-equipped appointment slots on your google calendar that are easy for students to use to book and attend.
  • Frequently refer to students by name in online discussions and live sessions, and use personal examples to illustrate points in presentations or discussions.

6. Find creative ways to shorten feedback loops.

Finally, one excellent measure of effective assessment in courses is how long it takes for students to receive feedback on their work. In the sciences, math, and some branches of philosophy (like logic) technology makes it possible to create almost instantaneous feedback through interactive self-testing software and the like. While there are similar tools that we can use even in the less formal branches of philosophy, the entry costs are sometimes quite high, and the learning benefits may not always be worth it in the long run. Still, creative use of self-evaluation, (where a student applies a rubric to her own essay before turning it in), peer-evaluation, (where students break into groups to read and provide instantaneous feedback), or very brief, iterative assignments that can be graded quickly and that build on each previous version, can help reduce time-to-feedback, and give students more actionable information to help them make progress toward your course learning goals.

Though it may not be the path many of us would have chosen, we’re in for at least a semester of digital experiments in pedagogy. Hopefully some of these tips can help you confidently use technology as a tool to help you do what you’re already an expert in: the very human craft of philosophical instruction.

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Links to resources referenced:

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Aurora Plomer
Aurora Plomer
9 months ago

Thank you so much for these helpful suggestions and video link. It’s refreshingly thoughtful by contrast to the several sessions on digital education which I have attended this week which rely on dubious metaphors, trivialize content and assume that students’ aim when entering higher education is to have fun and to fill their time with interactive tasks, using platforms where there is a continuous live chat alongside the PPT narratives. I was beginning to get seriously depressed until I read your post. Please, keep these coming!!!
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Paul Blaschko
Reply to  Aurora Plomer
9 months ago

Thanks Aurora, I’m so glad you found this useful!Report

Colin Heydt
Colin Heydt
9 months ago

This is really helpful; thanks! I particularly appreciate how you emphasize the importance of the cognitive load we place on students. Question: I struggle most with effectively designing online courses to encourage peer-to-peer interactions. Can you say a little bit more about the platform you use and how you incentivize peer-to-peer interactions? Do you grade those interactions? Report

Paul Blaschko
Reply to  Colin Heydt
9 months ago

Hi Colin. Two thoughts: (1) We actually typically don’t use written peer-to-peer discussion in our course. Instead, we have students meet in once-weekly in-person dialogue groups that are led by undergraduate (“peer leaders”) that we train in a particular method of dialogue. (We hire and train these students, but we are working with schools that are trying out alternative models where the peers are selected from amongst the undergraduates in the course for which they’re serving as a “peer leader.”) The method emphasizes key skills of dialogue like asking strong questions (which we have a semi-technical way of thinking about), engaging empathetically with other points of view, argumentative rigor, etc. In the fall, these will be in-person so long as they can be (ND is re-opening in just a few weeks), but will take place over Zoom if they need to be. This is what happened in the spring, and they worked well in both modes (in-person and remote), though there’s a lot of noise in our evaluation and assessment because of the abrupt transition.Report

Paul Blaschko
Reply to  Colin Heydt
9 months ago

(2) We are going to be building in some required written discussion in the fall (we’re using Slack). Not totally sure what it’ll look like, but based on similar experiments in other courses (and on info from Eric Bettinger whose done a lot of research on this), I’d say: (1) set clear norms and expectations re: online discussion (and let students be a part of the norm-setting process), (2) pick a venue / forum that is intuitive to use and that mimics (insofar as possible) the better parts of social media functionality (e.g. having student pictures connected to their posts via profiles increases “transactional presence” or the felt-human interaction, which is correlated with better learning outcomes, having nested comments, a like option, etc. can also help increase clarity and build student confidence), (3) make sure the value of the discussion relative to other parts of the course is obvious to students (e.g. pick the top three or four comments or questions and address them directly in lecture, or refer to students by name in *your* comments and connect up your response to course content). To avoid: anything that makes posting seem like a semi-anonymous chore that no person will interact with or care about. Hope that helps!Report

David Levy
David Levy
9 months ago

Thank you for this succinct summary of your tips! As a follow up, I wonder if you have tips for effective asynchronous substitutes for the synchronous elements you’ve included in your post (e.g., live chats instead of discussion boards). My institution is pushing everyone to treat online/asynchronous as the default setting, and is asserting that any synchronous experience must be matched with equivalent/substitute asynchronous experiences so as not to penalize students who can’t participate in the synchronous experience. The resultant temptation is to eliminate all synchronous experiences, despite the fact that that will almost certainly result in a diminished learning (and teaching!) experience.Report

