In my courses, I take two important pieces of advice from Adrienne Rich’s “Claiming an Education” (1977). First, she urges her students to take responsibility for themselves, which means “refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.” I challenge students not only to grapple with difficult texts, but to take an active role in their intellectual expansion. Second, my responsibility as an educator is both to communicate information and to create environments that value “clear thinking, active discussion, and excellent writing,” which Rich claims—and I agree—are necessary for intellectual freedom. Only when students use the tools of thinking, discussion, and writing to the full extent of their potential can they learn to communicate effectively, search out new ideas, and better serve others.
Universal design for all students: Online design requires even more attention to how materials are organized visually and how students are able to navigate them. In philosophy, this is a unique challenge, since we should not just present walls of text for students to read through. Activities, multi-modal presentations, and constructivist opportunities must be integrated throughout the learning environment. My own presentation of content uses headings, short videos, concept maps, skeleton notes, and diagrams that give students opportunities to take in information with fewer barriers.
Diverse approaches and perspectives: I consider myself a diverse practitioner of philosophy, which for me means plurality of method, scholars, and problems. In a face-to-face classroom a lot of energy towards fostering justice in the classroom is put towards classroom management. In an un-paced online environment, I must be diligent that my materials are free of bias. Further, the content and authors must be pluralized in courses to promote social belonging and success amongst diverse students. Athabasca in particular serves a diverse student population, and to reflect that, we must treat students as individuals first and allow space for their experiences to be reflected in their assignments. For example, I consider myself a first-generation post-secondary graduate, which I share with students regularly. This has been shown to enable struggling students to reach out for support and resources when they need it.
Assignment design for problem solving: Students learning in an online environment must navigate heavy cognitive loads to begin with. When they set out to produce an assessment, they face challenges unique to their individualized learning experience. Students need clear directions to problem solve on their assignments, which include weighted rubrics, embedded resources (writing, citing, and information literacy), samples, and instructor contact during the process. This is also our best line of defense against academic misconduct. Students tend to cheat when they don’t feel resourced to complete an assignment or they don’t see the point of it. If we can scaffold an assignment and provide tailored resources, it goes a long way to promote academic integrity.
Online engagement: In my three years at Athabasca, I have made it a practice to call students that I haven’t heard from a month out from my introductory email. Students consistently thank me for these calls and are much more likely to email me when they are experiencing difficulty in the course down the road. Since implementing “progress-chasing” methods such as this (with rich communication, not simply email nudges) I have noticed it has counteracted some of my students’ isolation, which can be quite an issue in an un-paced course. In a synchronous online course, groupwork, live sessions, and engaging forum questions drive course engagement and encourage students to construct their knowledge and to learn socially. I also design for engagement with new media. Many courses begin with thought questions for students to ponder before they dive into a reading. I think it is more effective to give them a task or investigation to get them thinking, which I then pick up at various times throughout a course. In a current course I am writing, as an introductory activity, students are asked to use the “Whose land?” app or webpage to locate themselves in Indigenous territory (in North America). This is to situate a discussion of how Indigenous dispossession is a precondition of North American culture. This is then circled back to throughout the course study manual.
Video creation: I have created a number of videos for different purposes in my online courses. Each Monday in my paced courses I send out simple screencasts of the course page and the week’s task, reminding students what they need to do and when we will be meeting. I have also created guided reading videos to help students navigate difficult readings. I also create exemplar assessment videos to help students understand how I evaluate work. I have also created individual video feedback on assignments for students. In creating lecture-type content, I stay within ten minutes if it is pure content delivery. I have also created educational podcast-style conversations or “vodcasts” where I engage with the article author or another scholar in the area so that students can see a philosophical discussion on the text being modelled more casually. In addition, “ice breaker” videos can be helpful for students to introduce myself and diminish instructor distance. I have also leveraged existing OER content such as School of life videos or Philosophy Crash Course. All videos are disseminated on a platform with captioning.
Teaching is learning: Student feedback about lectures and exercises has been immensely helpful; where I might believe something to be a success, the students may have found it confusing and vice versa. Regularly checking in with my students provides me with the ability to adapt to and challenge their critical thinking skills. I have incorporated a number of teaching assessment techniques into my synchronous courses such as asking students to produce one sentence summaries at the end of a class, or a two-minute mini-essay so that I can track their comprehension. This is more challenging in an un-paced course. Student surveys and the work they produce can create a clearer picture over time, but instructors must actively check in with students for a fuller picture of their performance. If there are particular assignments that need more supportive instructions, or if students are not completing the course, then teachers need to reevaluate how design is contributing.
Draw from everyday life: In my courses, I locate cultural objects that illuminate and exemplify the work under consideration. I regularly incorporate video clips, blogs, art works, pop culture and historical figures and events to locate the relevance of philosophical thinking in everyday life. While I do so sparingly, I also offer stories of my own experiences of moments of critical thinking to model philosophical self-questioning.