How to Use Google Reader Bundles

By popular demand (some demand?), here are brief video instructions for using Google Reader Bundles.  As I noted in my last post, I’ve created a bundle for the class that has all the blogs, now including the feed for the weekly updates from our esteemed facilitators, Lisa Lane and Jim Sullivan.

Here is the link to the full bundle page.  Below is the embedded preview.  And here is the bare OPML file for those of you who want to use another feed reader and understand what an OPML file is.


NOTE: This link is to the most up-to-date bundle.  Unfortunately, subscriptions to a bundle do not update when the bundle is updated, so if you previously subscribed to the bundle you need to resubscribe to get the complete list.  This should simply add new feeds to the list and not duplicate any feeds that you are already subscribed to.  If it does, it will be because the folder name might be different.  Simply unsubscribe from all feeds in the old folder, as instructed in the video.

The video is my first time using screenr and, due to a lack of external mic, the sound quality is only so-so.  I hope it doesn’t distract, it was a good experience.  (And imagine my frustration when I realized that I had timed my presentation perfectly to fit in a five minute chunk, but then broke it up out of lack of confidence!)

Distributed Conversations

These posts last week by Lana and Eduardo got me thinking about the way different online spaces impact student interactions and I think those thoughts dovetail nicely into this week’s topics. [I was talkative this week.  I start with some theory, but I get practical at the end here.  Skip the first part if you want, I won’t be upset ;)]

See, in my experience, there are several different ways that students can interact in classes asynchronously: blogs (and tumble blogs),  forums, twitter, Facebook (and the like).  I’m only going to focus on blogs and forums here because they are the one’s I use the most (Twitter some and tumble blogs and Facebook not at all–no judgment there, just experience).

Blogs and forums differ in the kinds of space they create for conversations.  Forums are centralized locations where all participants are (generally) given equal weight.  Conversations take place in a linear order in one easy to absorb space.  In contrast, blogs are spaces owned by a singular individual or select group of individuals.  Conversations there are either imbalanced (outsiders’ comments be parasitic on the main post) or severely distributed (individual conversation points taking place in each individual’s personal blog space).

The benefits of forums are clear: (1) the student needs to only visit one online space to take part in the conversation, (2) all participants have equal visibility, and (3) students are generally familiar with the threading forum format (through Facebook).  All this makes conversations in forum spaces generally painless.  The same kind of format in a blog space (i.e using a centralized blog with all posts being hosted at that blog and students commenting on those posts; see here for an example) does not work as well.  I’ve run that linked course (Medical Ethics) twice in an online space.  The first time in a Blackboard forum space (which is a poor example of forums, but nonetheless . . .) and the second time (the link above) in a WordPress install.  The forum was better.  Now, there are many reasons for this (and the next time I run it I’ll be rebuilding the course to address these problems), but one of them appears to be that comments on a post tend to promote less insightful and engaging comments or, at least, less prolonged examination of a topic.

Why then do I still prefer blogs?

I like blogs precisely for the distributed conversations.  They provide two ways to respond to another student: (1) the comments of a post, for when the student only has a little to say or (2) the responding student’s own post, when the student wants to expand at great (or only moderate) length on the same topic.  The idea of personal spaces is particularly useful in a class context (although it has to be taught, it is not something that simply is).  In a student’s personal online space, they are able to tailor the look and feel of their space and make it more their own–signify that this is their space.  This, in turn, can be used to reinforce the idea of respect for others in conversations by highlighting visually the personal nature of the space.  Additionally, ownership tends to produce higher quality posts and better engagement because the student views the work as more representing them (again, this has to be taught/reinforced).

However, when these conversations are distributed across . . . oh . . . 90 or so spaces, you run into the problem of these conversations becoming too distributed.  We want (as was brought up in the Couros video) “individuals alone, connected”, a new way of forming communities, not simply “individuals alone.”  How do we deal with this?  One way is (surprise, surprise!) feeds.

The most daunting part of these distributed conversations is that they take place everywhere.  There is so much information.  Without it staying in one centralized place it is difficult to track.  Feedreaders help with this by allowing you to control the information coming to you in one place.  [Some examples: Google Reader, Netvibes, Bloglines, Feedreader.] You don’t waste time cycling through bookmarks–you know when new information arises and you can use your search time to find new conversations and info.

