On-line course post mortem
Mon 17 Aug 2015 01:36 PM
I just finished teaching my Understanding Science course as a four-week on-line course. My goal was to figure out what's involved in on-line teaching.
The level of student engagement in the course resulted from an alchemy of summertime, the on-line context, and the compression of a semester of material into four weeks. Since this was my first time both for teaching on-line and for teaching during the summer, I can't entirely separate these. There were students who had trouble logging on because they were traveling, however, and of course they simply couldn't have been traveling if the course had met face-to-face every day. Still and all, we covered almost as much material as I cover in a regular semester, and it all went pretty well.
I had an end of course survey which asked my usual questions: Which modules were indispensable, such that I should definitely include them next time? Which modules should I jettison in favor of something else?
For each prompt, I let them check as few or as many items as they pleased.
The results were somewhat surprising.
The module with the most up votes was Who counts as a scientist? (+15 to -1) I have them read about AIDS science in the 1980s, when activists disrupted drug trials, and I ask them to consider who were the experts in that situation. It's a topic I added to the face-to-face course a few years ago almost as an afterthought. A surprise hit.
The modules on gender and science also got a large number of up votes. We talked about underrepresentation of women in science (+13 to -0), the problem of invisibility (+12 to -0), and ways in which thinking about gender can change the content of science itself (+11 to -0). I was worried that some students might act as chauvinist trolls in the discussion forums, but that didn't happen. The discussions were some of the best in the whole course.
Two topics had as many down votes as up votes (+5 to -5). In both cases, I think it was because people didn't like the reading. For the module on scientific observation, they read Trevor Pinch's analysis of experiments to detect solar neutrinos. The science is somewhat abstruse. For the module on causal inference, they read Stephen Jay Gould on the history of IQ testing. It's history, so the text is just longer than most of the other readings.
Both of those topics are important, and students seemed to understand them after doing the work. So the down votes for each don't make me think I should cut them from the course.
Although the net vote was in favor, there were actually more down votes for the chapter of Mill's On Liberty (+8 to -6). As a surprising contrast, they were of one mind about Peirce's "The Fixation of Belief" (+10 to -0).
In general, students did a good job of engaging and discussing the material by scientists, historians, and sociologists. They had more trouble with the articles written by philosophers. I think that this is because reading philosophy is a distinct skill.
Scientists, historians, and sociologists tend either to present facts or argue for some conclusion. Those two voices are pretty easy to distinguish, and both involve advocacy for a claim that the author thinks the reader ought to believe.
Contrawise, philosophers don't just state a thesis and explain it. Instead, they state a thesis, make an argument for it, consider objections to their argument, provide rebuttals to the objections, and so on. The objections are things they write but don't ultimately mean to endorse. The rebuttals are things they write but only care about with respect to the objections. Sorting all that out is hard work.
What I do in a face-to-face class is try to help students sort it out, to help them navigate the text. I'm not sure what to offer as a substitute for that on-line.
I turned in grades today, so I can set it down for a while. But there were enough points at which I thought "Oh, I know what I should do next time" that I'm sure I'll teach this on-line again.