|Computers & Texts No. 12
This article describes a three year 'virtual classroom' project conducted at Temple University. The project examined both the use of computer-mediated communication in the teaching of philosophy and also the virtual classroom as a valid topic of philosophical discussion.
Recent AT&T and IBM advertisements boast about the prospects of an electronic future. Television viewers are assailed by visions of a McLuhanesque global village, Personal Digital Assistants, and virtual libraries where the vast amounts of useful data are surpassed only by the ease of access. These are common images associated with moving into the information age, an era replete with seductive tunes of progress, hope, and equality. Whether this future turns out to be liberating or Orwellian has yet to be seen. Regardless, we are deluged by the glamour, billion-dollar marketing, and promotion of technology-oriented capitalism. Without speculating on the merits of such images, the digital future poses important questions for education, questions which force us to search beneath the gloss of Microsoft. As individuals committed to learning and educating, we must consider what tools aid our education and what hoaxes masquerade as resources.
This paper discusses a three year 'virtual classroom' project I have conducted at Temple University and Rowan College. Utilising University computer facilities and internet email accounts, my students and I have explored the computer and its potential role in the classroom. There was no computer course requisite for participation in the virtual classroom. Rather, the project was limited to introductory level philosophy classes operating with a minimum of facilities, time, and training. In this setting, the computer functioned in a dual capacity. First, it was an object for philosophical study. Questions of identity, reality, meaning, and gender are common grist for the mill of philosophy. Thus, we attempted to reformulate these philosophical issues in terms of computers, that is, we philosophized about computers. What does one's virtual identity consist of? Can Locke or Hume shed insight into this identity? Where does gender figure in email? What is the reality of cyberspace? Can we speak of Leibnizian monads on the internet?
Second, the computer functioned as an educational resource for conducting a philosophy course. It is in this sense that we held a virtual class by moving our discussions from the physical classroom to internet email, 'chat,' and listserv forums. Our goal was to see not only if the philosophical issues themselves changed when we introduced the computer into the educational process, but if in dealing with these issues, the act of learning itself, was transformed by the computer. Through readings, in-class discussion, and virtual classroom interaction, students became involved in negotiating the definitions and terms of the course. 'What is reality?' and 'what is the virtual realm?' are not only questions students ask of Plato, but ask themselves and each other. Students are involved in doing philosophy since they must decide the pertinent questions concerning their experiences in the virtual realm. They must then engage in forming, asking, and answering these questions. Thus, an interactive and co-operative learning process is initiated.
In any course there are certain constraints. First is the course material itself. As a teaching assistant and adjunct faculty member, I teach an introduction to philosophy. As an educator in a non-closure discipline (i.e., a discipline with an identity crisis), the question of what should constitute a student's initial exposure to philosophy is difficult to address and seldom done so adequately. These struggles in turn pose serious questions for introductory courses.
This is where disciplines like philosophy differ significantly from biology. Relative to philosophy departments, biology departments have a secure identity. There are questions where biologists are the authorities. In this sense, co-operative learning is not a threat to the identity of the biology teacher, whereas in philosophy, allowing students to have a voice in posing the problems threatens the nature of the discipline. Reality is a philosophical issue only when an authorized philosopher is doing all the talking. Population and evolution are biological questions whether a biologist is doing all the talking or not.
The second constraint I face at this point in my career is my age. At Temple I am the same age as most of my students. When I teach night classes, most students are older than I am. This fact limits my pedagogical repertoire in the sense that I have few mentors who are not significantly older. The teaching strategies of older tenured faculty often don't work for teaching assistants. Authority and power are real issues when students, expecting a wise elder to lecture them on a topic, are instead confronted with someone who (at best) looks like their friends or (at worst) like their children. I am still the teacher and possess certain skills and knowledge which justify my position. Yet, appearances do matter. Perceptions of authority are important.
All of these issues have forced me to be reconsider pedagogy as I struggle to locate my educational space. As a philosopher, I am committed to asking questions of a certain sort. Yet, this is not an easy task for reasons I have already mentioned. What I am certain of is my commitment as an educator, that is, to always be a learner, and it is this commitment which leads the virtual classroom project and informs my vision of philosophy.
The virtual classroom illustrates that structures (whether of gender, bureaucracy, or the particular class being taught) not only limit the possibilities of a course, but they enable one to make decisions at the same time. In other words, my age is both an advantage as well as a disadvantage. It does not allow me to lecture in a certain way. But, it enables me to conduct class in ways unavailable to older faculty members. Likewise, computers limit as well as open up possibilities for education.
Virtual classrooms have potential for changing the nature of the physical classroom or the educational environment itself (BioQUEST is a perfect example of the changing face of the biology lab). How is the classroom defined? Where and when does class take place? What questions are suitable for discussion? The classroom imposes certain constraints on students and instructors by limiting the time and content of exchange and discussion to a particular place at certain hours. Virtual class frees up time by allowing interaction to take place outside normal class hours. Also, by moving interaction and class discussion from the confines of university buildings issues of protocol, proper dress, taking turns, and how to address one another are redefined. More issues can be discussed and conversations initiated when everyone has the ability to respond and be heard (or more accurately, seen).
