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Teaching Philosophy

Decentered Classrooms: The WWW and Problem Based Learning in Introductory Philosophy

Ronnie Littlejohn and Mike Awalt
Belmont University

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ABSTRACT: This presentation explains how problem-based learning and the World Wide Web (WWW) may be used in collaboration to shift student learning experiences in dramatic ways and to encounter the tasks and concerns of philosophy. We will provide a guided tour of the web site and the problems used in the course, and will describe how these pedagogical strategies may be used to complement traditional classroom venues without making a commitment to offering a course completely on-line for distance learning scenarios. Problem-based learning will also be described and its importance to philosophical instruction will be emphasized. We argue that teaching philosophy by means of problems is more philosophically sound than taking a discrete topical or textual approach. Challenges to this pedagogy are uncovered and discussed.

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This paper will focus on two significant instructional methods, problem based learning and the use of the web as a teaching tool. It will provide details of the ways in which these two methods have been merged in an Introductory Philosophy class. We will be demonstrating the navigation of our Introduction to Philosophy course web site.

I. Problem Based Learning

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a method of teaching and learning that stresses problem solving activities as a means to encountering and applying knowledge. (Barrows, 1984) It develops out of a strong concern that traditional education stresses the acquisition of factual knowledge without long term retention of that information, the ability to apply the material, the skill to think critically, or the understanding of the context in which knowledge develops and relates. (Norman, 1988, Bridges, 1992, Walton and Matthews, 1989).PBL uses a set of problems - simulations, ethical dilemmas, case studies, medical diagnoses or decisions, legal disputes, public policy issues - as the framework for student learning. The closer the problem is to a real life, relevant problem, the better it functions as a learning motivator. (Bridges, 1992). In traditional lecture and discussion format classes, the instructor introduces the material that he/she deems appropriate and then tests the students knowledge of the material. In PBL, the student is initially confronted with a problem that requires a solution. The problem drives the student assignments and learning tasks. It is the avenue through which students become acquainted with the material. Barbara Duch says "In a traditional science class, learning tends to proceed from the abstract to the concrete, with concepts being introduced first, followed by an application problem. In Problem-Based Learning, students are presented with an interesting, relevant problem 'up front' so that they can experience for themselves the process of doing science." (Duch, 1995) Those who use PBL are convinced that learning a discipline within the context in which it occurs intensifies and enhances student learning and increases the ability to apply and understand what is being learned. (Duch, 1995)

PBL is often used with collaborative or cooperative learning strategies and utilizes small student groups of three to six students each. The groups formulate an understanding of the problem and key questions which have to be answered in order to "solve" it. They examine relevant resources to obtain the data necessary to develop a tentative solution, and they then write group or individual papers articulating their solutions.

In PBL the student is the primary agent of his/her own learning with guidance and support from the professor. The professor shifts from the centralized, authoritative source of information to a combination facilitator, tutor, coach, and problem poser. "By decentralizing the classroom., students discover the latitude to explore ideas and express themselves. They also find they must engage others and confront ideas novel to them." (Burch 1995). Not all students react positively to such responsibility at first and so the faculty member has to find the best ways to motivate students to bring about a constructive learning experience and to lead the student through a process of educational reacculturation (Bridges, 1992, Bruffee, 1993).

The goals of this approach are that knowledge will become more practical, arise out of ordinary contexts, and thus be less isolated. Also, students learn skills necessary to sustain them as life-long learners. (Bridges, 1992, Margetson, 1994)

A problem-based learning experience has the additional benefit of helping students understand how interrelated important questions tend to be. In the Introduction to Philosophy class covered in this paper, for example, problems often required students to consider epistemological, ontological, and moral issues at the same time. Students gained a feel for the interdependence of fundamental questions about human experience through the use of PBL.

PBL has been popular in the last decade in medical schools (Barrows 1984, Walton & Matthews, 1989, Norman 1988), science courses (Duch, 1995), and math courses. There are numerous web sites that highlight PBL including Problem-Based Learning at the University of Delaware (http://www.udel.edu/pbl/) and the Illinois Mathematical and Science Academy's Center for Problem-Based Learning (http://pbln.imsa.edu/resources/PBL_Matters.pdf). Though its use in basic humanities courses is certainly not the norm, there are other non-science applications. For instance, The University of Delaware, one of the leaders in PBL, offers an Art History Course taught by this method (Miller, 1996).

