Planning and Defining Learning Objectives

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As an educator, I have identified the need for a high quality e-learning course in introductory philosophy for all undergraduates pursuing any degree in any major.  Online introductory philosophy courses already exist at both of the community colleges where I work, so there would be no need to get approval from the curriculum committee to teach them.  Both Lone Star College and Houston Community College allow faculty members a great deal of freedom in how they teach the subjects they have been hired to teach.  Houston Community College’s philosophy department allows faculty members—even adjuncts—to choose their course textbooks (with the stipulation that they must be original texts by philosophers) while Lone Star College, though policies might differ from campus to campus, generally pre-selects a textbook (usually an anthology of philosophers or compilation of philosophical writings) for the introductory course in consultation with full-time faculty members.  The following course has been designed with these limitations in mind.

First, I will outline the structure of the course as a six-part sequence of lessons and activities.  Second, I will discuss the rationale for creating a high quality introductory philosophy course.  Third, I will describe the learners that will benefit from the course.  Fourth, I will describe the content of the course.  Fifth, I will examine some learning outcomes for the course.  Sixth, I will assess the appropriateness of teaching introductory philosophy courses online.  Finally, I will determine the most appropriate learning management system to use for the task of learning philosophy online.

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The course is divided into six parts, or units of lessons and activities, that each cover (at least) one major philosopher’s writings and historical context.  Half of the units feature more than one major philosopher, although the reading assignments for each unit are generally drawn from only one of the major philosophers being studied.

The first unit features Socrates, a philosopher who left no writings of his own, and Plato, one of Socrates’ most famous students, who wrote dialogues to illustrate philosophical ideas and arguments and founded an ancient school known as The Academy.  Students could study Socrates and Plato separately, but they would be missing the bigger picture.

The second unit features Rene Descartes, the first modern philosopher, who began a long tradition in western philosophy of cultivating doubt concerning human knowledge as a means to discovering its justification.  He did so by introducing skeptical arguments to his readers that seemed to eliminate the possibility of knowing anything with certainty.  His answers to these arguments make up the bulk of his writings in philosophy.

The third unit features David Hume, a philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment and, by all accounts, a very good person with which to have a conversation.  Though kind and hospitable in character, Hume was determined to show that the philosophical ideas of his time were not much more than meaningless terms with no basis in sense experience.  As an empiricist and a keen observer of his own thought, Hume claimed that the only ideas that have meaning for us are ones with some connection to the sense impressions that make up our experience.

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The fourth unit features Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel as representatives of German idealism.  Hegel is difficult to explain in brief, but even more so if it is understood that familiarity with Kant and his reaction to Hume’s philosophy are essential to grasping what Hegel is attempting to do with his philosophy.  Suffice it to say that Hegel built a grand philosophical system that was meant to be the culmination of all philosophical thought and the end of change in the history of philosophy.

The fifth unit features Karl Marx, who was a devoted reader and interpreter or Hegel’s philosophical works.  Hegel and Marx have very different writing styles, which can obscure the sheer influence that Hegel had on Marx’s view of the world.  Where Hegel created a grand philosophical system in which nations were the pawns of Reason and the Absolute Idea, Marx created an intricate economic description of the world in which technological development under capitalism was both the engine of capitalism’s expansion and success as well as the harbinger of capitalism’s ultimate demise.

The sixth unit features Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, respectively the existentialist philosopher and the feminist philosopher par excellence.  Existentialism, as explained by Sartre, is a philosophy that insists upon the freedom of the individual consciousness to attend to the world without limitations.  We are condemned to be free, as Sartre says, because there is no authority that can tell us how to live, whose knowledge is infallible.

By studying these philosophers, students will have a firm grasp of the history of western philosophical thought from its inception to the late modern period.

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My rationale for exposing undergraduate students to philosophy is threefold.  First, undergraduate students taking an introductory philosophy course are, more often than not, going to be exposed to ideas and arguments that they have never encountered before.  In order to grasp the concepts being taught in each unit of the course, students must practice thinking critically.  They will have to pay attention to the words being used and ask themselves tough questions about how to read almost every line in the text.