But you risk losing the feel of personal space, which I, at least, value so much about the blog medium.  So, here’s how you get around that.  Follow this link for instructions on how to use Google Reader (my personal choice, mostly from pure momentum) to create a Google Reader Bookmarklet.  Using this, you can scroll through all of your new reader entries or just ones from a single category/folder at the actual blog they come from.  And to help with this, you can have a nice bundle of POTcert ’11 blogs right here from my personal organization.  I’m updating this as blogs pop up, so it might be incomplete (it only has 48, so it must be!).  If you use Google Reader, just click “Subscribe” at the top of the page through that last link.  If you don’t, you should be able to add it to other feedreaders using the OPML file link to the right.  I’ll leave that for you to figure out.  After all, education is something we figure out for ourselves 😉

Fell on a Piece of Tin

One of the things you learn very quickly in doing genealogy research for the family is that aside from births and marriages most of what you find about your family in newspapers is going to be bad.  Sometimes that can be criminal (I’m still trying to find a vaguely recollected census report of one 3x great uncle in a prison), but more often it relates to accidents.  The thing is, even these brief hints can give you just enough information to put you on the right track.  For example, this brief account, from the Philadelphia Inquirer 1892. 12. 16, concerning my 2x great-grandmother:

Fell on a Piece of Tin

Bertha Chambers, 13 years old, of 1206 Clarion street, was admitted to the Polyclinic Hospital yesterday suffering with an ugly gash in the forearm, severing all the muscles and blood vessels almost to the bone.  The injury was inflicted by a piece of tin plate upon which the child fell, at 2029 Washington avenue, where she is employed.

[Personally transcribed from scanned original.]

The name, age, and even address all simply go to confirm previously found information.  However, the address of the place where she was  employed is new and exciting.  See, some of the best places to start researching family history in the US are the Federal censuses.   1892 is right in the middle of what might be lovingly (or is that frustratingly?) called the great drought of US genealogy.  The 1890 census was almost entirely destroyed by a combination of fire and bureaucratic negligence.  And most of the children of my 3x great-grandfather, Dallas Chambers, came of age during the 20 year span from 1880 – 1900, meaning this period is especially frustrating for me.  Those few lines of a census could have given me a lot of information about, specifically, their current occupation.

These few brief lines give me a starting point to find out just a little more.  With that address, I should be able to check a city directory for that year and locate the business at which my ancestor worked.  Further, it is possible that I might be able to find records of the hospital visit, which would provide a lot of information by Bertha’s health.  Although the latter is doubtful, the possibility is always exciting.

Keep connecting the dots . . . .

A First Teaching Experience

Reading Lisa’s post about bread got me thinking about my first online teaching experience.  I thought I’d share for those who are just getting started.

It was just after my second year of grad school and everyone in my class was getting an opportunity to teach during the summer session.  I was assigned “Introduction to Elementary Logic,” a course that I find extremely easy (and often fun!) to teach.  All of us were given explicit instructions about how to run the course: meet four to five days a week in a chat room on Blackboard, make the chat required, and always have a quiz to make sure students come to class.  I’m not going to say that I followed all of these suggestions, but I did hold class in a chat room four days a week, two hours each day.

It was the worst teaching experience of my (admittedly short) teaching career.

Everything that could go wrong technologically did: students kept getting kicked out of the chat room, the chat sometimes wouldn’t update for some students, some student messages wouldn’t come through, the whiteboard (where the class worked as a group on the logic proofs) didn’t work for half the students, and the recordings often didn’t work (leaving students who had to miss class out in the cold).  Even with extra meetings outside of the assigned time and having extra in-person meeting times for those in the area, grades and student satisfaction were low.  I can speak to the fact that teacher morale was rock bottom.  I muddled through and worked around the problems as best as I could, but there was very little good to take away.

But it didn’t have to be this way.