We began using problem based learning in their individual Philosophy classes two years ago. This spring we are team teaching an Introduction to Philosophy course in which this method is employed.

We structured the course around four units. Each unit features a core problem. The students are introduced to the problem on the first day of the unit. In the sessions following, class time was spent working in small groups on understanding the issues and materials related to the problem. Students had 3 to 4 weeks to work on the problem. We provided students with a list of resources to use in developing the problem solution, and arranged working class experiences which accompanied these. Students were not limited to these resources, but we did regard these resources as sufficient to handle the problem we gave them.

As to the resources, they were of many types. Some were books and essays which were placed on reserve in the university library. Other resources were lectures and brief papers by the professors, which were placed at the course web site. Internet and CD-Rom resources were identified. We targeted 3 or 4 sources as required and had discussions in class on these essays. Every assignment we gave, every class period we conducted, and every meeting with the students was directed toward giving them the information necessary to solve the problem they were assigned.

A sample problem we used is Dax's Case. Here is the information we gave the students:

I. The Problem. The fifth problem for this unit is "Dax's Case." In the early 1970's Douglas "Dax" Cowart was severely burned over 65% of his body in a propane gas explosion. The explosion left him blind, severely disfigured, and in tremendous pain. He requested that he be allowed to die. The Hospital refused his request. Dax survived his ordeal and today is a successful attorney, yet he still argues that he should have been allowed to die.

Your assignment is to write a philosophical argument making a case for why Dax either should or should not be allowed to die. Assume you are the hospital ethics board making the decision on Dax's request. In this argument you are to develop the ethical basis for the position that you choose to defend. You are to weave a careful series of supports for your claim. You are to anticipate critical points against your argument and provide a rebuttal to those anticipated criticisms. If you are of the strong opinion that Dax should not be allowed to die, you should read at least one article that argues against your viewpoint, and vice-versa.

The problem solution should take the form of a board meeting in which the members of the group argue their resolution to the problem. Though you are working together in analyzing the case, reading the material, discussing it, and putting together the final presentation, each person must craft their own argument in order to sustain the debate..

The objectives of this section are to introduce you to the basic issues of ethics through an examination of one real life case, to familiarize you with a few basic sources, and to enable you to develop, articulate, and defend your ethical reasoning in medical ethics.

II. Required viewing:

A Right to Die? - The Dax Cowart Case(CDROM) - This CD-ROM presents the conflicting evidence of this case through a variety of resources that enable you to participate in an interactive decision making process and to develop your ethical reasoning skills via an actual real life dilemma. This CD-ROM, along with a copy of instructions on how to use it, will be placed on reserve at the Circulation Desk in the Bunch Library. There are 3 computers with CD-ROM capabilities in the computer lab. There are three copies of this CD-ROM on reserve in the library. The interactive portion of this CD-ROM will help you in developing, supporting, and defending your argument.

III. Recommended Reading. None of this is required, but it is strongly recommended that you read some of this material. It will provide you models of how to approach this case and will provide you with helpful material to use in constructing your own argument. We would recommend that you team up with three or four other students and collaborate in reading as much of this material as you can.


Robert Burt, "David G. and Self-Rule" in Taking Care of Strangers: The Rule of Law in Doctor-Patient Relations.

Robert White, "A Demand to Die".

Rosenburg and Karides, "An Interview with Dax Cowart"

H. Tristram Engelhardt "The Limits of Personal Autonomy: The Case of Donald "Dax" Cowart"

Alan Miesel, The Right To Die, Vols. I & II

Dax's Case: Essays in Medical Ethics and Human Meaning, edited by Lonnie Kliever.

The following lectures are on the course webpage:

The Anatomy of a Moral Decision

Kant and the Ethics of Duty


The Ethics of Caring

Ethics and the Right to Die

II. Use of the Web as a Teaching Tool

The web is the second key teaching tool we are using in the class and it serves as a support for the problem based learning approach. We created a web site for our Introduction to Philosophy course. At this site we have our syllabus; course requirements; the description of the four unit problems; links to various philosophy resources on the internet; a collection of essays and class readings; a collection of lecture notes, briefs, and outlines; texts of listserv discussions we provide on-line; and other pertinent material.