Thinking critically is a prerequisite for the second part of my rationale: analysis of arguments.  Learning how to analyze an argument for logical form and fallacious reasoning encourages students to become more critical consumers of arguments, skeptical of appeals based on emotion rather than reason.

The third and final part of my rationale for creating this introductory philosophy course for undergraduates is that philosophy is unlike any other subject that students will ever learn about and it complements any subject by asking fundamental and not-always-obvious questions about the first principles of a discipline.  Students need challenging experiences and access to different views of the world, and philosophy can provide both of these if students are able to suspend judgment and take some time to live with new ideas and unfamiliar viewpoints.

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The learners that will most benefit from this introductory course in philosophy are those who are curious about philosophy but don’t necessarily want to study it for years like I did.  I assume that most of my students will not go on to major in philosophy, so I try to include as much variety and depth as possible in a single semester so that their experience with philosophy isn’t limited to one or two schools of thought.  I also provide multiple opportunities for students to practice writing about philosophy or philosophical issues.  No matter what students end up studying for their degrees, philosophy adds value to a program of study because it teaches transferrable skills in the form of critical thinking and analysis of ideas and arguments.

My introductory philosophy course is going to be delivered completely online and some students will be better prepared for the requirements of the online course than others.  The reasons are not entirely clear, but there is a performance gap for students who take online courses for credit equivalent to the credit received for a traditional class.  This performance gap is especially pronounced for black students, younger students, male students, and students with low GPAs (Xu & Jaggars, 2011).

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My introductory philosophy course design includes a number of assignments that require students to use technology to interact with Web 2.0 tools and each other.  Not only does interactive technology have the potential to make online courses more engaging for students, it also produces more thoughtful as well as more adventurous written work (Schroeder, 2009).  The four major activities I have planned for the online course are: (a) creating a philosophy wiki, (b) using an online discussion forum to discuss philosophical issues, (c) videoconferencing and group collaboration on a philosophical project, and (d) blogging about philosophy.

Creating a philosophy wiki will direct students to organize their learning into a form that they can communicate to others.  This activity will prepare them for the final exam not only because the wiki will be made available to them during the final exam, but also because what they have learned has been integrated with the students’ prior knowledge.

Discussing philosophical issues on an online discussion forum is a simple way to make students take some time to think about what they wish to say about a philosophical topic or question.  Better and more surprising responses to question prompts are the usual result.  There are some potential problems with discussion, such as students not responding to other students in a timely fashion (Omar, 2011), but these problems can be mitigated by the active and engaged instructor who gently reminds students to contribute to the activity.

Videoconferencing and small group collaboration can be accomplished by using a commercial package for which you own the license or using the videoconferencing and collaboration features of the learning management system used by your college or university.  Collaboration can be difficult to achieve in practice, but the technology is not the reason why.  The Conferences and Collaboration tools in Canvas, for instance, provide students with easy access to synchronous face-to-face communication.  For best results, it may be necessary to teach students how to organize a group, distribute tasks to group members, and get the group to work together.

Blogging about philosophy is probably the simplest activity on the list, but it is the key to building confidence in one’s writing skills.  Writing more will help students consolidate their knowledge and make clearer connections to prior knowledge.

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The literature on instructional design has shown that, in the food science and technology department (of one school at least), that the tests and assessments used by faculty members were not aligned the stated course learning objectives or course learning outcomes (Jideani & Jideani, 2012).  In order to prevent a situation in which a course’s assessments are not aligned with the stated learning objectives or learning outcomes, one must first determine the learning outcomes students should achieve by the end of the lesson and then design and construct activities that allow students to practice the skills they will need when the time comes to take the final exam (Callens, 2014).

The final exam I have planned for the introductory philosophy course requires students to choose between two questions for each major philosopher we have studied during the semester and thoughtfully respond to the question using the knowledge of the topic that he or she has acquired over the course of the semester.  The questions are deliberately open-ended and encourage students to be creative with their responses.  Factual information must be included for points to be awarded, but there are other considerations such as style, argument, and mechanics that can make a difference during grading.