See, no one in the department had taught online before.  So the assumption was that we should attempt to replicate an in-person class as closely as possible.  And in a traditional philosophy department, this means one thing: lecture.  Chat was the closest tool available, so use that.  Students sit in a classroom together, so have an assigned, required meeting time.  You can see the reasoning behind all of the recommendations.  But in making these recommendations, the professor in question forgot (or, rather, never knew) that teaching online is fundamentally different than teaching in-person.  Online, your class can exist side by side with the rest of the student’s life.  Online, you can provide students with greater flexibility to accommodate unusual schedules and life situations.  Online, students can share found information almost instantaneously.  Online, you can give student’s greater freedom.*

After this class, I decided to completely reevaluate the way I approached online teaching.  I looked at the various tools available and thought about how I wanted the students to interact, what kind of lessons they should be learning through practice, and how I can get out of the way of the learning experience.  That’s a post for another day, but, needless to say, I haven’t looked back.


*This, of course, is incredibly unfair to in-person teaching.  I say this only because I come from a department where lecture and basic discussion are the only forms of learning.  It’s fair to say that teaching online has vastly expanded my view on the possibilities of the in-person classroom as well.

Let the Dissertation Begin!

My first attempt to formulate my project as simply as possible:

The constitution of the self in general is a necessary condition for the existence of the autonomous self. Although the importance of the autonomous self has been explored extensively in feminist ethics and social-political theory, the moral importance of the basic structure of the self has been largely ignored. In this dissertation, I will explore the way in which depression represents a particular kind of moral vulnerability–different than a simple loss of autonomy–and reveals the critical importance of the self to moral theory in general.

And so begins my experiment in downhill writing.  I’m tired of my dissertation getting nowhere, so I have set a deadline for myself.  I will have a good rough draft of my entire dissertation submitted to my advisor by Fri, Nov 4th.

Wish me luck!

Introductions all around!

Allo all!

My wife and I in San Diego

My wife and I in San Diego, 2009. I thought it was appropriate.

My name is Brandon Davis-Shannon and I am a philosophy Ph.D candidate at Binghamton University in New York State.  You can see a vague hand-wavy summary of my interests at the entrance to my site here.  I hope to have my first truly online (read: html/css/php) CV done during this course.  Maybe I’ll mention it if I’m successful.  That success is in doubt because most of my time is spent trying to beat my dissertation into shape.

I’ve been doing in person teaching assistant work since Fall 2007, teaching online as an instructor since Summer 2009, and teaching in person as an instructor since this past Spring.  I’m currently employed at Cortland College.

. . . Scootin' About

The real reason I never get any work done: my adventurous daughter.

Beyond all of that, in my (ha) free time, I am inaugurating the position of Distance Learning Coordinator for my home department, which means evaluating the effectiveness of the current course offerings, running workshops to assist instructors, creating pedagogical and tech related resources, and assisting in online course design.  I have hopes . . . and one of them is that I’ll learn a lot from the various people taking part in this course.  I look forward to hearing about new ideas (as well as old ones that are new to me) and seeing the many different opinions I’m sure exist out there.

Spirit of Sharing: Here are my Diigo bookmarks on E-Learning.  I assume most of them are already posted by Lisa at the mccpot group, but please feel free to take a look.

NASSP 2010 Presentation: The Invisibility of Mental Illness in Bioethics

[Note: This was originally published at my previous blog, Prospeculating, on 19 Jul 2010.]

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 26.2% of Americans (18 and older) suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.  The heaviest burden of mental disorders falls on 6% of the population.  According to the World Health Organization, this percentage holds across the world population.  This means that 2010 will see (as a low estimate) 408 million people worldwide suffering from some form of mental disorder.  120 million of those suffering from a mental disorder will suffer from at least depression. According to the WHO, hearing loss, vision problems and mental disorders are the most common causes of disability.  Further, mental disorders comprise 14% of the global burden of disease.  Global burden of disease measures the total life lost due to premature mortality and years of life lost due to time lived in states of less than full health.

The reason I state these statistics is to show that mental illness is not an outlier case.  It is not something far outside the norm.  It is a persistent and major problem in the world.  Yet, there are few conversations about mental illness in the field of bioethics, what conversations exist are generally minor conversations in terms of relevance within the field, and, I think, these conversations are asking the wrong questions.  I want to find the right questions to ask.  What is missing from the field of bioethics is a solid attempt to describe and understand the ethical burdens of mental illness.  What kind of ethical burden is mental illness?  What is the lived experience of mental illness? What kind of vulnerability does mental illness create?  These questions have not been asked in bioethics.  But I think that they can be asked and answered.  The preexisting conversations in bioethics, along with preexisting conceptual tools outside the traditional field of bioethics, can serve as a launching point for a new kind of conversation about mental illness.

