Online Philosophy Videos


I am currently enrolled in the Online Teacher Training Course in Canvas (OTTCC) through Ventura Community College, a local school where I (irregularly) teach. This course is designed to train teachers in the online MOOC platform Canvas which was recently adopted by the California Community Colleges as their course management system. Planning an online course is significantly different than a traditional course, and this training is meant to provide a best practices approach so as to facilitate more teachers effectively using the platform. As I go through the training I’ll post here a few observations relevant to the training.

One of the more noticeable differences in designing courses for online platforms is the “chuncking” of material, online educations speaks of “modules” quite frequently, of which several could be taught in an entire week or over the course of several weeks. Most frequently, however, these modules are smaller in scope and could be envisioned as elements one would have in a single lecture class.

The Online Education Initiative rubric, which was developed by the California Community Colleges, assesses “content presentation” along a list of thirteen criteria. One of those criteria is “student centered teaching” of which “alignment” is gained through the use of a variety of modalities such as text, audio, video, and imagery.

Since one of the courses I am planing is in philosophy I thought compliance with this criterion would be a good opportunity to gauge what types of online video content could be used in various modules of my course. My criteria for selection were quite simple: 1) the video had to focus on a narrow philosophical topic, 2) it had to be less than 10 minutes short, ideally 6(ish) minutes, 3) include more than just a talking head (thus some type of animation, imagery, or at least a very lively and compelling speaker.

I was surprised by the amount of quality videos that were published on YouTube. Some of the channels I found useful include: TedEd, BBC Radio 4, Wireless Philosophy, CrashCourse, Wisecrack, PBS Idea Channel, and Philosophy Tube.

Of these, TedEd is my favorite. The topic is focused, it does no often go longer than 5-6 minutes, and the production value is outstanding. The PBS Idea Channel (unfortunately no longer uploading new videos as of summer 2017) takes a different approach by looking at philosophical arguments and applying them to pop culture, for example would Kant consider a meme art? Overall, there is a wide range of purposes and intended audiences in the above list of videos.

I also hope to supplement these video with my own. I plan to use screen cast software to record my computer screen to walk through some portions of the modules. Of course, learning is a social act, thus the ability to build interest and community is one of the challenges faced by online education. Using these videos as tools in an educational setting – not replacing the educational setting – I think will be central for my course development.


Online Quizzes: Recap

I want to quickly review my use of online quizzes this summer, returning to a post I started here. As I noted, I use “low-stakes retrieval practices,” i.e. quizzes, regularly in my courses so students can assess their efforts and make any micro-adjustments to their study habits they deem necessary. Instead of diverting time in class to taking quizzes I decided to have students take quizzes at home online as part of their homework. Here are some quick thoughts.

  1. Practice Syllabus Quiz: Not too many students are familiar with taking quizzes at home, nor was I familiar with the mechanics of making them. I decided to give my students a syllabus quiz after the first day of class, making sure they understood the requirements of the course as well as trying to troubleshoot any issues that may arise when the real quizzes start. As enticement, I offered minimal extra credit for completing the quiz with 100%.
  2. Multiple Choice (MC) Only: Clearly, this will depend on an individual instructor’s educational goals, but I shifted from the norms of my paper quizzes. I would often add a few short answer questions to the end of in-class quizzes, but found that grading these online took a bit too much time. Clicking, loading, scrolling, typing, and saving took far longer than flipping a page. After including short answer questions to my first online quiz I decided to make all subsequent online quizzes just multiple choice so everything could be graded automatically. If this was not a time-condensed summer class I may have kept the short answers, but I looking to save some time overall with online quizzes.
  3. Open-Book/Timed: Honestly, I just don’t trust anyone to not use their notes or book when taking a quiz at home, so I just decided to make them open-book. To offset this a little, I made all the quizzes timed meaning that students would not be able to casually get 100% on every test just by flipping through their notes or my slides. I told them they need to study before starting the quiz. I gave them just over 1 minute per multiple choice question.
  4. MC Strategy I: Crafting good multiple choice questions can be a skill in itself, especially ones that test higher-level thinking (application, analysis, evaluation) as opposed just memory (recognition and recall).  The first question below is an example of simple recognition and the correct response (“B”) would (or should) be found word-for-word in students’ notes.Screen Shot 2017-09-16 at 11.57.40.pngThe second question combines recognition with application, asking the students to apply their knowledge (in this case, to real world examples). In addition to testing higher-level thinking, the correct answer could not be found word-for-word in students’ notes.Screen Shot 2017-09-16 at 11.57.48.png Because the main focus of my quizzes is to test simple recognition and recall (midterms and finals are different), I mix in only a handful of MC questions to test higher-level thinking. Yet, it is possible in some cases to transform lower-level cognitive MC questions into higher-level ones.
  5. MC Strategy II: While generally not regarded as a good strategy for crafting MC questions, I’ve found that using some “exception” questions also requires to students to know (recognize) more about a concept. Screen Shot 2017-09-16 at 13.00.18.png
  6. Testing Recall: Another method I did not employ this summer is to use “fill in the blank” questions that are automatically graded.

