May 27, 2015

Reflections on the Existentialism Course First Time Around

It's been several weeks since the first version of the 12-week online Existentialist Philosophy and Literature class, hosted by Oplerno, finished up.  Since then, I've been pretty lost in all the other work and projects in which I've been engaged -- the Half Hour Hegel series, new Critical Thinking videos, some writing projects, the Understanding Anger lecture series, teaching an online Philosophical Foundations course, and building a new Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences for the Global Center for Advanced Studies.

I thought that, in order to get some new proverbial "wind in the sails" for renewed writing in this blog, I might bring matters to a close by carving out some time (from a schedule in which that's a rather scarce commodity) for reflection upon the course itself -- which I do plan to expand and offer again for interested students later on this year.

The Motivation for The Course

Back when I was first getting involved with Oplerno, about a year and a half ago, there was an online meeting for prospective faculty members, in which one of the questions was:  What kind of courses should we be proposing and designing?  Rob Skiff, the CEO of Oplerno answered that we should focus on what our "dream course" would look like -- a course that one would be passionate about, but because of the sorts of obstacles typically encountered in traditional academic institutions, one didn't get to teach.

On my part, I was still teaching face-to-face service courses (Intro to Philosophy, Ethics, Religion in America) at Marist College -- courses which I do enjoy teaching, and for which I'm viewed as a good instructor by most students, but which didn't allow me all that much room to explore certain texts and thinkers I wanted to focus upon.  I'd been shooting lecture videos in an Existentialism sequence for quite some time, and I'd also committed to a year-long lecture and discussion series (Glimpses Into Existence) hosted by the historic Kingston Library, which was just starting.

I'd long been kicking around the idea of creating some sort of course -- or sequence of courses -- for lifelong learners that would use the lecture videos to provide a solid study of Existentialist thought, so creating a class for Oplerno seemed like a "good fit".  It would allow me to build lessons, create and provide handouts and other resources, host discussions, and even online class sessions.  The class could be provided relatively cheaply to students (I set the standard $500 per class as the price), and since Oplerno provides faculty members with the lion's share of the tuition,  I might actually be able to earn a decent living doing that sort of work.

Another goal -- one not realized yet -- was to use the class as a opportunity to reread and think more deeply about classic Existentialist texts, to engage students as a kind of "sounding board", and eventually to get working on a book project about Existentialism. In doing this sort of work, at least for me, its invaluable to have other people to engage in discussion, to see where common misunderstandings arise and how they can be successfully untangled, and to get a sense of what topics and ideas people besides myself are really interested in.

The Structure of the Course

Oplerno has a more or less standard format for their online courses -- 12 weeks, entirely online, designed in the Canvas course management system, using BigBlueButton for videoconferencing class sessions -- and since I had already set out something with an analogous structure, the 12-session library talk series, I decided I'd adopt a similar structure for the course.  We'd have one introductory week, and then spend eleven weeks, each one devoted to one important Existentialist thinker, from the early ground-breakers -- Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche -- down to the third-wave French thinkers -- Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, and Marcel.

It wouldn't permit us to go awfully deep into any one of the thinkers' ideas or works -- but as a survey course, aimed at providing a decent overview of the movement,  also also intended to help interested students to go off and do additional study of their own, that seemed like a decent trade-off.  I wanted to provide a sufficient amount of material and to cover the material in a rigorous manner, but also to leave plenty of scope for exploring the meaning of the ideas within the contexts of one's own life as well -- it seems to me that a course on Existentialism has to create space for that for its students, or the form ends up really diverging from the content!

Upon retrospect, there were two types of things that there were far too much of in the course as originally designed -- and one that some students complained there was too much of (but which I don't view as the case).  So, the redesigned course is going to take those into account.

I'm a big believer, when it comes to course design for promoting actual learning, that the old "I'll just assign a few longer papers and have a final exam at the end" approach -- which perhaps did work in the past -- simply does not reliably promote student learning.  It's important that students receive feedback often and early on assignments, so that they can improve -- and that requires that there be quite a few assignments.  I tend to require lots of short writing assignments, but in this case, I really did go overboard, and the students predictably fell behind (I also had some rather perfectionist students, who wrote far more than I required).

So, I'm going to lower the number of required assignments, but I'm going to do so in a rather interesting way.  I'll have two kinds of assignments available for each of the 11 main weeks in the course, as I did in the first version -- short (1.5-2 page, double spaced) personal reflection papers, and somewhat longer (2.5-4 page) text analysis papers.  But, I'm going to require students to complete 5 of one type, and 5 of the other, giving them flexibility in when they want to write and who they want to write in response to.

