Digital Media and the Egalitarian Classroom

by Candace Vogler

Question: As a philosopher and an educator, for what reasons and to what end do you use digital media in the classroom?

Candace Vogler: I started out using digital media by necessity. I found myself in a huge class with no course assistant and a lot of students who would be dealing with difficult material that hit them in a hard way. The first thing I did was set up a listserv for the students because it was not going to be possible to hold ordinary discussions for them. That was so successful that when the University of Chicago started to have course platforms available and it became possible to have course websites, I switched to having websites available for the courses I teach.

I have mostly done away with traditional discussion sections because I find that the use of websites as a launch pad for discussion groups is much more effective than old fashioned discussion sections ever were for me. I think that the fact that the discussion board is theirs--that I am a distant participant--actually helps the students' conversation a lot. The students that I have are so anxious to have an occasion to talk to each other that my biggest job as an educator is to get out of their way so that they can engage around the topics in my classroom. So while I use websites as a way of making assignments available to students, setting external links in case they wish to follow up on a topic that came up in class, or giving them their readings, my primary interest in it is as a site for discussion.

Q: Has the advent of new media changed your teaching strategies?

Vogler: Yes, it sure did. I teach a lot of large lecture classes, and in the ones I teach by myself I am committed to giving a midterm examination in every course that includes the following features: the exam is too difficult for one person in the class to do well on alone (the exam is not only doable, but "ace-able" for two or more students who are working hard on it together.) On the discussion board for the class, I set up a forum for every question. I tell the students that they are to use the site as a way for hashing out material around the question. I tell the students that they can complete collaborative exams. I tell them that I do not care if I get one exam paper with the whole class list attached, and that everyone on a list who submits an exam will get the same grade.

The students engage around these questions on the website in an amazing way. Every student in the class is enrolled on the website, so there is no real possibility of somebody being excluded because he or she is unpopular or does not know anyone in the class. Everybody has a chance to participate: it is deeply egalitarian that way. Out of this, what generally happens is that groups of anywhere from 3 to 25 students will form as a discussion group/work group around a particular take-home exam. They start on the website and I monitor what is going on. I will occasionally intervene if it looks like 30 people are headed in a wrong way or that they did not have the courage for the last half of someone's very interesting thought. I might come in and say, "I was wondering what happened to Sara's point from last Tuesday..." and everybody runs back to pick up the discussion thread again. As they go on, what will happen is that particular groups will contact me and say, "We need a room next Wednesday night from 9 o'clock until 11 so we can meet to hash it out." So I set them up with a room. Or, they will use the virtual classroom so they can set up their own chat session between particular hours. It is amazing. The students get very involved.

Candace Vogler recounts how student online discussion boards help to alter gender dynamics in the classroom.
(1:05 min)

[View transcript]

Q: Do you find that your students have a greater voice in virtual classrooms than in traditional settings? Can you provide some success stories, or perhaps some failures?

Vogler: I think the medium is incredibly powerful for them. Almost all of them are extremely dubious about this suggestion at the beginning. I think a lot of the students recall "group learning" from high school as a scene in which one or two people did all the work and everybody else got all the credit--it was burdensome, unpleasant, and a site for intensive labor and anonymity. Because they almost all have that as a background experience, they all insist on the involvement of any member of any group. You can trust them to police each other. They organize themselves.

I had one male student who was just terrified at the prospect of having to work in groups because he has never had any success in making friends on campus. He was socially very shy and very worried, but when he realized that the space was completely egalitarian--that everybody who can log on the website can participate and that there is no such thing as excluding somebody because they do not know anybody--he became very active. A bunch of the students learned that he played in a klezmer band and then went to hear him play. I think he wound up feeling that philosophy was just the best subject he had ever taken because it was the one site where he was really engaged with his classmates in a powerful way. He wound up going on to a philosophy doctoral program, and I think that part of the reason he did is that for him the collaborative character of philosophical work became clear in this particular class, which is I think an artifact of the website, nothing else.

Candace Vogler discusses how students build community using digital means.
(0:52 min)

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Q: Students engaged in dialogue strikes at the core of philosophical discovery, such as with Plato and the Socratic method. How do online discussion boards fail or succeed in accomplishing this?

Vogler: The biggest difficulty with online discussion boards is that the posts are more poised and composed than verbal discussion. In a way it provides a crutch for the students. It is a crutch they are happy to throw away once they become used to writing back and forth with one another. Then when they are in a room together they can actually engage verbally. For many of my undergraduates, there is so much terror about not knowing things and about being wrong about something. No matter how many times you emphasize that that is not the issue, and that the best question is sometimes the most innocent and apparently silly one, it has never worked well in the classroom for me. In some ways having the discussion board as a launch pad is what allows them to begin performing verbally with each other in a much more straightforward way.

Q: Do you and your students ever engage in philosophical discussions about the means in which they are communicating?

Vogler: The closest I have ever gotten to that with a class is talking about the way in which your fellow students are your best educational resource. The students don't really believe that and there are all kinds of structuring things that are designed to keep them from believing that. They are often thrust into competition with each other. They are often as afraid of each other as they are of the instructor. Trying to create situations where there is everything to be gained from really drawing on each other, to my mind engages them philosophically in a more serious way than other kinds of work. That means talking to them about pedagogy, what an educational resource is, trying to get them to value each other as sources of experience and insight--all of which I take as crucial to philosophical endeavors generally.

Q: Some might argue that cyberspace interactions liberate students from the trappings of gender, race, class and appearance, while others would make the claim that such students are not liberated but are masking their differences. How do you view these two arguments?

Vogler: Students retain some of these markings on my websites because a lot of them have gender-identifiable names, some of them have racially-marked names, and there are no such things as anonymous posts. So the fact that they post and sign gives most people access to some indication of their identity. I think that those markings have been less disabling on the website than they have been in some classrooms. Not so much that the students have been liberated from them or are masking them, as that it becomes possible to write an email that says "Women rock!" and to notice that the female presence in the class has been important to the collective processes of several groups. This is a way of marking gender difference (e.g., "those people know more about organizing and managing groups than we do") but in a non-threatening way where the difference becomes a strength or a place where we can notice the strength. In my experience, the differences do not so much disappear than become sites where people see different strengths, abilities, and experiences--different things to bring to the table--in the spirit of every student being a resource.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Candace Vogler

Candace VoglerCandace Vogler is Co-Director of the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities (MAPH) and Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. She works and teaches primarily in ethics, moral psychology, and social and political philosophy; other interests include feminism and gender studies. She is the author of Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2003), John Stuart Mill's Deliberative Landscape (Routledge, 2001), and the co-editor of a special issue of Public Culture devoted to disability studies and criticism, The Critical Limits of Embodiment (Fall 2001), as well as essays on such topics as intimacy, Elizabeth Anscombe's work in practical philosophy, Rousseau and contemporary social contract theory, philosophy and literature, feminism, and sexuality studies. Her research interests center upon the strengths and limits of liberal humanism in ethics, in moral psychology, in social and political philosophy, in gender studies and in cultural studies. She is currently beginning work on a book about virtue theory and self-culture focused ethics more generally called Moral Blindness.

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