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Teaching Philosophy

Teaching Philosophy on the Internet

Garth Kemerling

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ABSTRACT: I defend the practical value of teaching undergraduate philosophy courses in the Internet. Three important objectives of philosophical education can be achieved as effectively by electronic means as in the classroom. First, information about the philosophical tradition can be conveyed by hypertext documents on the World-Wide Web. Second, philosophical dialogue can be conducted through participation in an electronic forum. Third, close supervision of student writing can be achieved by means of e-mail submission of written assignments. In each case, I argue that the electronic method offers significant advantages to student learning.

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Many of the colleagues who discover that I have begun offering philosophy courses over the Internet express a similar set of reservations. Although they often grant that this must be an interesting project and sometimes admit that it may turn out to be worthwhile, they are uniformly skeptical about the prospect for its success. Accustomed as we have become to face-to-face interaction between instructor and student in the classroom, we find it difficult to imagine teaching philosophy in any other way. Thus, the introduction of alternative methods is often greeted with a suspicion that "this may be true in theory but does not apply to practice."

With respect to use of the Internet to teach philosophy, this paper will allay that suspicion. In what follows, I identify three important objectives of philosophical education and show how each of them can be achieved while relying exclusively upon electronic communication. Indeed, in each case I argue that appropriate use of Internet resources provides clear advantages over the methods employed in a traditional classroom. Teaching philosophy on the Internet, therefore, not only offers an adequate substitute for classroom instruction but promises to be even more effective in the achievement of certain significant educational goals.

Since the aim here is to demonstrate the practical value of electronic teaching, my remarks focus concretely on the results of my own experience in employing informational technologies to teach philosophy for undergraduate students in on-line philosophy courses. This is a description of what has actually worked for my students. Philosophy teachers who share my interest in one or more of the three objectives will, I hope, be encouraged to experiment with similar methods of achieving them.

The first significant objective of philosophical education is to acquaint students with the philosophical tradition through guided reading of its classic texts. As academic philosophers, we are responsible for preserving and transmitting the cultural heritage of past philosophy as well as for creating and criticizing our own contributions in the present. Teaching philosophy therefore includes an effort to convey information about great philosophers and philosophical literature.

In a traditional classroom, this end is commonly served by lecturing to our students. We talk about philosophers of the past and present, using accounts of their life and work to place them within a broader social and intellectual context. We identify significant philosophical issues and explain the range of positions that have been taken to address them. We draw careful distinctions and offer precise definitions of those terms of art on which philosophical practice relies. We provide detailed analysis of philosophical arguments, critically examining the putative justifications for metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical doctrines.

These educational aims pursued in classroom lectures can all be accomplished entirely by means of hypertext materials made available to students on the World-Wide Web. The information we wish to convey, of course, could always have been expressed in written rather than in oral form: that is what happens when some of us write textbooks for the courses we teach. But the publication of print materials on such a small scale can be prohibitively expensive, while posting electronic versions on a university-related Web server is virtually free.

What is more, well-designed documents created for publication on the Web are filled with hypertext links that permit students to move easily among course materials of every sort. While reading a lesson on the epistemology of Hume, for example, students would likely discover links to a summary of Hume's life and work generally, references to Locke, Newton, Bayle, and Kant, an explanation of the distinction between matters of fact and relations of ideas, and definitions of "empiricism," "skepticism," "causation," and "idea." Each of these locations will be a hypertext document with its own further set of links to additional associated material.

This method of conveying information offers the advantage of providing highly individualized instruction to each of many different students. Those who wish to review a crucial distinction they've encountered before can follow the link that explains it, while those who feel confident in their comprehension of that concept move directly to something else. More generally, some students can follow their preference for a linear treatment of a philosophical topic while others choose to explore the issue in a more peripatetic fashion. Since lessons accessible on the Internet, of course, all students are free to consult the material wherever they are, whenever they wish, and as often as they please.