There are three preexisting conversations about mental illness in the bioethical literature.  The first of these—what I call the anti-psychiatry conversation—is generally held to be outside of bioethics proper, instead belonging to the subfield of philosophy of psychiatry.  Although philosophy of psychiatry has had considerable crossover with bioethical conversations about mental illness, it is held to exist apart from bioethics as a whole.  The second conversation—what I call the autonomy conversation—is the predominate mental illness conversation in bioethics.  Finally, the third conversation—what I call the phenomenology conversation—is a fairly recent develop within the last decade and has emerged from nursing literature.

The anti-psychiatry conversation developed out of Thomas Szasz’s critique of psychiatry.  This conversation concerns the ontological nature of mental illness.  This conversation ranges between two extremes.  At the one end is the view that the majority of conditions labeled mental illness are not illnesses at all.  Instead, they are labels for the organization of the use of societal force against individuals who do not conform to social norms.  This has the dual purpose of stigmatizing the mentally ill individual and preventing these individuals from taking responsibility for their personal lifestyle.   This end of the spectrum denies the reality of mental illness in toto.  At the other end of the spectrum in this conversation is the hardcore psychiatric position, which holds that mental illness is a biological conditional completely in keeping with the labels of disease used in other fields of medical work.  The conversation between these two sides ranges across the spectrum from mental illness being completely socially created to completely biologically determined and every combination in between.

The autonomy conversation is focused on the practical issue of when a mentally ill patient can lose the power to decline treatment.  If, like the anti-psychiatry conversation, one were to envision this conversation as a spectrum, it would be between the justification and lack of justification of coercive treatment–the justification end of the spectrum being the position that the presence of mental illness in itself is a justification for coercive treatment and the lack of justification end of the spectrum being the position that mental illness alone can never be an adequate justification for coercive treatment.   A survey of the literature on this topic shows that the conversation mostly oscillates within the justifiable half of the spectrum.  The majority of the conversation is not about if coercive treatment is justifiable, but when and how; the assumption being that the particular ethical problem wrapped up in mental illness is a loss or marked decrease in autonomy.

Both of these conversations are useful in their own way, but they miss a larger point: the impact of mental illness on the afflicted individual.  That is not to say that these conversations neglect to notice that mental illness is always attached to an individual—is not an abstract notion divorced from concrete meaning.  Both the anti-psychiatry and autonomy conversations are predicated on the idea that an individual is treated—the question is precisely how to treat the individual.  But both conversations skew towards the medical professional’s perspective and in the process minimize the perspective of the patient.  The third conversation attempts to correct this.

In truth, the phenomenology conversation is less a conversation and more the emergence of a new kind of case study in the nursing field.  There is a recent trend, albeit a minor one, to use the phenomenological method in the reading of case studies.  The goal is to discover the experience of mental illness.  While I am glad that this conversation is taking place because it seems to be a step in the right direction, I am hesitant to call this trend successful in any meaningful way.  One of the major problems is that the phenomenological method is being applied in a superficial manner.  A consistent problem with these studies is that phenomenology is used to give an objective gloss to the problem, while the studies actually better reveal the biases of the researchers towards those who are mentally ill.  Although this is useful in itself, it still reveals a basic failure in the project of the phenomenology conversation, for all its good intentions.  Even beyond this particular failure, the phenomenology conversation does not escape the emphasis on the medical professional: the object of the conversation is still merely to enable the development of certain professional capabilities in mental health nursing.

The biggest problem with the skewing of the conversations towards the perspective of the medical professional is the dominance of this concern in bioethical conversations on mental illness.  The autonomy conversation is by far the most prominent conversation on mental illness in bioethics; yet, it is in this conversation that the emphasis on the medical professional plays the greatest role.  This is most evident in the predominance of the Ulysses contract in the autonomy conversation.  The Ulysses contract is a form of advanced directive.  Advanced directives are made by an individual to give instructions on that individual’s care in the future if that individual becomes incapacitated—such as in the case of a coma.  Likewise, Ulysses contracts are made by an individual to give instructions on that individual’s care in the future, but in contrast to traditional advanced directives these instructions are not for in the case of incapacitation but for in the case of a breakdown of decision-making ability without an inability to make decisions.  They take their name from the Roman hero Ulysses’ request that he be tied to the ship’s mast to prevent him drowning himself in response to the call of the sirens.