Paul Blaschko
Reply to  David Levy
9 months ago

Hi David. Some tips carry over the synchronous / asynchronous divide. For instance, whether you’re holding a live session to deliver content, or posting video content for students to engage with, it’s important to maximize “transactional presence” — which just means: anything that makes the interaction feel more human. Video lectures recorded three years ago over PowerPoint would rank low on this scale, a “Loom” version recorded and posted for 3, 150 person sections (https://www.loom.com/) — which allows students to see your face as well as the slides — is a bit better. And a personalized video that takes into account student comments from the week, and has slides spliced in, would be even higher. Obviously the costs here are very different (the last option requires tons of time and some technical skill, etc). Re: asynchronous discussion, one key thing to think about is how your students most naturally engage in such discussion (which they already do on FB, Instagram, YouTube, etc), and then trying to leverage that engagement for your own purposes. This will involve some research beforehand to help you pick a tool or venue that’s well suited to them, but they can also be enlisted to help with this once the course starts. Have them help set norms for the discussion, describe the idea engagement (short, bursty interactions that frequently respond directly to other participants), and ask them how you can help facilitate it. I posted some thoughts on particular discussion tools in a FB thread, and I’ll try to copy that below, but I hope the above gives you some things to think about!! Report

Paul Blaschko
Reply to  David Levy
9 months ago

(From a FB thread — here are some particular thoughts about various platforms and tools available, especially with an eye toward encouraging good discussion. Sorry it’s a bit informal; I was posting this in response to a friend’s comment!):
TopHat is a “one stop shop” that offers profs with a platform to present slides (in either live or remote modes, or — they assure me soon — both modes simultaneously). You can also make these slides interactive (e.g. so they feature polls or even direct links to discussion board content). They also will soon provide a streaming feature, and their platform has the capability of basically replacing an LMS (instructors can more or less build their course in-platform — with all the advantages and privacy / IP issues that raises). Because it includes a discussion board with pretty good functionality, I’d be tempted by this if we didn’t already have a website for our course (esp. bc ND’s LMS is garbage).
Campuswire is a little less all-inclusive (you can’t really build out content / course days in it), but includes an astoundingly functional discussion board / chat feature. You can also present slides from the platform, and they also have a (newly developed) option whereby you can stream live video / slides. This is the one I’d probably go with if we needed all of those features.
Packback is a very well designed discussion board platform without the other frills. Downsides: the “AI-moderation” seems only valuable to provide students a certain kind of (fairly narrow) writing coaching. (Though, if that is a core goal, this is a good mechanism for it.) And, also, the feedback mechanism (a feedback score (“curiosity points”) students get on their posts) is only half-useful: the AI doesn’t use a rubric and no-one can explain how the score breaks down (?!) — I might use Packback, though, if I *just* needed a discussion board (bc, again, it’s really good on the functionality).
Here’s our own, somewhat inelegant solution: Course website (!), plus campus-supported Zoom (which will be streamed from embedded cameras in-classroom), “Poll Everywhere” for interactive slide content (like polls), and a doctored up “Slack” channel for discussions. Overall, a solid 4.5 out of 5 in terms of functionality, but best option for us given our reliance on our (very good!) course website…Report

Samuel Kampa
9 months ago

I’m a philosopher-turned-ed tech specialist. My strong (and very biased) recommendation is to try replacing your discussion boards with Yellowdig (https://yellowdig.com/). It looks a lot like Facebook (minus the ads and content-serving algorithms), but the twist is the point system, which automatically awards students points for posting, commenting, and receiving reactions and accolades. (Full disclosure: I currently work for Yellowdig as a Client Success Analyst.)

Right now, Yellowdig is offering free access for a limited time (and with various conditions). I’ll spare you the sales pitch, but feel free to reach out to me directly if you want to know more.

Those planning to make discussions a key part of their course (irrespective of tech) might find this blog post useful, which was a thinly veiled excuse to do epistemology at work: https://medium.com/@Yellowdig_Blog/show-dont-tell-cd7e4318b705.Report

Paul Blaschko
Reply to  Samuel Kampa
9 months ago

Hi Samuel, Thanks for the comment — I’m excited to check out your platform! Because you posted this as a response, I feel empowered to reply a bit philosophically: does your automatic point system allow students to see the breakdown in how / why points were assigned as they were? The biggest issues I see with Packback (which seems, off the cuff, like a relevant comparison to your platform) is that their auto-generated feedback score (i.e. the “curiosity points” awarded to students based on the wording of their questions) is a blanket quantitative evaluation without explanation. Like a black-box. I might be able to track my progress in a really rough way (e.g. see if various experiments or interventions lead to better or worse “curiosity scores”), but that’s a super blunt (and not very pedagogically efficient) tool. Have you encountered — or dealt with — this worry w/r/t your platform?Report

Samuel Kampa
Reply to  Paul Blaschko
9 months ago

Hi Paul,

I appreciate your worry about the black box. I think it’s a more-or-less inevitable consequence of using AI to qualitatively evaluate posts with minimal instructor effort. How could Packback explain, in readily understandable terms, their very complex algorithm, other than in broad outline? (cf. https://www.packback.co/resources/the-packback-curiosity-scoring-system/).

