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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