Although Ulysses contracts were originally envisioned as an option for Alzheimer’s patients, they quickly were adopted for other forms of mental disorder, such as depression, bipolar, disorder, schizophrenia, and other forms of mental disorder that are colloquially referred to as mental illness.  What is important about this use of the Ulysses contracts is that its importance to the autonomy conversation is legal.  Although the discussion of when a Ulysses contract can be enacted is couched in ethical terms, the overall purpose of the Ulysses contract is legal—to protect the medical professional.  In other words, the largest portion of the autonomy conversation, which itself makes up the majority of conversation in bioethics about mental illness, is dominated by legal not ethical topics.

Despite their flaws, however, I don’t want to claim that these conversations are not useful outside of the narrow focus that the conversations themselves have set.  I think that all of these conversations have something to offer in terms of opening up a broader discussion on the ethical burden of mental illness.  The phenomenology conversation points to the potential to listen to and understand mentally ill individuals—a potential that is required to start the conversation I want to have.  The anti-psychiatry conversation offers a way to delimit the conversation and find a narrow starting point from which to begin exploring the ethical burden of mental illness.  The autonomy conversation offers some hints of the conceptual tools necessary to talk about the ethical burdens of mental illness.  All of these elements are important for exploding the discussion of mental illness.

Just starting a conversation involves creating some boundaries within which the conversation can take place.  In the case of mental illness, the topic is broad.  There is a significant difference between a disorder like clinical depression and schizophrenia and talking about the two as if the experience is the same is to make a serious mistake.  I think that for the purposes of starting this conversation, depression offers the most fruitful avenues of possibility.  Depression is the most common mental illness, so common that many first person accounts of depression already exist in print.  Further, depression comes in various severities and thus provides a further means of limiting the conversation.

It is here that the anti-psychiatry conversation becomes useful.  The history of this conversation is one of distinctions.  Szasz represents an extreme viewpoint that has largely been rejected within the conversation.  His position that most mental illnesses are fictions is too strong a claim.  There are many reasons for this, but this is not the place to have that discussion.  Suffice to say, while Szasz’s claims may hold for certain mental illnesses, they do not hold for all.  In fact, this is one of the biggest problems with the anti-psychiatry debate: mental illness as a category is simply too heterogeneous to be useful as a term of analysis.  It is highly likely that some of the individual disorders within the category are socially created.  Simply pointing to the listing of homosexuality as a mental illness into the 1970s makes this point.  Likewise, some mental illnesses are dominantly physical, like Alzheimer’s.  Any discussion of mental illness is going to have to very finely cut distinctions between various forms of mental illness.

There are three categories of depression that can be derived from the anti-psychiatry debate: justifiable depression, chronic depression, and severe depression.  The first of these, what I very hesitantly call justifiable depression, is a form of depression that arises from life events.  It is these forms of depression that Szasz’s critique most accurately describes.  Justifiable depression occurs when some kind of misfortune or generally negative event or state enters one’s life.  It makes sense to become depressed when one experiences a miscarriage.  It makes sense to become depressed when one loses one’s life long job.  That is not to say that everyone will or should become depressed in these circumstances, but only that such instances of depression are understandable and justifiable.  Yet, when depression takes this form, it is right to question the medicalization of the mood.  Szasz’s critique seems the strongest in these cases when medical treatment replaces dealing with the depression.  Numerous accounts have been written on experiences of this form of depression and how medicalization actually further damaged the individual.

The second and third categories of depression—chronic depression and severe depression—might be understood as the same form, but differing severity.  Both of these categories differ from justifiable depression in that there is no perceivable cause of the depression.  An individual may be in circumstances that they themselves consider good and yet feel crushing depression.  Depression becomes an unknowable part of the individual that they cannot define or pinpoint.  A constant searching for a reason may become part of the individual’s life, yet that reason–that justification—is never found.

