Learning goals

Philosophy is a discipline where learning means, not only mastering a certain subject matter, but also developing the ability to think clearly and reason logically. Traditionally, these skills have been taught by discussion.  One might go further and say that, without practice in discussion, a person probably cannot develop the skills of a philosopher.  In the past, small classes permitted discussion among students under the watchful eye of an instructor or teaching assistant.  However, class sizes in courses below the fourth-year level are now rarely less than 30--too large for a discussion.  It is not usually possible to divide the class up into small groups because of the high cost and low availability of teaching assistants and the lack of suitable classrooms for the discussions. 

To respond to this need, I designed an online course that has at its heart synchronous online discussions with permanent transcripts on topics I set each week.  This is a special hybrid of two discussion technologies that were already in use on the Internet. 

Review of pre-existing technologies

figure A.21.2
Figure 1: Threaded newsgroup postings

In “threaded newsgroups”, comments are placed as bullets under the comments to which they are replies.  Suppose that two comments (#1 and #2) are made in response to an initial comment (#0).  The system will create two “threads”. A reply (#3) to #1 will be attached to the #1 thread by placing a linked title under comment #1.  If a reply (#4) is made to #3, it will be attached to #3's thread in the same way.  If two replies (#5 and #6) are made to #2, their titles will both be placed under the title for #2, splitting that thread into two branches.  Threaded newsgroup postings are usually displayed using linked titles; that is, the text of the comments does not appear on the screen (Figure 1).  Upon entering such a discussion, a new user follows the threads that are of interest and opens only the comments in those threads. 

The second discussion technology is the synchronous chat room in which comments appear with usernames attached, in the order in which the server receives them.  When a user enters the discussion, there is nothing there (i.e. no transcript of the discussion so far).  If others are logged on to the discussion, the new user's “Is anybody here” may elicit a response.  If not, the new user typically goes to another web page or site.  The only comments that appear on the user's screen are those that have been made during that user's online session.

Neither of these online discussion technologies is suitable for providing the type of discussion that philosophy students need.  The first has the serious drawback that users tend to follow only the threads they are interested in, and are not exposed to the ideas expressed in the comments in other threads.  To add a comment it is not necessary to read anything in the other threads.  The second technology has the problem that the discussion disappears when the user logs off, so that each session starts from scratch.  Comments made when the user is not logged on are never seen by the user, and the user can only have a discussion with those who are on line at the same time.  Neither of these techniques can adequately simulate a classroom discussion. 

Course design

Figure A.21.2
Figure 2: Comment numbering in Newsgroups

The discussions in my course design combine the best features of asynchronous, threaded newsgroups and synchronous discussions, with several additional features.[2]  To simulate a classroom discussion, it is necessary to recreate the “feeling” among the students of carrying on a discussion.  On admission to the course, each student chooses a username and is assigned to a weekly discussion group of 40 or fewer students.  The student's username automatically appears at the front of his or her comments, allowing the comments made by one person to be identified with one online persona throughout the term.  Comments appear in the transcript of the discussion forum immediately, in the order in which the server receives them, and they remain there for one week.  Students can read the discussion so far that week and add comments at any time (day or night). To avoid confusion, each comment has a unique number, so that comments can be referred to by username and number (Figure 2).  Students are expected to read all the previous discussion and add one thoughtful comment every week. The instructor and teaching assistants are online with the students three hours per week.  Although students are not required to “attend” during those particular hours, many students enjoy the animated discussions that take place on Thursday and Sunday nights.

Figure A.21.3
Figure 3: Discussion Archives

At the end of the week, the discussion is made available in an archived version for later study (Figure 3), the discussion forum is cleared, and the next week's topic is put up in the forum.

Figure A.21.4
Figure 4: Public welcome page

Figure A.21.5
Figure 5: Private home page

Although discussions are the heart of the course design, there are other noteworthy features.  The course consists of two web sites: a world-readable “Welcome Site” (Figure 4) and an inner “Our Eyes Only” site (Figure 5), which is protected using individual usernames and passwords. The lectures are presented as text on web pages and in PDF format for printing.  Readings are contained in a textbook, a hardcopy “course pack” sold at the university bookstore and a “soft pack” of readings on the Internet.  I create the course pack and soft pack from the best readings available a few months prior to the start of the course.  Students are expected to complete the required readings, study the lecture(s) for the week, and read through the discussion that has already taken place before adding their own comments to the weekly discussion.[3]  The quantity and quality of their participation accounts for 10% of their final grades.  The remaining marked material consists of three short assignments submitted on line, a major project (term paper, web page or web site), a midterm test and a final examination.

Implementation of course design

I have used the design in “Computer Ethics” and “Information Ethics”[4] at Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario.  Computer Ethics is primarily intended for students in technical programs and Information Ethics for arts and social science students.  However, both courses have large contingents of students from Computer Science and Engineering.  Challenges encountered in a classroom version of Computer Ethics to this group fostered my interest in teaching the courses on the web.  The challenges included: students' lack of experience in thinking and arguing about “soft issues” in humanities areas, the clear need for ethics to be taught to these students in a way that would make them sensitive to ethical issues that they are likely to encounter in their work and give them tools and resources to deal with them, the need to make the material accessible to students who often are forced by heavy workloads in their required courses to skip classes in their optional courses, the need to make material accessible to students with poor English language skills and lack of experience writing essays.

