I've been teaching at the University of Alberta for three
years. I'm in the philosophy department and my own work and
teaching is in the area of political philosophy and the history
of political philosophy.
What were some of the instructional goals for your course(s)?
I'm going to talk mainly about the philosophy 101 "super
section"- this is a much larger course than the department
has taught in the past with anywhere from two hundred and
fifty to three hundred and fifty students. The goals are:
To help students overcome a sense of disorientation with philosophical
material and a classroom environment which could be quite
alienating. Also, to give them a sense of access to professors,
TA's, and one another. We also need to teach a set of reading,
writing and analytical skills to enable students to do well
Why is it important to use technology for your courses?
An important function is to overcome communication difficulties
that can arise in a large class. Communicating information
to students, making sure that they know which resources are
available to them, making sure they can contact profs and
When I first started planning and implementing the site it
was largely around communicating information to students.
I have come to see that the most powerful aspect of the web
for philosophy teaching is for setting up dialogues. The web
allows students to talk to one another in well-structured
and well-moderated ways. A lot of my emphasis in the construction
of philosophy sites has been to set up computer mediated conferencing.
Here, I'm thinking of things like WebBoard or, in the case
of philosophy 101, the WebCT conferencing function.
How do students benefit from the technological intervention
you designed and implemented?
I think that the most dramatic payoff has been in setting
up dialogues amongst students. In small or big classes, there
are always students who fall by the way side. Online discussion
is really a way to give students who might not feel comfortable
participating in class, who might not even learn successfully
listening to lectures in class- to really find another style
in which to participate.
For example, in my [Phil]368 class, had we not had the on
line discussion I might never have seen certain potentials
that some of my students had. Some students really flourished
posting on line where they could pause over a contribution
and make sure that it was crafted in a way they were comfortable
with. These are students who were quiet in class, not really
distinguished in some of their writing, but who really flourished
online. It opens things up to learning styles that might not
work so well in a classroom environment- I think that's really
a positive aspect of building the web into classes that also
have these other components.
What were some of the challenges you encountered?
The first challenge was learning how to use the web development
tools. There is really good help available at the TLC and
other places on campus. But you must ensure that you choose
the right technology and know how to use it.
A second challenge is learning how to make the websites for
one course transferable to other courses: that can be as simple
as not mentioning course numbers or names more often than
you have to. Finding ways to make templates and so on to make
a website developed for one course tranferable to another.
Thirdly, and probably the biggest challenge, is time management.
When I got into moderating onine discussions there were many
pedagogical techniques I needed to learn to cut my moderating
time down from three or four hours a day to three or four
hours a week. It really does take some practice and thought
about what kind of a moderator you want to be and what kinds
of discussions you want to play a role in.
Could you talk a little bit about your moderating techniques?
What is all too tempting in the classroom and on line is
to have your voice be a really big part in conversations.
On line you can see students going off the rails, off topic,
and offering spurious views in the same ways you see it in
the classroom. It is tempting to jump in whenever that happens.
On the one hand you don't want students to go away from a
posting thinking it should go unchallenged. But at the same
time you want to allow students to be able to correct one
another and explore directions on their own. Some of the most
successful conversations have been in weeks where I really
didn't have much time to take part- the students do find ways
to guide one another and that's really where the most learning
As an instructor and researcher, do you find these experiences
Yes, very much so. I'm someone how likes to think about teaching
and always be revising my teaching. There is the specific
technical, web-based aspect of pedagogy that I have to come
to terms with. There are also ways that have folded back into
my teaching in general. For example, in thinking about what
kinds of conversations I want to get started online and what
kinds of moderation I want to offer for those discussions,
I have really thought a lot about aspects of classroom teaching.
In setting up conversations with other people about these
things and giving me a chance to experiment, it has enhanced
my teaching in all sorts of ways and that's been rewarding.
Also, having experimented with the web in connection to teaching,
I am starting to see ways it can be used in publishing and
my own research. Another project that I have been involved
with for the past six months with the help of TLC and the
Faculty of Arts is setting up an online networking resource
for researchers in the areas of social and political thought.
This is using ColdFusion and a web-based data base- all very
complicated- but using some of the capabilities of the web
to get researchers in an interdisciplinary area at the university
talking to one another about courses, research projects, grants,
Can you tell us a little bit about SPT@UA?
That stands for "Social and Political Thought at the
University of Alberta". It is really powerful in terms
of research and teaching, but it is spread across departments.
I was trying to think about a way of using the web's communication
capacities to help us find out about one another's courses,
research projects, granting opportunities, talks on campus-
there is a real information deficit now. For example, one
of your students asks you for a course on critical race theory
and you don't know everybody who is working in that area.
This is a way to use form-based submissions to a data base.
Each of us tells the database about our own work and that
information can be made available on the web.
I've had help from TLC and the Faculty of Arts in paying
a programmer to do some of this. There is really a lot of
optimism about the changes that this will bring about in the
experience of students with interests in this area, and in
the research of faculty in this area.
How do you benefit from instructional technology- both
personally and professionally?
Personally, it is gratifying to be doing work that draws
upon technical skills. Professionally, it's been the chance
to talk to colleagues about teaching and about technology
in teaching. It has also been a chance to take advantage of
some of the resources here on campus: TLC, ATL. Not only expertise
with the technologies, but also in instructional design and
supplimenting teaching with the web. I've also started publishing
in the area of philosophy and technology, so it has tied in
in all kinds of ways in my professional life and opened up
relationships with my colleagues that I would not have otherwise
How do you foresee the future of applying instructional
technology in the discipline of philosophy?
I think, when it comes to the web as a complement to classroom
teaching, there is really a lot of space to do good work with
instructional technology. The web is a vernacular with which
students are increasingly familiar and comfortable. So it
does offer a way to make material relevant to them but also
it enables participation by students whose learning styles
may not be so compatible with classroom lectures and group
work. There is a lot of room to explore ways of getting students
to talk carefully and fruitfully with each other and using
the web is one part of the equation.
Now that you've had some experience, what advice would
you offer you colleagues?
I think that the main thing I've learned is that the potential
of the web doesn't lie mainly in communicating information
to students. The elaborate structures of links that formed
part of my early web sites are much less prominent now. Using
computer mediated conferencing is where the real learning
potential of the web lies- If I were designing a web site
now and I only had a limited amount of time to spend on it
I would use WebBoard or WebCT and just add in the minimal
content to allow students to make sense of it. It's that shift
from static pages to this on line dialogue that can take place
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