The difference between the second and third categories of depression is one of functioning and this separation is purely for theoretical clarity.  A separation I want to make in the discussion of mental illness is that between the ethical burdens caused by mental illness itself and the exacerbation by social forms and institutional treatment of the ethical burdens of mental illness.  Thus, both the second and third categories of depression are chronic forms of non-justifiable depression, but the third category, severe depression, involves permanent or persistent institutionalization.  Severe depression reduces an individual’s functioning to such a level that they are no longer are able to navigate the world and so are removed from the world.  In contrast, chronic depression inhibits functioning, yet functioning is not so inhibited that the individual’s ability to navigate the world is destroyed, merely impaired.  It is this last kind of depression that I think will be the most fruitful to concentrate on.  Once an analysis of this form of depression is achieved, then an analysis of the other two forms can be derived.

All of this, however, simply serves to narrow the conversation—it does not start the conversation.  For the conversation starter, I want to turn to precisely the conversation that I find so problematic: Ulysses contracts.  For all the problems I have with the way the autonomy conversation has narrowed the discussion and the way Ulysses contracts have served to turn the discussion more towards the legal than the ethical, I think they offer a tantalizing possibility.  Ulysses contracts hinge on a conception of the self.  The whole underlying idea behind Ulysses contracts is that we have a duty to the patient to preserve their true self—who they are—even in the face of an individual at present wanting to act contrary to the interests of their self.  The idea is that the diachronic self is more important than the synchronic self, that the diachronic self has a special value over the synchronic self, and that the diachronic self is the seat of autonomy.

The concept of the self seems especially important to mental illness is general and depression in particular.  Physical illness can certainly have an impact on the self, but this impact is an additional fact of the matter—one becomes sick or injured and this affects how one understands oneself.  Mental illness, however, might be considered to affect precisely the seat of the self.  Even if one rejects a mind-body duality (which I do), there is a difference between an illness that impacts one’s physical capabilities and one that directly impacts one’s actions and behaviors.  The importance of the latter seems greater because there is no form of mediation in one’s understanding of these actions and behaviors.  The impact of physical illness can be understood at a distance.  The impact of mental illness cannot be pushed away to be considered.  In some ways, although not the only ways, mental illness might be considered a disease of the self.

The discussion of the self in the Ulysses contract conversation has reached outside that debate on  one occasion (that I am aware of) into the broader autonomy conversation in a paper by Eric Matthews.  In that paper, Matthews argues that we cannot coerce treatment on the basis of irrationality.  Instead, we can only coerce treatment when it helps preserve the individual’s authentic self.  I like the concept of the self as a tool for understanding mental illness.  However, I think this idea of the authentic self is revealing because it claims a unity and cohesiveness of the self.  The very justification for coercive treatment that the autonomy conversation seeks to find in the self is built on the idea that a unified, authentic self can be identified.

What does it mean to be “authentic?”  How can someone not act authentic?  Why should certain periods of a person’s life be considered authentic and others not?  I think these questions, when answered are ultimately fatal to the authentic conception of the self.  However, there are other frameworks of the self that can be drawn upon to make sense of the problems of mental illness.  Frameworks of the self such as those provided by the work of Hilde Lindeman, Lisa Tessman, Claudia Card, Margaret Walker, and Marya Schechtman all give alternative conceptions of self that might better make sense of mental illness.

I think a way to start the conversation about mental illness is to bring in forms of analysis and conceptual schemas from two lines of thought: feminist philosophy and disability theory.  Both of these areas emphasize burdens and vulnerability.  They both offer tools to explain and deal with these burdens and vulnerabilities.  Such tools, would be useful as a starting point for discussing the burdens and vulnerabilities inherent in mental illness.  Yet they would not be the end of the conversation—it would not simply be a matter of applying these tools and concepts to mental illness like a cookie cutter to dough.  Mental illness would also have its impact on these fields because mental illness is a fundamentally different category from both gender and physical disability.  While all of these—mental illness, gender, and physical disability—are vulnerabilities in certain ways, I think that mental illness is different because it is an invisible burden.  Yes, it is true that gender and disability both have invisible burdens, they are ultimately a visible category that can be more easily understood because of this visibility.  Mental illness on the other hand is at its heart invisible and so its burden is also, inherently, invisible.

