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This issue of CDTL Brief on Use of IT in Education discusses how IT can be used in various context to facilitate teaching and learning as well as factors that motivate or discourage faculty to adopt IT in teaching their courses.
April 2007, Vol. 10 No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Using Blogs to Teach Philosophy
Dr John Christian Holbo
Department of Philosophy

It has been three years since I taught a module that did not have a blog (online journals). I take for granted that much of the value of any module consists in what happens in blog comments, and I find the practice of posting on blogs to be a good discipline. When I teach a module, I try to get as many readings online as possible. I build websites and do not hand out much papers. My lectures are available via webcast for big classes. I have reached the point where this sort of IT-use is like having headlights on a car-if you do not have them, you would not be able to do approximately half of what you want to do.

The future is already here. It's just not widely distributed yet. (William Gibson, 1948-)

William Gibson's quote could be my motto. But one could also say that a pretty thick layer of future is already widely distributed; it is just that some think it is not. Instead, we call the future the 'past'. For example, email is IT, computers are IT, books are IT, a pencil is IT and our brains are IT. Well, that is why the discussion is really supposed to be about IT-use as though every teacher should be an IT innovator. Some people are, some are not, and that is fine. For that matter, the technology (blogs) I am using at the moment is hardly cutting-edge. It is just that not many other teachers use blogs, but they all use email.

So, what are we looking for here? Should teachers simply adopt any new technology that works- just like how our ancestors eventually got used to 'books'? It is not even an issue, since no one opposes new things that work; it just takes effort to spread it around. Teachers teach as they were taught years ago. University teaching is, paradoxically, a rather solitary practice. You meet your students, but seldom see the inside of a colleague's classroom.

Using IT in education does not save labour, but it adds value. This is rather different from using robots and systems to cut labour costs in the industry and thereby add value. Until robots get several orders of magnitude smarter, there is not a lot of education labour they are qualified to save except one possibility: replacing lectures with videos. I am skeptical of this because it could have happened a quarter century ago with VHS tapes. The fact that it did not speaks volumes. What is wrong with canned lectures that are streamed on demand? Well, one thing is that it makes even a small class feel like a big class. That personal spark between individual students and teachers does not fly. A great deal of the energy in good teaching is derived from students' interaction with an actual, enthusiastic person who wants them to learn something right now. No video provides that. Also, the labour cost of a lecture is, for most lecturers, not so much more than the time it takes to talk. Rather, the real cost is the time and effort in preparing to become competent to lecture on subject x. The actual delivery is almost an afterthought.

But this largely defeats the savings of, say, just putting it all on tape/disk/information crystals of the future. Universities are not going to become video stores. They must have humans who are competent and prepared to teach subjects. That is the fixed labour cost, and the real big-ticket item. So, repeating lectures by just putting them in the can to stream on demand neither saves labour nor adds value to them. Live theatre is better. But what about big classes where there is not much chance for teachers to have real conversations with students? Admittedly, a canned video lecture starts to look more competitive here. I would no longer seriously consider not offering webcasting for large lecture modules, unless there are obstacles (e.g. copyright problems with my film module, PH2880A "Philosophy and Film"). But this does not mean that teaching and learning in big classes is restricted to students accessing digital archives on demand. Rather, the solution is to seek ways that can make the big lecture classes seem like small ones, and make the small classes more like those 2-to-1 or 1-to-1 tutorial sessions that only went extinct in the recent past.

I have found that blogs work nicely in getting discussions going. There is nothing magical about a blog. In fact its chief technical advantages over, say, IVLE forums consist in slightly more inviting aesthetics. It is a sequentially-ordered set of short texts that does not require a lot of planning, because the presumption is that there is no master plan, just the order the bits go up, and some sort of archival system so you can find old things later. The good posts can be saved and reused next semester, but much of it is off-the-cuff or 'something I forgot to say in lecture' stuff. Between reusing old bits, and just firing off new bits as part of the day-to-day life of the module, a lot of content is generated with rather little effort. If it is informal and chatty, students are not daunted and get in the habit of dropping by to check what is up. Blogs are actually rather socially addictive for many people. And the whole thing can be nicely integrated into a large website and online reading set. Students can click around and link directly to readings. I find requiring students to produce a modest volume of contributions, which are then marked only as satisfactory/unsatisfactory, a useful assignment. This require students to write a lot, which is valuable to them without it being the case that all their writing is severely judged (which inhibits production); and without it being the case that the instructor is buried under a mountain of marking. Such an assignment does not require much effort from the teacher.

All the little things add up. The process-building, maintaining and moderating blogs-is very time consuming. It is a serious investment of labour, but one that pays dividends, especially in large modules that are repeated every semester (e.g. exposure modules such as PH1101E/GEM1004 "Reason and Persuasion" which I am teaching at the philosophy department). Think of it that way and take reasonable steps to ensure that teachers can make the investment to earn those dividends.

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Inside this issue
Innovative Use of IT: A Surgeon’s Perspective
Let Go of My Lego!
IT and Experiential Learning
Using Blogs to Teach Philosophy
Factors Affecting the Adoption of Information Technology (IT) in Higher Education
A Conceptual Model to Guide the Use of ICT in Teaching and Learning