Overall, I will continue to develop my use of online quizzes. For me, the benefits of saving valuable class time and automatic grading offset the issues of limiting (or avoiding) short answer questions. 

“Educational Podcasts” for Class

As I wrote about previously, this summer I realized I wanted to use a set of “threshold concepts” as tools to allow my students to compare religious traditions. This posed a specific problem. I needed to inform my students about these concepts in an effective and condensed fashion which still hit upon several important aspects. After eliminating encyclopedia entries and Wikipedia entries, I decided I would write short introductions – I called them “briefs” – to each of the concepts and then audio record them. Funny enough, it was only in conversation with my students that I realized they referred to the briefs as “podcasts.” Ha! (After reading some on the subject, scholarly literature tends to refer to projects like these as “complementary podcasts.”)

Originally, my idea was much grander. I wanted to make short videos for each concept. As is customary, I was spending the summer teaching for the Woodenfish program and I wanted to use the backdrop of the Buddhist monastery for my recorded conversations. This quickly was abandoned when teaching duties piled on and I was simply too exhausted to scout filming locations, write scripts, and film the twenty briefings I wanted to cover.

When I returned home and began preparing for my class in earnest I decided to simply do audio recordings and I think this worked out for the best. I certainly fumbled through the first through scripts. I was unsure of the conventions for the genre. I was lucky enough to naturally stumble upon a few guidelines that are recommended for doing education podcasts.

Time Length: This is perhaps the most crucial aspect. I did not want to impose too much information on my students, I wanted to give them just enough basic facts that they could immediately begin applying the concept to the readings and then develop a better understanding of it through their own investigation. The first threshold concept I scripted and recorded was “material culture,” and it ended up being four minutes and twenty seconds long. I had not set a time limit, this was just naturally how long it took me to write and then say the things I though needed to be introduced. Overall, my shortest podcast was just less than 3 minutes and my longest was just over 5 minutes. One study (by Cheung On Tam) tabulated this chart for student preferred podcast lengths:

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 12.35.43.png

Clearly, going over the 5 minute mark was not problematic, though much of what I’ve read suggests keeping the length to about 10 minutes, if not even shorter at 6-8 minutes. Clearly, script writing ability will determine if listeners pay attention for longer.

Tone: I knew immediately from my extensive use of audio commentary on papers that I wanted the tone to be informal, but still driven by information. In the first few recordings I captured many of my “verbal ticks” (“so now…,” “right”), and even though these were weeded out in later recordings as I became comfortable with the format, I never just plainly read my script. I wanted those verbal cues which suggest conversation.

Conventions: The conventions for my podcast briefs took me a while to figure out, and they are still in flux. Ideally, I like to start off with a leading question, historical anecdote, or even a joke (well, only once – I started my brief on “humor” with a joke). When I’m less inspired, I’ll start off with a definition, especially for terms with clear Greek roots (soteriology, ontology, epistemology). For the basic content I would always try to segment the concept in some fashion, providing “different looks” so students could more effectively see the concept in culturally diverse religions. For example, I described bloodless and blood sacrifices for the concept of sacrifice, and elaborated on the here/now, here/then, there/now, and there/then models of utopia. Sometimes I would just give several broad examples. I would also try to end the podcast with some verbal clue (“in closing,” “I leave on this,” etc.) and restate the most important points or types of questions I would want the students to ask of the readings with the threshold concept in mind.

Transcriptions: Originally I just posted the audio recording to our course website, but then later started posting my script as well. I had already done the work, so there was no additional work.

Technology: I recorded everything on my iPhone, no special equipment. I was honestly surprised how crisp the recordings turned out (no hissing, background noise).

Outcome: After soliciting feedback from my students several said they enjoyed the podcasts. About halfway through the term I switched to uploading just my scripts because a non-native speaker in my class complained about needing to re-listen several times to the recordings. (I would quiz students on the content of the podcast, so note taking was necessary.) I was unsure if this was a widespread problem and students were simply afraid to notify me. After asking about this switch, however, a handful of students noted they would prefer to go back to the audio recordings, which was a peasant surprise. From that point onward I tried to provide both the audio and script.

It was only afterwards that I realized the trove of literature on the effectiveness of podcasts. I am already thinking about ways to incorporate podcasts into my writing course this fall term.

N-O-O Daily Reading Responses

This seems kind of odd to admit, but I run a “coercive classroom.” And there is nothing more coercive in my mind than having my students write daily reflections on assigned readings. I have little reason to think they (or anyone, really) would keep up with the readings without a regular assessment of some sort. Of course, open class discussion on the day’s readings can “peer pressure” some into regular reading habits. I’ve found, however, only a select few are consistently willing to offers their insights, while others are more content to simply listen. (Cold-calling students is a craft I have not yet mastered, but will be attempting next semester. I plan to write about it here for another post.)