Course Reflections: Medical Ethics SUM10

[Note: This was originally published at my previous blog, Prospeculating, on 22 Jul 2010.]

This summer I taught medical ethics at Binghamton University in a radically different way than it is typically run.  Now that it is over, I want to review both my own and my students’ experience of the class.  Lisa Lane’s post going through her evaluations inspired me to do a similar, albeit more in depth, look at my own course.

[Psst!  If you’re one of my students, you can skip the background section—you know all the info!]

Background:

As with most courses offered during the summer by the Philosophy department, a course of this type (in order to get enough students) needs to be held online.  Binghamton University compounds the problem by making the summer session only 5 weeks long.  This places certain technological and pedagogical limits on what is possible.  I decided to take this as a challenge to my typical teaching method, however, and sought to push myself on how a course could be run.  Further compounding the situation was my own personal circumstances—my wife and I were expecting a baby on June 30th.  Seeing as how both of us had been born six weeks early, there seemed a good chance that the baby would be born smack dab in the middle of the semester.  Since I was already looking to try a completely new approach, I decided to take this as a further challenge: create a class where my absence for a few days would not be detrimental to the student’s learning experience.

This meant moving away from my typical “teacher-centered” style (this refers to a style that focuses on feeding students information—the typical lecture format, in other words).  I decided to design the course so that the majority of learning was between students—through discussions and information sharing.  Each weekday would be a different kind of activity: Mondays would be the “traditional” portion, where I would post a lecture and students could post questions and comments; Tuesdays would be “News Day,” where students would post links to news articles and comment on them; Wednesday would be “Case Study Day,” where students would argue from an assigned position for a conclusion to a case; Thursdays would be “Debate Day,” where students would engage each other over a predetermined debate question; and Fridays would be a reflection day, where students could earn extra credit by writing summaries of the week’s activities.  On all of the non-lecture days, I would keep out of discussion and each week two to four students would be responsible for leading the class (the Group Leaders).  At the last minute, I also added a Twitter component to see how the students would use it, requiring three tweets a week.  I provided the students with a collaborative learning packet, which included activity instructions, grading rubrics, and “seed” questions and tips to get them started.  Additionally, I gave them weekly progress reports to help them improve their work.

And here is how the course turned out:

Content:

The first set of questions asked on the evaluation was how well the course met the stated goals in the syllabus.  I wasn’t particularly worried about this question, as I had my own opinions, but a highly negative response would indicate problems in need of fixing.  However, the students were overwhelmingly positive in terms of the success of the class.  The only negative comments concerned the lack of time (which I unfortunately have no control over) and small number of topics (to which I am considering some solutions).

Personally, I thought that the course did fairly well in establishing a nice knowledge base in medical ethics.  The only major problem area was in laying down a decent understanding of different ethical theories.  After running the course, I think that I need to more effectively introduce the varying ethical conceptions from the start.  Although the students generally did well in their discussions, there were times when there were definite problems with perspectives like virtue ethics and, especially, care ethics.  In the future, I will have to make sure that these are more solidly grounded.

I was also interested in seeing which topics the students liked and disliked the most and what they would have liked to discuss in the class.  Unsurprisingly to me, the students overwhelmingly wanted to get rid of the Eugenics unit and add a unit on Assisted Suicide/Euthanasia.  I’ll definitely make that change the next time I teach this course.  I also liked the comment that recommended adding a more international perspective to the class.

Structure:

My biggest concern in the evaluation was getting feedback about the structure of the course.  How well did the students feel the course ran?  Was the learning experience satisfactory with other students leading the course?  Was my absence felt?  How did they like the different activities?

My first concern was with the collaborative learning packet.  I had pictured this as central to establishing the tone, format, and strategy of the class.  It was essential that the students understand the expectations on them from the start.  To this end, the packet was largely successful as the students generally agreed that it gave them a clear idea of how to handle each kind of activity.  It was heavily consulted by all students to help guide them through the class.  However, there was more disagreement on the clarity of the grading rubrics, as some students felt that even with the weekly progress reports the grading scheme, although generally on target, was not always clear.  The biggest frustration for some students was that they felt they were following my advice and the instructions, but still failed to increase their grade.

