Myodicy, Issue 9, December 1998

End-of-Term Report:
Fall Term 1998-99

by Theodore Plantinga

This term I taught upper-level courses in Jewish Philosophy and Philosophy of Education, and also two sections of Introduction to Philosophy. I'll begin with the Jewish Philosophy course, which had run once before two years previously.

Attendance was exceptionally good, and I believe the material made a deep impression on the students. I focused on Jewish thought of the modern era, although the course did include some selections from Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed. My main textbook had the word "modern" in its title: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Philosophy, by Norbert M. Samuelson. Many of the thinkers I dealt with in the lectures reflected on the prospects for Jews to remain authentically Jewish while also functioning as citizens of the modern Western world.

An important component of the course was the Jewish philosophical response to the Holocaust. The students read most of Emil Fackenheim's book To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought. I particularly enjoyed dealing with Fackenheim's thought, since I know him personally. (Together with Prof. Thomas Langan, Fackenheim guided me through my doctoral dissertation project at the University of Toronto in the early 1970s.)

The course in Philosophy of Education was, to quite some extent, a new one. It happens that I used to teach a course with the same name and number, a course that functioned as part of Redeemer's education program. But in a curricular re-arrangement undertaken a couple of years ago, the responsibility for providing students with a Christian philosophical understanding of the educational task was transferred to Prof. John Vriend of the Education Department, who was not on Redeemer's faculty when I first began teaching in the area of philosophy of education back in 1984.

Since the course was no longer needed for students preparing for elementary education, I was free to retool it and give it a new focus. The two areas I concentrated on were tertiary education and the changes in education which the new technologies of the late twentieth century were bringing about.

It was my hope and expectation that some of the college's most computer-adept students would enroll in the course and press the case for an ever greater use of technology in future teaching and learning situations. It would then be my task to bring in the arguments of the technophobes (e.g. Neil Postman) to make sure that both sides got a fair hearing.

What actually happened was roughly the reverse of what I expected. The students who signed up for the course were, for the most part, critical of computers in education, or mildly accepting, at best. Therefore it fell to me to make the argument in favor of computer use in education. I did so both in the lectures and in response to student presentations, in which interesting anti-technology arguments were advanced, not all of which were strictly relevant to the question of computers and learning.

In advancing such arguments, I was exemplifying one of Neil Postman's claims about education, on which I had lectured briefly, namely, the thermostatic task of the teacher. Postman writes: "Education is best conceived of as a thermostatic activity. ... [Education] tries to conserve tradition when the rest of the environment is innovative. Or it is innovative when the rest of the society is tradition-bound." [NOTE 1] Argues Postman: "... education should supply what the rest of the culture is not supplying." [NOTE 2]

Some of the class presentations by students involved software demonstrations and evaluations. While I was impressed and intrigued with a few of the programs, many of them seemed trite. And it was hard to tell whether the students presenting and criticizing them had given them a fair trial: it seemed to me that the inclination of a number of them was to conclude that the new educational devices and programs were of marginal educational relevance and did not show promise of transforming the structure of schooling as we know it.

I went into the course expecting to change my mind on various issues. Perhaps I should say that I was disappointed in reaching the end of the term with the same outlook on computers and the future of education that I had at the beginning. The statements I heard in the classroom and encountered in my reading for the course did not lead me to suppose that my profession is in jeopardy.

But technological change in the college itself was also a factor in my thinking on these matters. Two changes that had been made during the summer preceding the fall term had a definite bearing on my philosophy of education course. The first was the introduction of a local area network, which allowed me to share files in the personal computer in my office with other people on campus, provided they were working at computers that were also connected to the network.

Every now and then a student asks me to put my lecture notes on reserve reading in the library. I decline to do so. However, for quite a few years I have made extensive handouts based on my lecture notes available to students. I used to photocopy them and distribute them via the bookstore. Then I put the material on computer disks and invited students to print them if they wanted hard copies. With the local area network available, I decided to distribute a subset of each lecture topic file via the network. Students log to the directory for their course via the network software and then read the files I make available on screen, or print them, or download them. The files are in ASCII form, which means that they can easily be imported into any word processor.

To work this way, I had to reorganize my lecture files, dividing all materials within them into shared and non-shared items, using the paragraph as the fundamental unit. The non-shared items or paragraphs include an indicator that I use to turn a lecture file into a shared file: all paragraphs containing the indicator are deleted, and what is left over is posted for student access.

As I reworked the lecture files, I found that much of what is contained in my own notes is too cryptic to be genuinely useful to students. Thus much material had to be rewritten. The tendency to use cryptic materials for notes is one of the reasons why I always refused to put my own notes on reserve reading: important parts of the notes would have been well-nigh incomprehensible.

