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Virtual Philosophy

May 17, 2012

Some assume that online education is not a suitable medium for courses that rely on the Socratic Method. But the philosophy professors at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro are skeptical.

The Greensboro philosophy department, which already offers online versions of eight of its courses, has adapted two additional ones, including a “capstone” seminar, for the Web. Pending the approval of the university system’s general administration, the new courses would make it possible to earn an undergraduate philosophy degree from Greensboro without setting foot on its campus.

That would make philosophy the first department at Greensboro’s undergraduate college to offer a fully online degree.

That might strike some observers as odd, given philosophy’s reputation as a discipline that relies on classroom exchanges and whose pedagogical model has hardly changed since ancient Greece. But philosophy and technology are more closely linked than some might assume, says Gary Rosenkrantz, the chair of the department.

“It’s not as ironic as it seems if you reflect on the fact that computers -- both hardware and software -- derive from logicians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” says Rosenkrantz. Threads of inquiry that use the “if-then” protocol of formal logic are the “foundation of both the computer chip and basic computer software functions,” he says.

In fact, the structured reasoning of philosophy makes it perhaps more amenable to adaptation than some other humanities disciplines. To help teach the online versions, Wade Maki, a lecturer at Greensboro, developed a computer program based on the choose-your-own-adventure books of his youth. Called “Virtual Philosopher,” the program poses ethical dilemmas and presents multiple-choice questions. Once a student answers, the program -- which features text as well as video of Maki -- interrogates her answer before offering her the opportunity to either change or reaffirm it.

By asking leading questions and restricting student answers, Virtual Philosopher seeks to give students some autonomy without letting them wander off-topic, says Maki. For a preformatted program, the similarity to a typical classroom exchange is remarkable, he says.

“It’s this classic tennis back and forth, intellectually,” says Maki, who has co-authored a paper on using Virtual Philosopher to replicate the Socratic Method online. “And if you’ve been teaching for a while … it becomes quite natural to find that they can be easily structured to give a student a good replica of what happens in the classroom.”

The online philosophy courses at Greensboro do not rely entirely on Maki’s Virtual Philosopher. The instructors also hold live video chats via Blackboard, where students can inquire about various ideas without having to color inside the lines, says Rosenkrantz.

But with the proposed fully online philosophy track comes a new challenge: holding an upper-level seminar online. Whereas the lower- and mid-level courses had only to match the level of interaction that students could reasonably expect from a traditional class of 40 or 50 students, Rosenkrantz will now have to try to replicate a much smaller, discussion-intensive course when it puts one of the department’s capstone courses, “Philosophy 494: Substance and Attribute,” on to the Web. “That needs to have a significant element of synchronous interaction between a professor and students,” he says.

Rosenkrantz, who is slated to teach the course if the online major gets approved, says he is planning to use Google+ Hangouts to hold live discussions. Instructors have for years resisted holding seminar discussions online because multiperson video chat platforms were viewed as unreliable. But, like some other institutions that are moving discussion-intensive pieces of their curriculums to the Web, the Greensboro oracles are seeing technological capabilities gaining on ambition in online education. “Certainly the technology is there to attempt it now,” says Rosenkrantz.

At a time when many publicly funded colleges are taking a hard look at which programs they cannot afford to keep afloat, a common incentive for a department to take its offerings online is to boost enrollments. The Greensboro philosophy department recently withstood a university-wide program review and is in no existential danger, according to Rosenkrantz.

Over all, its courses produce a lot of credit hours. But “in terms of majors, the numbers could be much stronger,” he says.  

In order to expand beyond the campus walls, Greensboro's online philosophy major needs to be approved by the University of North Carolina's general administration. “We’ve not received word yet, although we’re hopeful," says Kelly A. Rowett-James, the registrar.

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