The issue of empowerment in a classroom is crucial, not only to understanding the dynamics of what takes place in the virtual class, but to the success of the project as a whole. Students will invariably note that something different is going on. Instructors will (or should) be forced to re-evaluate their perceptions of the role of education, as well as their personal stakes in the educational process. The flow shifts. Classroom discussion is no longer a one way street. Dyke (1992) portrays this interaction between student and instructor as a nonlinear tuning process. That is, as the classroom is resituated into the virtual, so are the dynamics of student/student and student/teacher relationships. Formal lectures behind a podium disappear. Students do not raise their hands to speak. The terrain of discourse is levelled, certain issues lose relevancy: the ability to have a voice. Even the shyest student is now heard as their text appears side by side with the instructor's. Yet, not all the old questions disappear.
As one moves to the new virtual terrain, old issues get recast and new questions arise concerning the order of things. When physical presence is irrelevant, what constitutes and justifies the voice of the teacher? The teacher still has a distinct presence. The physical teacher and the physical students may be transformed into text voices, yet some voices carry more force than others. The teacher's email, while identical in appearance to all others, has a history, a weight, that sets it apart from the students' correspondence. A sense of (the old?) order still prevails. What happens to discipline when the instructor's physical presence disappears? Does discipline disappear as well? Even without the physical intimidation of clothing, desks, and elevated podiums, other structures still frame and constrain the discourse. The words, style, arguments, and strategies of the instructor, as well as the force of their voice, enforce boundaries in the virtual classroom. The fact remains that the teacher gives the grades at the end of the term.
Even though textbooks are the predominant artefact for data presentation and storage in the physical classroom, there now exist virtual alternatives. How is the text formed and justified virtually? There are neither esteemed publishers nor expensive glossy covers and cotton rag pages. Virtual texts are assembled, cut, saved, and reassembled countless times. Instead of being purchased, virtual texts are searched for (relying on search engines like AltaVista or Lycos), 'gopher'd,' or 'ftp'd'. Texts located at particular sites, can be downloaded, re-archived, and/or forwarded (uploaded) to other sites and individuals. This fluidity and ease of transfer differentiate the virtual text from the textbook and provides fertile ground for class discussion on individuation, essence, authorship, privacy, geography, etc. Just as nature serves a role in legitimating science, ftp and gopher sites assist in the legitimation of the texts that appear there. Thus, at http://www.eff.org/ (home of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, an Internet watchdog group) one can find alternative and subversive texts. The American Philosophical Association archives texts at their gopher site (gopher://apa.oxy.edu). Finding a particular paper at the APA site presupposes certain relationships, standards, subject matter, and perspective. These criteria set the text apart from similar texts found at the EFF site.
When we hear the preaching of a computer revolution, our hearts become hopeful for a transformed world. Do computers change everything? No, but they can and should serve as another tool in one's educational repertoire. As an educational tool, the computer is important for two reasons. First, as the economic, social, and technological fabric of the world changes, it is important (for us as individuals, educators, philosophers, and biologists) to examine ourselves in light of these changes. Second, in introductory level courses it is imperative that instructors not only teach some fundamentals of the discipline, but also fill the students with enthusiasm for further study in the subject. A virtual classroom setup takes into account both of these factors.
The computer is studied in terms of what we do with it and what it does with/to us. The issues are focused on two levels. The first level focuses on fundamental philosophical problems (e.g. what is reality? What constitutes the body versus the mind? What is identity? What is life?). The first weeks of the course may be structured around framing these issues and then later the issues get applied and tested in the virtual class. Thus, philosophy may be introduced as a theoretical and abstract (e.g. concerned with essences and universals), yet it is never divorced from the students' actual experiences in the virtual classroom. Philosophy is first and foremost presented as relevant and useful for interpreting actual experience. The virtual classroom is the testing ground for in-class discussion. It provides a forum where students can decide issues of relevancy, adequacy, and plausibility. Students are active in determining the appropriate questions to ask. How are classic philosophical questions transformed when the computer becomes the focus of attention, the agent of communication, the companion, the bookkeeper, the foil, and the friend? In other words, does the computer, and our relationship to it, alter the questions or impose new criteria for our answers?
The second level of issues revolves around interplay between technology and humanity and flows from the first level of questions. At some level technology has to be defined, though deep excursions into Heidegger are not necessary or appropriate. Albert Teich's anthology (1993) is an example of how distinctions can be drawn on an introductory level. Another way is through a discussion of history. What was life like in Nineteenth century London, Sixteenth century Florence, or Eleventh century rural France? Discuss what a typical day might be like. Contrast this with the technology of daily life today. Explore the relations between technology and science. This involves tracing the history of their relationship through certain practices and sets of artefacts. By giving students a sense of history, one can discuss the changing ideas of technology (as well as humanity) and how these technological and human changes are interrelated.
Virtual classrooms provide a forum whereby instructors can inject life into introductory level courses by providing new outlets for student/student and student/teacher interaction. Dry issues (like reality and identity) become important when students are the ones who see a dilemma, decide the questions, and attempt to answer them in online conversations. Focusing on online conversation changes the classroom by allowing for more quality interaction, interaction not confined to a physical room or a few people. Multiple conversations are encouraged. Instructors are better able to give each student personal attention since each student has a distinct voice that can be addressed on an individual basis.
C. Dyke (1992). 'Revolution in changing environments: Beyond the balancing
act'. Unpublished manuscript.
A. Teich (ed.) (1993). Technology and the Future. New York: St. Martin's Press.
[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]
Computers & Texts 12 (1996), 4. Not to be republished in any form
without the author's permission.
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Document Created: 22 August 1996
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