Online classrooms

Anya Kamenetz has new book titled DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.  You can read her article-length distillation of it at The American Prospect.  Kamenetz’ vision of higher-education’s future is pretty techno-utopian, but less naive than many in the “facebook will revolutionize college!” caucus.  A taste:

Whether hybrid classes, social networks, tutoring programs, games, or open content, technology provides speed skates for students and teachers, not crutches. To save money and improve learning, educational technology has to be well-designed and carefully implemented. The roles of professors will shift, and new jobs will be created in place of the old. “Technology can’t make a bad teacher into a good teacher,” says Sarah Robbins, an expert on the use of gaming in teaching who goes by the Internet handle Intellagirl. “Students who don’t want to learn won’t suddenly become great students when you put a gadget in their hands. Learning to teach with technology is less about ‘how does it work’ and much more about ‘why should I use it.'”

I’m excited about the increasingly huge amount of high-quality educational material available online.  I depend on wikipedia more every year, and I’ve gotten a lot out of MIT’s and Yale’s free online courses.  These materials are great at making huge amounts of information available to people who want to learn it.

But especially at the introductory levels, philosophy classes aren’t (or, I think, shouldn’t be) about absorbing information.  Rather, lower-division philosophy courses should about learning a style of thinking.  Students should come out of their first philosophy class better able to recognize philosophical problems, to recognize and understand arguments, and to critically evaluate arguments.

To develop new thinking skills requires more active engagement from students than is needed to memorize a set of facts, or to become familiar with a body of literature.  To develop these skills requires discussion and writing, lots of failure and correction, and modeling by the instructor.  I worry that these things are more effectively accomplished when students are physically present, where the stakes are higher, and instructors and peers alike can challenge passiveness.

And so I worry that the move to online delivery of college courses, while a boon for the spread of high-quality, reliable information, will come at the cost of high-quality critical thinking.

Related articles:

You can find many cool sample syllabuses here on the Philosopher’s Eye, in the Teaching & Learning section.

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