Along with a traditional classroom, we reserved use of one of the computer labs on campus and often conducted class meetings there. Sometimes the entire class met in the computer lab, and sometimes only a specific group met there while other groups met in the classroom or library. During these meetings we used the homepage to look at various articles, lectures, and problems we were using in class. We also used these meetings to allow students to conduct in class research via the internet. Students were aided in appreciating some ontological issues of one of the class problems by using several virtual reality exercises in the computer lab. We also found an effective use of the lab was to turn it into a chat room which enabled students not only to participate in class in a different sort of way, but also we were able to surface some key philosophical problems about personal identity in this manner. Students participated as well in one of four listservs offerred during the semester.

III. Conclusion

In conclusion, we offer two observations based on our initial efforts at PBL in a Philosophy class. These observations seem consistent with the literature on PBL. First, students initially resisted the different learning experience demanded of them in this class. They felt too much responsibility was placed on them and they wanted the professors to simply tell them what they needed to know. One student complained on a feedback exercise after the first major unit that he was paying a lot of money to go to Belmont and the instructors had not taught him anything. He had to learn everything on his own. He then proceded to give a list of things he had indeed learned. He then reluctantly admitted that he probably had learned more on this unit that he had in other more traditional courses, but he still didn't like to do it all himself. A number of students complained about group work and felt work was unevenly distributed and performed. We responded to these criticisms not by changing the teaching strategy or the amount expected of the students, but by giving clearer set of directions and guidelines, allowing more time for discussion, clarification, and feedback from the professor, and by making changes in group set up to allow better recognition of individual performance. These changes worked and class performance, class attitude, and class motivation increased significantly the second half of the semester.

Second, the quality of work and the involvement of the students with the material was better than in most introductory classes we had taught using more traditional methods. We have submitted five papers from the PBL course for campus writing awards and one paper for publication in an undergraduate journal. Student presentations were well-designed and the students demonstrated the ability to think on their feet, respond to dificult questions , and to exude a sense of passion about the problems they had chosen to solve. We witnessed numerous students approach a problem with their mind made up about how to solve it, only to take a completely different approach after encountering the philosohical texts and the critical opinions of their peers.

The authors are continuing to improve the Introduction to Philosophy course using PBL and to develop the Web site to support this educational strategy. The site is expected to become the fulcrum for all philosophy faculty members to draw on as a resource. It is anticipated that new problems and resources will continue to be added. The authors are committed to the concept that students learn best when they are actively involved in their own learning. Problem-Based Learning, supplemented by the Web as a research resource, appears to be an effective way to actively involve students in their own learning.

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Barrows, H. "A Specific Problem-Based, Self-Directed Learning Method Designed to Teach Medical Problem-Solving Skills and Enchance Knowledge Retention." In H. Schmidt & M deVolder (Eds), Tutorials in Problem-Based Learning, Maaastricht, Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1984, pp. 16-32.

Bridges, Edwin. Problem-Based Learning for Aministrators. University of Oregon: ERIC, 1992.

Bruffee, Ken. Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence, and the Authority of Knowledge. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Burch, Ken. "PBL and the Lively Classroom." About Teaching, 47, Jan. 1995, 8.

Duch, Barbara. "Problem Based Learning in Physics: The Power of Students Teaching Students." About Teaching, 47, Jan. 1995, 6-7.

Margetson, Don. (1994). Current Educational Reform and the Significance of Probelm Based-Learning. Studies in Higher Education, 19, 1. 5-17.

Miller, Mark. "Introducing Art History Through Problem-Based Learning." About Teaching, 50, Spring 96, 3.

Norman, G. (1988). " Problem-solving skills, solving problems and problem-based learning." In H. Schmidt, M. Lipkin, M. W. Devries, & J. M. Greep (Eds.), New Directions for Medical Education, New York: Springer Verlag, pp. 260-293.

Walton, H. & Matthews, M. (1989). Essentials of problem-based learning. Medical Education, 23,542-558.

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