The course design addresses the challenges listed above.  Students develop their critical thinking and argument skills in the online discussions and in the first two short assignments.  Not just the readings and lectures, but the discussions in particular sensitize students to ethical issues in the areas on which we focus.  Students are unusually free in expressing their views and accept criticism from others in this forum.  Online courses eliminate the need for classroom attendance: within certain limits imposed on courses by the university, students are able to work at their own pace on the course material.  Moreover, students with poor reading skills have the complete text of the lectures available to them for intensive study.  Those who lack experience in writing are able to practice in the discussions and to receive feedback on the essays that they write in the three short assignments, before proceeding to the major project.  Even then, students can submit their major project as a web page or site, a format that is often more congenial to them than the traditional term paper.

Students benefit in several ways. They have a unique chance to learn from each other in the weekly online discussions.  Students come into the course with a variety of ethical assumptions.  In the discussions, they can focus on the differences and similarities of these assumptions in an accepting, non-threatening environment.  In addition, they are able to examine and speculate about the outcomes of different ethical assumptions when applied to subject matter of common interest to them.  This results in a superior learning experience for students.  The course materials are all made available online, allowing students to have correct versions of the lectures and assignments always available.  Students can work at their own pace, within certain limits imposed by the grading process. 

Evaluation of course design

Student outcomes in the online versions of Computer Ethics (Fall 2000, with 42 students completing the course) and Information Ethics (Fall 2001, with 47 students completing the course) can be compared to the outcomes in two classroom offerings of Computer Ethics (in Winter 1999, with 38 students, and Fall 1999, with 33 students). Students did approximately 10% better in the online courses than in the classroom versions, the percentage of students who completed the course with a final grade of C or better being 78%, 75%, 89%, 86%, in Winter 1999, Fall 1999, Fall 2000, and Fall 2001, respectively. 

From my point of view, the students' participation in discussions was the single most valuable aspect of the course. The 49 students in Information Ethics produced a phenomenal 475 printed pages of discussion in Fall 2001--far more discussion than could be achieved in any 12-week classroom course.  The transcripts show that they improved in their abilities to focus on a question and to produce thoughtful, clear answers to it.[5]  Their argument skills also developed over the course.  And they also learned from each other, accepting input from minority groups, and increasing their sensitivity to other points of view.[6]  In other respects students did as well or better than students in the classrooms versions of Computer Ethics.

Students also rate the discussions highly.  Half of the online students submitted answers to an online questionnaire I designed for the courses.  In Fall 2000 and Fall 2001, 58% and 61% thought that the discussions helped them understand the course material, 71% and 75% found them enjoyable, 83% and 61% thought that the course was better as an online course, 67% and 78% would recommend the course to a friend (as compared to 25% and 39% who would recommend a classroom version of the course to a friend).  In Fall 2000, 46% said they would prefer a threaded discussion, whereas in Fall 2001 only 13% thought that a threaded version would be better.  Most sensitive was the question whether students felt lost and out of touch in the course.  In Fall 2000, 25% agreed that they did, as against 39% in Fall 2001.  The difference here may reflect the slightly higher number of students from non-technical programs taking Information Ethics in Fall 2001.

Extending the model

About 50 students have enrolled in each offering of the courses thus far, but the design is such that it can handle up to 1000 students in each course.  The basic model is also readily transportable to other fields of study where learning requires discussion.

It is also transportable to other geographic areas, such as emerging nations.  Students would need to come into the course with the ability to read and write the language used in the course.  An outreach program could be designed to provide basic computer and Internet skills.  In an area without reliable electricity and telephone service, a practical system would use wireless connection to the Internet.  Hardware requirements could be met by providing laptops (with cases specially designed to protect them from adverse environmental conditions, if necessary) supported by service and battery exchange/recharging centres. 

Courses using the design described would bring all of the same benefits to students in emerging nations as they bring to Canadian students.


[1]CIDA Collaboration Program with COCH-COSH, Panel Discussion. Session 6. Focus: Lifelong Learning.  May 27, 2002, 13:45 - 14:45, 2135 Sydney Smith Hall, University of Toronto.

[2]The entire course is hosted on a single machine running Linux. The discussions run on a LambdaMOO server, written by Pavel Curtis, using web-chat software written by Neil Fraser, and a web server written by Jefferson Dubrule, who also set up the username and password systems that admit students into the inner (“Our Eyes Only”) part of  the course and the discussion forums.  He continues to act as technical assistant when the courses are offered.

[3] For example, the Week 5 topic for Information Ethics last Fall was “Is it ever right to make an unauthorized copy of a computer program? If yes, how is this justified? If no, how do we handle the arguments given by Nissenbaum and Stallman?” required students to have read the paper by Nissenbaum (in the course pack) and the paper by Stallman (in the soft pack).

[4] These courses are at two addressesurl; url.  A third course, “Introductory Philosophy: Fields, Figures and Problems” is under development.

[5] Memorable comments from the questionnaires submitted in Computer Ethics focus on the benefits students find in the discussions:

I find that I am an extrovert when I am behind a keyboard and an introvert when I am in a crowd. If this course was offered as a lecture/group discussion, I would generally just sit and listen, learn from everybody else's discussion. Once in front of a computer, in a discussion forum such as this, I find that I participate much more.

We say things we think appropriate although sometimes we ramble and fail to make our point--at least I do. On the net I am much better at expressing myself. As Godwin says [a reference to one of the readings], it has forced me to learn to write.

[6] For example, a Mexican exchange student in Fall 2000 was able dispel other students' misconception  that computers would be available to ordinary Latin Americans.