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Fortunately, Houston Community College has devised a succinct set of learning outcomes for Introduction to Philosophy that I have reproduced on this slide.

The first learning outcome is that students will have read, analyzed, and critiqued philosophical texts by the end of the course.  If the student is fulfilling his or her homework duties, then this outcome is well on its way to becoming accomplished.  The student must analyze the text in order to understand its content and a critique of the arguments presented in the works read is nearly inevitable because students are inclined to challenge the ideas that don’t fit with their worldviews.  The task of the professor is to harness this implicit critique of philosophical discourse and turn it into a conversation about ideas and how they work rather than how they are right or wrong.  This learning outcome could be assessed in a number of ways: multiple choice test, term paper, essay test, or oral exam to name a few.  The most appropriate choice will be determined by the balance of other assessments already placed within the course.

The second learning outcome is that students will demonstrate knowledge of key concepts, major arguments, problems, and terminology in philosophy.  This learning outcome will most likely be in evidence using the same types of assessments employed in evaluating the first learning outcome.  A term paper might be the easiest way for students to achieve this learning outcome because it allows students to display the knowledge they have acquired throughout the semester in a creative and open-ended way.

The third learning outcome is that students will present logically persuasive arguments both orally and in writing.  Because this is an online course, the requirement to “orally” present might be replaced by posts made on a discussion forum in response to a public topic.  A tern paper is the obvious place to present logically persuasive arguments in writing, but that outcome could also be accomplished on the final exam if it asked students to respond to broad questions with essays covering a particular philosopher or philosophical idea.

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The fourth learning outcome is that students will demonstrate critical thinking skills in evaluation and application of philosophical concepts to various aspects of life.  I will assess this outcome by asking students to write reflective essays on how philosophy has made them reconsider some aspect of their knowledge or life and how this made them feel.  This sort of essay is useful for getting students to make connections between the subject matter of philosophy and their everyday lives.

The fifth learning outcome is that students will evaluate the personal and social responsibilities of living in a diverse world.  This learning outcome is the hardest to assess because it does not easily lend itself to traditional forms of assessment.  One alternative for evaluating this sort of learning outcome is requiring students to keep an e-portfolio to track the development of their learning about personal and social responsibilities and to demonstrate the relation of these responsibilities to philosophy and its traditional concerns.  I have not implemented an e-portfolio for my introductory philosophy course primarily because I am uncertain how an e-portfolio should be constructed.  I am also confident that the four major activities, the term paper, and the final exam for the course are a sufficient assessment of all five learning outcomes.

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So why should introductory philosophy courses be taught online?

To begin, successful performance in philosophy depends on reading and re-reading texts, interpreting the ideas and arguments you find in your readings, and a general interest in the possibility of discovering truth by investigating the way we use words to describe the world.  Online courses are very good at delivering textual content.  So much so that online courses have often been criticized for being too reliant on the written word in conveying the course material to students

Next, thoughtful responses to an instructor post in the philosophy discussion forum are a common occurrence because students have as much time as they need to compose a considered and well-organized response to the philosophical problem or argument posed.

Next, video and audio resources for instructors are abundant and are ready to be embedded in your course with just a few clicks and a visit to YouTube.  Lone Star College subscribes to the service Films on Demand, which provides educators with access to thousands of educational titles that can be embedded on any web page and would introduce some variety in the course materials.

Next, online courses allow students to work at their own pace on course activities, even if there are due dates every week!

Finally, students can ask questions  of you, the instructor, from the privacy of their own e-mail account. Be polite!

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According to Yildirim (2014), there is no perfect learning management system (LMS) for educators to adopt even in a field crowded with competitors.  None of the researched LMS alternatives provided access to the full complement of functions needed by students and instructors for the information-age paradigm of education to be fulfilled.  I am not in a position to choose the LMS that I will use to teach my introductory philosophy course.  However, I will consider two LMS alternatives that I am familiar with because my employers have each adopted a particular piece of software for institution-wide use.  The third alternative is not a live option for me, but I will briefly discuss Google Classroom as a potential LMS and its appropriateness for the design of my course.