Generating appropriate hypertext material is a great deal of work for the instructor, but there are several helpful economies. Some portion of what we have to say about major philosophers and many of our definitions for crucial terminology can be written once, stored in a single document, and accessed by hypertext links from many distinct sets of course material. What is more, the content of a course need not be limited to local materials written by a single instructor, since it is just as easy to provide hypertext links to Internet documents by other authors that are available elsewhere. As more academic philosophers develop Web-based resources, we can link extensively to each other, providing our students with access to more information than any one of us could hope to offer.

One cautionary note is in order. For their reading of the classic philosophical texts, students should still depend upon printed books. Electronic texts of many philosophical classics are available on the Internet, more are appearing all the time, and the best of them make use of the hypertext advantages I have described. But the quality of the texts presently available varies widely, and copyright restrictions commonly prevent on-line publication of recent work, including contemporary translations of the classics. Although it is appropriate to provide students with links to original texts whenever possible, these resources cannot presently be expected wholly to replace print media.

Nevertheless, hypertext course materials can provide a suitable substitute for classroom lectures designed to convey information about philosophy. The use of these materials permits individual students to learn by following more distinct paths than could ever be supported in any single classroom presentation.

Acquiring information about philosophers is not, however, the whole of a worthwhile philosophical education. Another of its vital aims is the development of effective skills in reasoning, as exhibited in the ability to participate in a critical discussion of serious philosophical issues.

In the traditional classroom, we serve this aim by engaging our students in philosophical dialogue. We deliberately create an environment that encourages them to join with us in a colloquy conducted in accordance with the canons of rational discourse. We advance controversial propositions, reformulate them in response to requests for clarification, and defend them against the criticism offered by others. We employ logical arguments as justifications for our views and welcome the efforts of others to deny the truth of their premises or challenge the validity of their inferences. In this aspect of philosophy teaching, we urge our students to learn by doing.

This significant activity can be performed electronically through the creation of an electronic discussion forum, a "cyberspace" in which members of the class communicate freely with each other. A variety of technical resources can be used to implement this practice: a bulletin-board system or newsgroup may work as well as the mailing-list technology on which I have relied. Since the functionality for users is similar in each of these forms, the choice among them depends primarily upon what software is locally easiest to use. What matters is that members of the class be able to exchange their thoughts in perfect freedom without fear of external observation or interference. (Thus, in the mailing list I administer for each Internet class, I maintain absolute control over subscriptions but exercise no control at all over submissions to the list by subscribed users.)

In practice, the electronic forum is remarkably similar to effective classroom discussion. Although responses to a particular passage or topic are usually prompted by a question from the instructor, students themselves often introduce additional issues. No matter how it originates, each thread of discussion exhibits a natural life-cycle: it begins with a simple comment or query, quickly gains momentum as initial positions get clarified, then settles into an intensely productive phase of argumentation before fading gradually from the scene. In the electronic forum, it is relatively easy to juggle several such discussion threads at once, each at its own appropriate stage of the cycles.

What makes the electronic forum especially valuable is that it eliminates the pressures and limitations of real-time discussion. The pace is significantly slower because messages must be composed and posted to the group before others have a chance to read and respond to them. But this temporal delay has a number of beneficial results. There are no interruptions or shouting matches, and as students become accustomed to discussing philosophical questions in written form, their contributions tend to become more thoughtful and reflective, better expressions of genuine critical thinking.

Most remarkably, the asynchronous format seems to level out both the amount and quality of discussion produced by individual members of the class. It is easier to get students to interact with each other, since a day or two of "virtual" silence by the instructor usually encourages response from other members of the class. Students who would be reluctant to speak out in the traditional classroom often find it possible to participate more actively when freed from the necessity of responding in person. Other students may still be inclined to dominate the discussion with frequent and lengthy postings, but it is often possible for the instructor to entice the excessively vocal into back-channel exchanges that do not impinge on other students.

One qualification may be worth mentioning. The electronic forum seems to work best for groups of ten to twenty students. When larger numbers are involved, the volume of messages is too great to encourage frequent interaction, so that the forum tends to become merely a collection of unchallenged "soapbox" speeches. Large classes should therefore be divided into smaller sections for electronic discussions. When only a handful students enroll for a class, on the other hand, discussions sometimes fail to generate the requisite momentum, and the forum tends to become merely a cluster of individual student-instructor dialogues. This problem is more difficult to overcome.