The second technological innovation this year was the introduction in certain classrooms of a ceiling-mounted projection system that could handle output from either a computer or a VCR. I almost never use a VCR in my own teaching, but I did seize on the opportunity to project my lecture notes (the subset version prepared for student use) during class. I also used the projector to put my announcements on the screen. The use of the projector was supposed to encourage students to resist the impulse to write everything down, since much of what I said appeared on the screen and was therefore available for them to print or download. I encouraged them to think along with me, and top write down as notes only that which does not appear on the screen.

Another reason why I did not put my own lecture notes on reserve is that they do not include definitions. For most of the terms (especially in Introduction to Philosophy), the definitions are so firmly lodged in my head that having them on paper before me would be superfluous. Yet I did want to pass on the definitions to students. For this purpose, I have over a period of years built a collection of HTML files which I call "Webtheo." It includes information about famous philosophers and a few other thinkers, definitions of philosophical terms, notes on etymology, references to follow up by way of further reading, quotations from Scripture and various creeds, and fuller explanations as to why this or that is a classic philosophical problem. The Webtheo files are interconnected with a great many hypertext links.

For each lecture topic, there is a gateway file that lists terms, names, and so forth that are relevant to the topic. The gateway file does not define the term: instead it appears there as a clickable item. The student clicks on it and is taken into one of the Webtheo files, where the definition appears, perhaps including an etymological link, or a link to some other term, or perhaps to a name. The gateway files also include many (but not all) of the quotations I use in class. The quotations may also have hypertext links built into them.

Some such set of HTML files has been available to my students since September of 1996; beginning this past September, I had the option of displaying these files right in class. Most of the time, the ASCII files drawn from my own lecture notes would be on display; from time to time I would move to the HTML files for a while to display a quotation I was commenting on, or to activate one of the links. Of course I encouraged the students to prepare for class by studying both the ASCII and HTML files relevant to the topic before I got to it in class.

One would hope that these new technologies will lead to more and better learning. It may be a bit premature to report, but my impression was that students who took my tests did a bit better than students taking similar tests before projectors were available in the classroom. On the other hand, the students seemed to slip somewhat when it came to the textbook, for which no computerized help was available. In the case of test items drawn from the textbook, I cannot make the proper before-and-after comparison, since I had abandoned the textbook used the previous year.

I cannot say that I saw an overall improvement in student performance at exam time. It may be that the ease of study made possible by the computerized materials subtly undermines the ability of students -- or perhaps their motivation -- when it comes to writing thoughtful, carefully organized essays on a final examination. Kierkegaard would undoubtedly advise me to make things harder for students, rather than easier. [NOTE 3]

I expect that such projectors will eventually become standard equipment in university classrooms. At Redeemer, however, that day has not yet arrived. One of the courses I taught this fall (Jewish Philosophy) met in a room with no projector. But I decided I had the same obligations to the Jewish Philosophy students as to the others. Thus I not only prepared HTML files for their class but also the ASCII files containing a subset of my own lecture notes. They had the option of printing this material and bringing it to class, but they could not see the material projected for them while they were in class. Their performance did not seem to suffer for lack of a projector.

It seems reasonable to ask how the presence of the projector changed the classroom experience for the teacher. On the whole I rather enjoyed it (although it took about a month to get to the point of feeling comfortable with the technology). It gave me the feeling that even if my oral articulation of the material sometimes fell short of the ideal, I had an effective back-up in terms of the material made available via the technology. It also meant that the students paid less attention to me in terms of fixing their eyes on me. I tended to stand to the side in order not to get in their line of sight. In a class in which most of the seats were occupied, this might not be easy to do.

In at least one respect, however, the new technology makes teaching harder. I had the feeling that I was on display more than I had been in earlier days. In previous years there might be a day when I did not get as much time for class preparation as I had expected; if I knew the subject-matter for a given lecture reasonably well, it did not much matter. I could improvise and usually hide my lack of preparation. Students would not be able to tell that I was making very little use of lecture notes. But under the new system, where students possess a good deal of what is in my notes, lack of preparation is more likely to show through. There were still some days this past term (especially in the upper-level courses) when I shuffled material around, or dropped some stuff, or re-formulated things as I talked, but it would be quite evident to the students that this was going on because they had the "script" in hand, so to speak. In this regard, I felt I had a bit less freedom with the new technology. Nonetheless, I enjoyed using it, and I hope it will soon be available in all of our regular classrooms. [END]


[NOTE 1]
Teaching as a Conserving Activity, (New York: Delta, 1979), p. 86.

[NOTE 2]
Harper's Magazine, March 1991, p. 54.

[NOTE 3]
See his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. David F. Swenson and Walter Lowrie (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1941), pp. 164-6.

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