I think this last point bears special consideration.  My guess is that this is a combination of imprecise grading rubrics and imprecise comments.  Of course, there is always a degree of students simply not understanding what they are doing wrong, but it is precisely (and especially in this class) my job to help them see what needs correction and how to make those corrections.  Changes are clearly needed in cleaning up the grading rubric and making it either more open or more precise.  Luckily, the majority of students found the collaborative learning packet and progress reports helpful in improving their work.  Knowing which students had problems correcting their work is helpful because it gives me a good idea of the areas I need to focus on fixing for future classes.

The main feature of the class was the student-led approach.  Initially, I was very worried about the progress of the class.  However, by the conclusion of the fourth week, the vast majority of students were working at a “B” to “A” level rather consistently.  The steady improvement of the class was clear.  This did point out a problem with the structure of the class: the improvement was not necessarily quick enough for a course of this length.  I think that the speed of the improvement came from the students’ initial confusion with the format.  The first week of class was structured around three lectures introducing the basic concepts.  In retrospect, it would have been more fruitful to pair these with activities that would have introduced each kind of interaction and collaboration the student would use throughout the week.  I think this kind of performative introduction would both help the class become more comfortable and familiar with the format before any real grading began and drastically cut back on the learning curve.

Most satisfying was seeing the students running the course by themselves.  While I initially found it a bit painful to stay out of discussions on Group Leader days (I am typically very hands on in class), I came to appreciate the independence of the students in teaching each other.  The students likewise appreciated the independence the course structure gave them.  According to the students, the student-led discussions fostered a less oppressive environment, where they felt more free to express their opinions.  The largest reason for this seemed have to do with authority: an instructor making a comment was held to be completely right, a student could be wrong; thus, there was more room for discussion.  (This feeling was mirrored in comments on how the Lecture Days were run.  The students generally appreciated the approach of trying to draw them out on their positions and think more about the “why” behind their opinions.)

Group Leaders conducted themselves well.  Students pointed out that it forced them to really research the week’s topic and try to fully understand what they were posting on.  When they were not Group Leaders themselves they generally felt confident in the students leading the course because they felt that those students had put as much effort as them into the course.  There was a generally positive attitude towards the student-led elements of the course.

However, there were also some negative aspects.  Prime among these was the Group Leaders’ feelings that they were “flying blind.”  This point was especially emphasized by the first group of students to lead the class, but also repeated by others.  I think that this largely comes down to a failure in the placement of the progress reports and also the lack of introduction to the assignments mentioned earlier.  Left to themselves, the students had freedom, but this also meant ambiguity.  One student suggested moving the progress report to the middle of the week (before Debate Day) or having a smaller progress report at that time in addition to a larger progress report at the end of the week.  I agree with these recommendations.  Although I want to maintain the hands off approach for future classes, there has to be a more immediate form of feedback for the students to really excel.

Interestingly, this need for more feedback did not extend to a feeling of being abandoned.  All of the students were clear that instructor availability was more than adequate.  While some students thought that more involvement might have helped things run more smoothly, there was a general feeling of satisfaction with instructor involvement.

The biggest failure of the class was the Twitter component.  I originally added it as an extra credit assignment, then, at the last minute, decided to go all in and make it a required part of the course.  Although Twitter did not distract from the course, the student consensus was that it was not a necessary part of the class.  On the other hand, the students did appreciate the extra links that were posted by other students and the ability to make comments without any grading requirements.  Yet, I tend to agree that the Twitter component was largely superfluous.  I think there are better ways to achieve the same results.  I will continue including it, but as extra credit only.

Other Student Suggestions:

Include a best post of the week in each students progress report.

Grade on a sliding scale based on the student’s starting work.

Make other students post earlier, so Group Leaders have more time to respond.

Conclusions:

Although some students were ready to declare this a resounding success, I prefer to simply leave it at a mere success.  There is a lot to fix and a lot to change, but this was overall a good experience.  I was especially glad to hear that class discussions encouraged outside reading, outside discussions, and even outside thinking!  Ultimately, this course style has the potential, with tweaking, to really bring out the best in students.

Testing for potcert11

Just a test to make sure this is all working properly . . . .