Nevertheless, the electronic forum offers a suitable substitute for the conduct of classroom discussion. More students have greater opportunities to develop their skills in critical reasoning when they participate in philosophical conversations conducted on-line instead of in a traditional classroom.

A third important objective of philosophical education is to foster the ability of students to express and defend their views in clear argumentative prose. Many institutions of higher education have established formal requirements for student achievement in written communication across the curriculum, and most philosophy teachers take seriously their role in helping students learn to write well.

Doing so requires diligent supervision over every step in the writing process. We exercise great care in crafting clear, precise writing assignments that are likely to elicit appropriate student responses. We monitor the progress of student research, recommending appropriate primary and secondary resources and helping students to evaluate what they find. We read early drafts of student writing, offering advice about changes in content, style, and expression that will improve the final version that must be submitted to us for formal evaluation.

In the effort to improve writing abilities, there is no substitute for conscientious performance of these mentoring activities. But, of course, face-to-face contact between instructor and student is not at all essential to the success of these endeavors. Close supervision of the writing process can take place just as easily by means of direct e-mail communication. Teachers of composition in many colleges have begun to rely heavily on electronic methods in aid of the writing process, and many students will already have had experience with these methods. The advantages here are entirely matters of convenience. Using word-processing software from the outset makes the cycle of composition, criticism, and revision easier for student writers, and I have found that it also encourages me to participate more fully in the process.

The only difficulty I have observed in this context arises when the writing assignment requires students to engage in formal research. Accustomed to acquiring new information through electronic media, some students suppose that it is possible to research a philosophical topic fully while using only the resources of the Internet. This is not the case. As I have already mentioned, even the classic texts may not be readily available on-line; secondary literature and contemporary discussion of philosophical issues is even less well-represented. For many years to come, acceptable philosophical scholarship will continue to rely upon print media.

It is possible, however, to teach students how to write well using electronic communication over the Internet. Both the quantity and the quality of exchanges between instructor and student may be enhanced by their practice in an electronic setting.

Three significant objectives of philosophical education, then, can be accomplished on the Internet as well as in the traditional classroom. Careful application of the various forms of electronic communication provide effective means for introducing students to the philosophical heritage and for fostering the development of their capacities to think well and write clearly.

Please notice that each of the three techniques I have described can be employed independently of the others. Any one of them can therefore be used by itself as a supplement to the usual methods of instruction in an ordinary philosophy course. Many philosophy teachers will find it comfortable to experiment with the alternative technologies one at a time, discovering the benefits of each technique by observing its effects on students with whom they regularly have interactions of the more traditional sort.

Using all three techniques together, however, makes it possible to teach a respectable philosophy course wholly on the Internet. The combination of hypertext course materials, a virtual discussion group, and e-mail paper submission is sufficient to support effective philosophy teaching without any face-to-face interaction at all. The specific objectives and level of student experience for a particular course dictate the appropriate balance of emphasis to be placed upon each of the three components, but careful planning and competent execution by the instructor can yield reliable results. So it is possible to teach philosophy on the Internet. But is it desirable to do so? Permit me to conclude with a few words in defense of my own conviction that it is.

A new generation of computer-literate undergraduate students are already turning to electronic media in pursuit of their educational goals. It is our responsibility to make sure that serious content is available on-line when they do. From my description of the three techniques, it will be evident that both the advance preparation for an Internet philosophy course and its successful implementation require a great deal of hard work from the philosophy teacher. This is not a project for the faint of heart. But it should also be clear that the time invested is well-spent, since it results in important educational benefits for the students who participate.

In addition, teaching on the Internet can make philosophy instruction available to many people who might otherwise lack an opportunity to acquire it. Those with impaired mobility, vision, or hearing can take advantage of electronically-mediated accommodations in order to participate in the educational process alongside those who do not face similar obstacles. Those whose geographical location or employment schedule prevents easy access to a traditional college classroom can join in a well-designed on-line course whenever it is convenient and wherever they are. In keeping with the theme of this Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, teaching philosophy on the Internet will significantly contribute to the achievement of our goal of philosophy educating humanity.

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