By design, Yellowdig does not qualitatively grade posts, which means that our point system is fully transparent. If you create x posts that meet the word requirement and receive y reactions in a given period of time, your earn z points—period. In Yellowdig, points are nudges designed to drive student participation and incentivize (rather than assess) high-quality contributions. In essence, Yellowdig grades are beefed-up participation grades. We explicitly discourage qualitative grading in Yellowdig, and we emphasize community-building and student interconnections over prompt-based assessment and instructor-dominated discussion.

While Packback is indeed our most direct point of comparison, I don’t want to suggest that we’re directly at odds or that Packback isn’t very good at what it does. Packback and Yellowdig occupy different functional roles and solve different problems. If I had to give their pitch, I’d say Packback is trying to answer the question: “How do we automate qualitative writing feedback and discussion grading at scale?” Yellowdig is trying to answer the question: “How do we replicate the in-class discussion experience at scale?” The two problems require different approaches. Which of these problems is most pressing is an open question.Report

Paul Blaschko
Reply to  Samuel Kampa
9 months ago

Hi again Samuel, thanks, this is super helpful! I agree re: pros and cons of Packback, and it sounds like — bc of the different functionality — someone comparing it to Yellowdig should just consider their learning goals. I don’t want this thread to turn into a commercial for Yellowdig (or anything), but I’m curious — bc the community building and engagement goals are, I think, super important — do you guys have data that the point incentive mechanism works to promote these goals? My worry coming into a demo of Yellowdig would be that mere “participation points” have never worked to incentive student discussion or engagement in-person (so much so I’ve stopped giving any such points), but I can see how this might be very different in the online space and wonder if you guys have evidence that it is? Report

Samuel Kampa
Reply to  Paul Blaschko
9 months ago

I do a lot of the data analysis at Yellowdig (working in Python mostly), so my rather convenient answer is: “yes, we have lots of great data.” To avoid getting too commercially, I’ll just direct your attention to one of our blog posts (https://hubs.ly/H0nYSL20) and leave it at that for now. I’m also happy to chat and share more data offline.Report

Samuel Kampa
Reply to  Paul Blaschko
9 months ago

Just one more thing: We think “social points” (viz., points for receiving comments and reactions) are pretty crucial for student engagement in the online space. Without those points, it’s too easy for students to check participation boxes and otherwise disengage. Many (most?) students need to have some social pressure or external incentive to make helpful contributions—to drive up the impact factors of their work, so to speak.Report

Paul Blaschko
Reply to  Samuel Kampa
9 months ago

Oops, sorry — I accidentally hit “report” and not “reply” to you last response — I hope it doesn’t get deleted! Thanks for the post. I’ll check it out. Interesting to me that the points translate into social pressure, but I can see how such pressure helps drive up engagement. Thanks for your responses!Report

Mark Herman
Mark Herman
9 months ago

A problem I’ve had with discussion boards is that, despite my prodding, most students won’t disagree with each other, presumably for politeness and social reasons. As such, there isn’t much philosophically meaningful student-to-student interaction. I am considering experimenting with making students’ posts anonymous (to each other, not me—assuming I can figure out a way to do that tech-wise). I would take various steps to try to avoid Twitter-style toxicity. I recognize that there are various goals that anonymity runs counter to but think that since meaningful discussion trumps them, it’s worth trying. Any thoughts on this?Report

Paul Blaschko
Reply to  Mark Herman
9 months ago

Hi Mark. A couple thoughts! When we ask students to “argue” (in the philosophers sense) via discussion boards, we spend a lot of time talking about norms and conventions. This involves setting expectations and letting them know — explicitly — how to engage. We do this by teaching them an informal argument technique (https://godandgoodlife.nd.edu/digital-essays/reason-like-a-champion/), but I could see how a more formal / logical approach might help here.

In terms of norm setting, I find it super important to allow students to lead this discussion. I spend some time talking about how loving the truth requires disagreeing (and arguing) in pursuit of it, but then I ask them: what are explicit norms that we can agree to in order to make sure our discussion is respectful. It feels a bit silly at first, but we revisit these (especially after the first few weeks), and the document actually proves to be a really useful way to set the terms of the engagement.

Finally: I’ve never had luck getting students to argue directly in a discussion board without knowing each other pretty well at a personal level first. In in-person classes this is great, because you can have them meet and mingle in small groups before assigning them to online discussion board groups. In my online only classes, we spend quite a bit of time in Zoom “breakout” rooms doing the work of socializing / getting to know each other personally. Once those barriers are broken down, I find students to be much more willing to engage with each other online (in the same way that they’re willing to argue with their friends on FB but, often, not total strangers). This also allows us to sidestep the toxic Twitter culture problem (which usually results from a lack of personal connection in my experience). Hope that’s helpful!Report

Mark Howard Herman
Mark Howard Herman
Reply to  Paul Blaschko
9 months ago

Very helpful! Thanks!!!Report