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2009-04-27
General Issues Concerning Online MA/PhD Programs in Philosophy
I'm curious what professors think about the future of "distance learning" MA/PhD programs in philosophy.

There's no doubting the fact that the Internet has changed, and continues to change, the way philosophy is done.  Surely there is room for criticism as well as celebration here.  Rather than invite a loose discussion of all the issues involved in such changes, however, I want to focus attention on the future of online learning.  (For a point of reference, here is a link to the Open University's MA in Philosophy page.)

We might divide the issue into two sides:  the theoretical and the practical. 

I anticipate that most of the objections to such programs will come from the theoretical side.  Some professors might resist any threats to the sanctity of the traditional classroom, perhaps because the immediacy and intimacy of face-to-face interactions are too important to philosophy education.  Also, many people tend to resist any substitution of "reality" with "virtuality," and might see online programs as a symptom of society's unhealthy preoccupation with technology.

Theoretically speaking, I do not think online learning is symptomatic of any societal problems.  What is so healthy about sitting clustered together in uncomfortable plastic chairs under flourescent lighting, with an open book, a pen, and paper at hand?  Surely distance learning offers benefits as well as costs here.  I think online degrees are the way of the future; and of course we should embrace this change as conscientiously as possible. 

Also, I wonder just how much face-to-face interactions are a crucial part of graduate studies.  Student participation is required for seminars, of couse, but not lectures, and it seems possible to simulate a seminar environment online.  There is also the issue of TA positions, which doctorate students are often required to fulfill.  But if philosophy can be taught online, then why couldn't TA functions be satisfied "from a distance"?

The theoretical issue comes down to what basic skills are represented by an MA or PhD in philosophy, and whether those skills can be gained outside the traditional classroom.  The most obvious skills required for advanced philosophical study are analytical and communicative, with more of an emphasis on writing than on speaking (though speaking is no doubt important).  I think distance learning programs can do the job here--at least, in theory.  There is no reason to think a person with an online degree has a lesser education than a person with a traditional degree--at least, when it comes to philosophy.  Some philosophy departments will likely hesitate before hiring somebody with an online PhD.  However, this prejudice should disappear once distance learning programs become more established.

On the practical side, how does one go about transforming a traditional philosophy department into an online philosophy department?  Would it require significant reorganization?  Each department would have to establish online discussion forums, chat rooms, video streams, and access to journals.  None of this should be prohibitively difficult.  It would be an additional expense, but this would be more than balanced by the increased number of matriculating students.

I should also mention that I am approaching this issue from the outside--as one who would be interested in matriculating in such a program, and not as a professor looking to change the way things are done.  But I would like to know what other people think.  This may be an issue that some philosophers will try to avoid for as long as possible; but we should expect that distance learning programs are here to stay, and may soon come to dominate higher education.

I will close with two broad questions:  Is this something many people are discussing in philosophy departments?  Should it be?

2009-08-18
General Issues Concerning Online MA/PhD Programs in Philosophy
It's a very good question, Jason, and I'm sorry this won't be the sort of reply you were hoping for!

I am also very interested in the prospect of doing postgraduate research by distance education in philosophy... I'd be interested to see what your research into the efficacy of such programs comes up with.

The only small bit of information I have, is that from my time working in the library at a university in New Zealand. There, I believe, any student could work on a Phd from anywhere in the country. They wouldn't get to work as a tutor, though.

Is that the case in other countries?

p.s. I tried to also contact you personally but couldn't find a way to do it. If you want to discuss, my email is ewan.kingston at gmail.com

2009-08-20
General Issues Concerning Online MA/PhD Programs in Philosophy
Reply to Ewan Kingston
Hi Ewan,

I think that's the way it works in Poland and in some (perhaps most) American universities.  I recall some universities in the States requiring PhD students to take on some coursework, and perhaps teaching responsibilities as well, before letting them disappear into the no-man's-land of dissertation-writing.

I am still interested in researching distance learning philosophy programs.  However, I'm not actively pursuing it at the moment. I'm trying to see what I can do here, in Poland.

Anyway, thanks for the response.  I think my original post was too long and complex to invite a good discussion of this question.  I hope anybody who's been involved in (or who wants to be involved in) distance learning programs would be willing to share their thoughts on the subject.

Regards,

Jason

P.S. I've updated my profile with personal contact info.

2009-11-20
General Issues Concerning Online MA/PhD Programs in Philosophy
I'm sorry if this topic has been put to bed (it hasn't been touched in a while) but as a hopeful grad student I'd like to point out the obvious downside of isolated education: social interaction is greatly diminished.

In a subject like philosophy I found, as an undergrad, that a very significant portion of my understanding of an area came through informal discussion with my classmates outside of the lecture theatre.  We'd understand different points in different ways, and by chatting (not formally discussing or analysing) about what each of us understood, we would drive each other's understandings.  Appeals to everyday, demographic-related analogies and parallels helps students to better understand what can be dauntingly formalised in a textbook or a lecture.  (An overweight friend lost several kilos after being inspired by Plato's physiological description of the tripartite soul; we had a discussion about the pre-lunch lecture with relation to the ham and cheese croissant he'd just bought.)

This is certainly the case with undergrad students, but bear in mind that graduate students are often simply undergrads with an extra bit of paper and a (sometimes false) air of comprehension.

I think that the lack of social interaction between students on-campus would have huge negative effects on how well a student comes to understand what s/he's just heard in a lecture.  I also don't think that attempting an alternative "virtual classroom" atmosphere would do well as a subsitute since, as I've said, it's not all about what goes on in the classroom or lecture theatre that's important to a student's education.

2009-11-21
General Issues Concerning Online MA/PhD Programs in Philosophy
Reply to Jordan Taylor
Here's a comment that came into my mailbox a few days ago, from someone I don't know, who contacted me about being involved in a piece of research for his masters. "Our master's program is distance learning and we use a tool called Blackboard where we get homework, assignments, chat and all that.  It has been so cool to be conversing with students in Oman, The Gambia, South Africa, Vienna, the UK and elsewhere.  The powers of technology at our fingertips, I guess..." My reply was enthusiastic, celebrating all the things that distance learning (DL after this) makes possible. He lives in Ethiopia. His university is in the UK. True, his degree isn't in philosophy (it's in Creative Writing) but are the exigencies that different? The diversity among fellow students that he describes, and is more likely because of the nature of program delivery, is unarguably a plus. It's not that easily found even in very large institutions, philosophy not being your biggest department even in the biggest U's. That's certainly one plus for DL programs, and an advantage  in philosophy for certain. I appreciate the value of face-to-face interactions, but there are substitutes that can be almost as good (chatrooms, this kind of discussion thread – he speaks, interestingly enough, of 'conversing') and that contribute to honing skills important in this discipline. He wanted to call me on the phone to do an interview; I asked him to send me the questions instead, since, as I explained, I don't trust my initial responses. I am an inveterate reviser of e-mails, blog posts, etc., and like to think things through carefully before I commit myself to keyboard or paper or tape. It's a good habit for writers and thinkers. And it's my experience that in any well structured DL program, there are opportunities for students to interact with their fellows to whatever extent they wish and as immediately as the technology permits. Which is usually pretty fast. Finally this kind of delivery puts pressure on the folks designing the material, on the profs, on the system. (I've a little experience with DL.) THAT can't be a bad thing!