I'd also structured the course so that I was committed to providing 3 online video-conferencing sessions per week.  They were intended to be one hour each, but they predictably ran overtime, sometimes to 1.5 hours.  In this case that was too much -- not for the students, but for me!  When I've already got lecture videos available, and spend time developing course content, that's simply too much time-commitment on my own part for such a course.  I've decided that I'm going to reduce it to one 2-hour session per week of the course, which is still an extraordinary amount of "face-time" offered by an instructor in an online course.

There were a few student complaints about the amount of material, but these tended to stem from the aforementioned perfectionist tendency on the part of some of the students.  They came to a head in the week on Kafka, where I had as the reading materials the shortish Metamorphosis and the actual novel, The Trial -- the most reading material assigned in any given week of the course.  I had to make clear -- and I'll probably need to attend to this in a more structured way at the beginning of the class the next time around -- that I was expecting students to read and engage the texts, but not to in any way even be at an intermediary (let alone expert!) level in this material when writing papers, engaging in forum posts, or discussing the texts in class sessions. 

Materials for the Course

In this respect, I'd say that I'm not entirely happy with the parts that depend largely upon me -- I have to admit that I'm a bit of a perfectionist myself when it comes to courses as well (but that's why students almost uniformly come away from my courses quite happy with the experience).  Given the opportunities provided by a course management system -- one can effectively create an entirely online learning environment with lots of components -- I typically want to build and build and build. . . .

As it stands, what I've currently got in the course for nearly each week are:
  • 4-6 online lesson webpages, where I discuss key ideas or aspects of the texts
  • links to 3-5 online 1-hour lecture videos covering the texts we are reading
  • 2-5 handouts either going over key ideas or distinctions within the texts or providing a literary and biographical time-line for the thinker
  • 3-4 discussion forums focusing on some key aspect of the text
  • links to (entirely optional) supplementary articles on the thinker, texts, and ideas
  • links to additional online resources on the thinker and his or her works
Some of those pages need to be edited and expanded, and I'd like to create some additional lesson pages as well.  I'd also like to create some new handouts for certain thinkers in the course.  and, given the nature of the internet, one can always with a bit of online research discover new resources that can be added to the links.

I was unhappy with the quality -- particularly the sound quality -- of some of the Existentialism videos I'd previously created.  We started shooting some of those at a time when we did just the most minimal editing, and once a video is uploaded into YouTube, while you can edit certain aspects of it, the sound is not one of them (YouTube really ought to get on that!)  So, I decided to start downloading, editing, and then re-uploading Existentialism videos into a new (at this time, not ready for prime-time) channel.  I not only boosted and cleaned up (as much as can be done) the sound, but also inserted some main-idea breaks, and even added some appropriate intro and outro sound and art.  To compare, you can check out these two versions of Kierkegaard's The Present Age -- old version vs. new version.  It takes quite a bit of time to effectively remaster these videos, but by the time the next section of the course comes around, I'll have all of the earlier videos redone, and some new videos added as well.

As far as the reading materials go, I'm pretty happy with what we've got.  I managed to find online, free versions for many of the course texts -- granted, often in older translations, but then again. . .  free.  I think I might add a few bits here and there, but for the most part, that will remain unchanged.

When Will the Course Be Offered Again?

That's really the key question, I think, for many readers.  Given how many projects I've got currently underway that place considerable demands upon my time, and the changes and additions I want to make to the course, I've decided that it doesn't make sense to plan to try offer the course in the Summer.  I'd rather have as much of the work I want to put into redeveloping the course done at the moment that the course begins, so I don't feel any pressure as I'm teaching it, rereading the texts again, holding the class sessions, and so forth.

I've decided that instead, I'm going to offer a different class with Oplerno in the Summer -- a 12-week Ethics class similar to, but in some respects going beyond the online Ethics courses I've taught for Marist college over the last 4 years.  After that class finishes up, I'm going to then offer the Existentialism course with Oplerno (as well as an expanded version of the World Views and Values course I've taught for Marist).

So, you can expect to see the Existentialist Philosophy and Literature course offered instead for the Fall 2015 semester.  It will start sometime around the middle of September, and run into early December -- we'll set the exact dates sometime during the Summer.  The course will cost $500 -- actually a pretty great deal, considering what you get in taking the course, on the one hand, and given that tuition for similar online courses can run around $1800-2000 at other institutions, on the other hand.  If that sort of high-quality educational experience interests you, mark your calendar, and keep on the lookout for the announcements we'll provide later on in the Summer!

1 comment:

  1. Update: I'm not going to be teaching this class in Fall 2015 for Oplerno -- as far as I can tell, they haven't satisfactorily addressed their student enrollment issues at this point.

    So, when will I offer the class again? I'm thinking Spring 2016. More about this later. . .