There are several ways to gauge if a student has read, but many require a lot of additional effort of the instructor. One may prepare a series of comprehension questions that are handed out just previous to the assignment. These have the benefit of focusing the student’s attention, but I would argue also have the same drawback (to tell the student what they should find interesting or important). It also takes time to craft thoughtful questions that genuinely move beyond basic fact-finding. I personally tend to save good questions like this for class discussion.

Daily (or surprise) reading quizzes are another means of coercion. I’m not convinced of the value of these either, mainly because the questions have to be “easy,” allowing for the student to signal to the instructor that the reading was done even though it may not have been fully comprehended. And grading these can be surprisingly difficult, especially if the question is too easy.

So I’ve veered in another direction, pulling an idea from my time in the Writing Program. I ask my students to respond to every reading by asking the three same questions.

What is New? What is old? What is odd?

New, Old, Odd, that’s it. I sometimes joking call this my N-O-O assignment. The first covers an idea they find interesting. Something they can be motivated to explore in more depth if need be. The second idea covers finding a topic they’ve seen elsewhere, or at least can create a parallel for. This allow students to build on top of old knowledge. The last concept requires them to critique an author’s point or to ask an clarifying question about a topic.

Currently I have my students post these responses on a Forum in GauchoSpace. After posting they can read other student’s posts, though I have not required them to post comments this time. My practice is to go through them shortly before class, and when I have time, to post a brief comment. Typically I will respond to their questions, but will also encourage their curiosities. Even if I do not have time to write responses, just browsing the posts will give me ample ideas of where to take my lecture and what to go over in more detail. I have hesitated to call out students by name about their (insightful) comments, but hope to make this a more common part of my practice.

I grade the reflections based on a simple “did it” or “didn’t do it” scale, though I’ve contemplated a three point scale of “outstanding,” satisfactory,” and “unsatisfactory” (plus “did’t do it”). I typically give my students a few “days off” as well.

Below are the directions I’ve used this summer (I tweak them for each class I teach).

When approaching the reading assignments for this course, I want you to pay attention to three critical aspects: what is New to you, what is Old to you, and what is Odd to you. Your written reflection for each one of these critical aspects should be at least a few sentences in length. Provide page numbers from the readings as necessary.

Below are some of the types of questions you can ask yourself for each aspect.

1. New – What was something new and interesting? What was particularly useful or insightful? What quote or passage was able to reveal something interesting and/or helpful for you? Why was it so? If anything, clearly locating these sections will make the time you spent reading seem worthwhile.

2. Old – What was familiar? What quote or passage claimed something that you already knew? Was there something that seemed familiar or had a potential parallel to another religious tradition you know? Locating these sections will give you a clear foundation should you encounter other sections that are not as clear to you.

3. Odd – What was confusing or unexpected? What quote or passage did not make sense or were you critical of? What problem did you have with it? Locating these sections will help you keep a healthy and critical attitude towards the readings and suggest areas that require further exploration.

Your response will have to be posted before class for you to receive credit.

A Question of Quizzes

Tayuan Temple Chanting.jpg

Buddhist monks chanting at Tayuan Temple 塔院寺, Mt. Wutai, China, summer 2016. Photograph Peter Romaskiewicz.

Grading is one of the toughest parts of teaching. It also gives you immediate feedback on how well students are grasping the materials. Thus I’ve come to find that frequent, low stakes assessment is helpful in preparing students for larger and more complicated tasks.

In my summer course I’m having quizzes each week which review the material from the previous week. I’ve decided that quizzes will mostly be multiple-choice for a few reasons. First, these assessments are making sure students are familiar with basic terms and themes, mostly focused on recognition and recall. These ideas form the basis for more analytical and critical writing assignments in the coming weeks. Second, because of the pace of the course (we meet four time a week), I cannot spend too much time grading. Perfect for multiple choice.

The new angle I am trying this summer is online quizzes. Thus, I am also attempting to make this class hybrid, as I expect to teach a form of it fully online in the near future. The students have to take the quiz before they attend Monday’s class. I allow them a 36 hour window to take the test, opening it Sunday morning. To prepare them, and myself, for this new experience, I offered an online quiz (for minimal extra credit) on the syllabus after the first day of class.

I decided on the online quiz after much thought. The main concern I had was missing 10-15 minutes of class for these quizzes. I found them to be useful, even necessary, for low-level learning, but they also ate into lecture and discussion time. In addition, I was  hoping that automatic grading would save me time throughout the summer session.

I decided that I would make the quizzes open book and open note. Perhaps it is poor judgement on my part, but I just do not fully trust my students to not use notes for an assessment like this (!). This this is a concern I have for online quizzes, especially of the multiple choice variety. To counterbalance this leverage, I decided to make the quizzes timed, instructing my students that they would need to study beforehand in order to answer all of the questions. My hope with this set-up is that the students would get used to the type of questions I would ask and potentially become familiar with the adequacy of the notes they are taking. (The midterm and final are in-class.) The first quiz was 10 multiple choice questions with two short answer questions. The total time I allowed for the quiz was 15 minutes, just about the time I would allow in class.

I will review the use of online quizzes at the end of the course.