Monday, August 18, 2014

Online Education and the Fragmentation of Society

For various reasons I recently agreed to make an online version of my philosophy of sex and love course. This is not a "MOOC" -- and it's not going to replace my on campus philosophy of sex and love course or anything like that. It's just going to be offered alongside the campus version in the regular way, through my university, with graduate students grading the tests and essays.

As I set about constructing the lectures that I would later read into the microphone, I noticed right away a certain problem arising: I couldn't know which parts of what I was saying would strike people as obvious, as new but plausible, as mysterious, as dubious, or even as offensive. It's something relatively straightforward to deal with in a classroom. But online? Not so much.

For example, one of the first readings we do in that class is Martha Nussbaum's paper "Objectification." Early on she refers to the ideas of the feminists and legal scholars Dworkin and MacKinnon, that the objectification of women is a huge societal problem and that it is deeply connected to sexuality and the depiction of sexuality in pornography.

It's a difficult set of ideas to explain briefly. I like to focus on the quote from MacKinnon that "All women live in sexual objectification the way fish live in water" -- which I take to mean roughly that because of the way society is set up, women are not only surrounded by objectifying practices, they often have to choose to be objectified to get along in life, and may come even to experience a preference for objectification -- to, in Nussbaum's words derive our "very nourishment and sustenance from it."

That's just an interpretation. In class, I like to bring up this quotation and ask the students what they think it means and what they think about it.

It's often a pretty lively discussion, because the ideas seem to some people kind of obvious, to others surprising but maybe true, to others completely obscure, and to others implausible.

It's in moments like this that three significant things happen in IRL classrooms.

First, the students who find the idea obscure or implausible can say why they do, and we can talk about it. As I was making my lecture, I realized how many different questions people had had over the years, and how the diversity of experience in our world guarantees the range of what seems "obvious" or "expected" will be vast. Since the world changes and there are always new students, I have no idea what, in the future, they'll be puzzled by or think is weird. If we're there in the classroom, they can tell me, and we can talk about it. Online? Not so much.

Second, students encounter first-hand the range of other student views. In some cases this makes more of an impression on them than anything I might have to say as the teacher. I remember teaching Intro to Philosophy years ago and we were doing a discussion about the existence of god and the problem of evil, and this one student said very in very strong terms that of course he was an atheist, that he had never believed in god, but thought that blah blah blah. And this other student was in my office the next day and his eyes were wide as he said "And that one guy -- he said he was an atheist, had never believed in god! It's kind of more OMG if it's your peer than some weird grown-up at the front of the room.

Finally, students - duh! - learn from one another. Almost always someone who finds the fish-in-water remark intuitive can explain to someone who doesn't why it rings true to them.

It  might seem that all of these things can happen in an online course, because ONLINE DISCUSSION. But I don't know. For various reasons it is difficult to replicate online the particular kind of constructive -- even interested -- back and forth that can happen when a bunch of people are in a room together.

Often, online interaction entrenches people in their own views. They see commenting as offering, rather than listening to, an opinion.

And so it occurred to me that if you start with a bunch of people coming from different viewpoints, the move to online education might erase, even further, the tiny opportunities we have no to exchange with one another in ways that make us see our commonalities as well as our differences.

In an online course, I can try to guess what will seem obvious to people, and try to challenge it through my lectures. But really -- those future people, who the hell knows what they'll be thinking?

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