In last week’s installment, I walked through the basic thought process that led to my intermediate/advanced PHIL 230 (Studies in Philosophy) course model. This week, I’m going to take a closer look at an outline of the syllabus for the Information and Computer Ethics version of the class, with particular attention paid to the schedule and the assignments. Ultimately, teaching these classes was a matter of following rules and developing tools, which should become visible once we have a look at the Information and Computer Ethics outline.
First, check out the syllabus outline for PHIL 230: Information and Computer Ethics. Make special note of the schedule and the assignment descriptions.
The basic idea I had for the course was that it ought to be like a sort of all-term workshop on a relatively narrow topic, so that we could all work together to learn, research, write, present, and revise as a group of scholars engaged in shared study of the same thing. The student presentations at the end of term were run as a sort of mini-conference (complete with a conference program for presentations in which students were able to read each other’s abstracts). Students would have time to revise their work in light of both instructor comments and presentation responses/questions from their peers.
More specifically, the class ran according to two rules I made for myself, using a small set of tools the purpose of getting the ball rolling and keeping it in motion.
Rule 1: Enter by the narrow gate
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the best conditions for free research and inquiry for my students are those in which certain options are left open and others are firmly closed; reducing variables improves outcomes. GenEd students with minimal prior training in Philosophy are not usually well-equipped to come up with appropriate topics or research questions in response to a comprehensive topic survey. Keeping the course itself to a relatively narrow range of possible discussions therefore became a guiding principle. This way, the students would be well enough acquainted with the same materials to have something worthwhile to say to each other about their work. This would also make it possible to get them started on doing research within the second or third week of class. Following this rule generated a course with less assigned content (reading assignments stopped after week 11 of a 15-week semester) and — I hoped — more meaningful and accomplished student interaction with that content.
In practice, this meant that I assigned exactly one book for the course — Floridi’s Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics. Students started doing research to form a pool of shared readings from journals and other sources in week 2. I began replacing one day a week of textbook-assigned readings with student-shared readings in week 4, and went over entirely to student-shared readings for weeks 9-11. Students were submitting new readings every Thursday night for eight weeks (week 2-week 10), which meant that in addition to doing assigned reading for the class, they were also working on their own to find material (which makes up, in a way, for the apparent lightness of the assignment schedule). They did an intense reading and research burn, basically, until the 11th week, and then were released to focus on writing.
Rule 2: Curation is the name of the game; collaboration is the way we play
Students in this class were required to submit readings to both a shared discussion in Canvas and to a shared Google doc (our Collaborative Annotated Bibliography). Ideally, this would give the entire class access to the articles, some guidance as to their content, and some practice writing annotations and constructing bibliographic entries according to the Chicago Manual of Style. In addition to researching and submitting articles, students were expected to keep track of what was already in the bibliography (to avoid duplicates). Students were also expected to seek out and share examples to use as cases for our Friday application discussions (I’ll say more about how we did this in the tools section below). These were usually news items, although students were allowed to pose questions and cases that they invented for themselves; we had some interesting discussions about information privacy in the dorms on campus, for example, and related concerns about using an app to track Humans vs. Zombies player participation.
We didn’t just use student-submitted content willy-nilly, however. A lot of my job for the term was to curate that material, fitting it in relative to the chapters in the Floridi anthology and with some attention paid to common themes in the submissions themselves. My curatorial work was also a control measure for instances in which the pool of available material wasn’t adequate to the task; I was there to deal with those weeks in which student submissions weren’t up to snuff. I occasionally added submissions of my own to cover content shortfalls. Note that my curatorial role here was also shaped by the fact that this was a small group of students (there were only 10 in the class when I taught it at BVU); a larger group might present different challenges.
Once we got to weeks 12 and 13, class time was devoted to discussing student papers in progress — each student had the chance to talk about how the work was going, and we also spent time talking about how to do a presentation, how to shape a really good thesis for this sort of paper, etc. By the time students submitted their rough drafts and abstracts, they had already learned quite a bit about each other’s papers, and they’d already received a lot of feedback on the writing and presentation process. They were given each other’s abstracts before presentations started, and required to share initial questions about abstract content; this gave presenters some idea of what kinds of questions to prepare for and audience members a preview of what they would be hearing. Students in the audience on a given presentation day were required to ask and/or submit in writing at least one question for each presenter.
In order to facilitate all of the research and collaboration work I had in mind, I required my students to get comfortable with a range of different tools, a term I use here to cover both technologies and practices. I wanted them to use an RSS feed reader for collecting application discussion examples, Google Drive/Docs for collaborative editing, and various discussion options in Canvas. I also walked them through a fairly basic form of citation-based Pearl Growing work at the very start of the term, starting from a sample article and the assigned course readings in order to show them how to use those things to find other material. My hope was that using the assigned reading and this sample guidance would facilitate the research process well enough that they could start finding topics within the scope of the discussion that interested them enough to make seeking more information interesting and worthwhile for them. Honestly, while I think the Collaborative Annotated bibliography was a good assignment, a better way to do it (following Rule 1 more effectively) would be to skip the Canvas discussion for sharing and just get the class set up as a group in Zotero. At the time, I was on my high horse about making people learn how to do citations manually, so I managed to make the whole process harder than it needed to be.
To smooth the research road a bit outside of class instruction, I built the class a research guide using a set of Canvas Pages — here’s a very ugly, poorly formatted Google Sites version of it that I created for my MLIS portfolio, if you’re curious (BVU doesn’t use LibGuides, so I cobbled together a solution of my own). Following Rule 1, I used this selection of resources as a way to reduce variables; I gave the students what they needed up front, instead of hoping they’d find what I wanted them to find.
If it occurs to you that this all looks like a lot of work, well — you’re not wrong. Still, I was reasonably pleased with the results I got. There was a lot less topic floundering and a lot more good work on the papers, and student discussions of key concepts and arguments were informed and serious (most of the time, anyway).
“OK, sure,” you might then say, “but this is a whole semester-long course, and it seems to include in the schedule some days in class that are effectively one-shot library instruction sessions. How on earth can you scale this approach down for one-shots in isolation, when you don’t have the whole term to work with?”
Aha! Well, that’s what we’ll talk about next week, when I shift down to the one-shot scale and suggest some ways to use my rules and tools and backward design notions for individual library instruction sessions.