Google Classroom is a simple student data management application that integrates seamlessly with Google Apps for Education.  I love the aesthetic that Google has developed for its suite of web apps and I think that Google Classroom displays the same lovely minimalist look and feel that makes the other Google apps so visually appealing.  Beyond this aesthetic brilliance, Google Classroom does not provide much in the way of features for instructors or students to take advantage of.  There is a classroom page that features a feed with all of your recent news items, announcements, assignments, and updates for the course.  Instructors and students can embed media in their posts quickly and easily.  Perhaps those are all the features that are needed for Google Classroom to be a success, but I suspect that most users will want more.

Desire2Learn / Brightspace is the LMS that Lone Star College has adopted for system-wide use.  Instructors must provide their online courses through the system’s chosen LMS and not a third-party app.  I believe Desire2Learn / Brightspace to be unintuitive, ugly, unworkable, and generally unpleasant to use.  I have been told that the students at Lone Star College love the LMS because it is easy to use.  From the student perspective, this is probably true.  Desire2Learn / Brightspace attempts to reduce the task of creating a course to an instructional design wizard and it fails to be helpful in any way.  Even though I would love to abandon this LMS sooner rather than later, I must admit that it does have quite a few features that are desirable in an up-to-date LMS, such as video and audio commenting on posts, student submissions, and announcements.

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Canvas is the LMS that was adopted by Houston Community College in 2016 to replace their version of Moodle as the official LMS of the college.  While it is not as aesthetically appealing as Google Classroom, Canvas has an appealingly clean-looking layout and design and has a highly customizable interface for subscribing institutions.  Fortunately, Canvas possesses all of the most interesting new LMS features that Desire2Learn / Brightspace possesses, but with a key difference: Canvas has implemented these features, such as leaving audio and video comments on discussion posts and student submissions, consistently throughout their user interface and makes it look decent at the same time.

I teach an introductory philosophy course for both Lone Star College and Houston Community College and my choice of LMS is constrained by the policies of both institutions.  I am fortunate to have Canvas for use at Houston Community College because it is a fairly simple to learn piece of software that makes online educational interactions easy to manage.  My only complaints are that there is no way to perform bulk editing operations in Canvas, which is a lack of many LMS alternatives and not Canvas specifically, and that there is no way to delete a student’s submission for an assignment, which can cause problems when a student submits a group assignment on behalf of the entire group but only includes her part of the assignment.  I have some confidence that these issues will  be resolved in future iterations of the software because Canvas is still in active development on the basis of community feedback and interaction.  Canvas has a great deal of potential, but it remains to be seen whether or not it will continue to improve.

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References

Callens, M. V. (2014). Using Bloom’s taxonomy to teach course content and improve social media literacy. Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Education, 3(1), 17-25.  Retrieved from http://isejournal.org

Jideani, V. A., & Jideani, I. A. (2012). Alignment of assessment objectives with instructional objectives using revised Bloom’s taxonomy-The case for food science and technology education. Journal of Food Science Education, 11(3), 34-42. doi: 10.1111/j.1541-4329.2012.00141.x

Omar, A., Kalulu, D., & Alijani, G. S. (2011). Management of innovative e-learning environments. Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, 15(3), 37-64.  Retrieved from http://www.alliedacademies.org/academy-of-educational-leadership-journal/

Schroeder, B. (2009). Within the wiki: Best practices for educators. AACE Journal, 17(3), 181-197.  Retrieved from https://www.learntechlib.org/p/28183

Xu, D., & Jaggars, S. S. (2011). The effectiveness of distance education across Virginia’s community colleges: Evidence from introductory college-level math and English courses. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 33(3), 360-377.  Retrieved from http://epa.sagepub.com

Yildirim, Z., Reigeluth, C. M., Kwon, S., Kageto, Y., & Shao, Z. (2014). A comparison of learning management systems in a school district: Searching for the ideal personalized integrated educational system (PIES). Interactive Learning Environments, 22(6), 721-736. doi: 10.1080/10494820.2012.745423

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