Oct 28, 2016

Free Class on Epictetus' Enchiridion at the ReasonIO Academy!

Over the years, I've worked with a number of online platforms, exploring their various potentials for widening access and enhancing learning for students worldwide - these include YouTube, Moodle, Curious, Coursmos, and Outschool.

We've now created a new learning space on another platform, Teachable - the ReasonIO Academy - and I'm happy to be able to write a bit about the first course I've developed there - Epictetus' Enchiridion:  Ancient Philosophy & Peace of Mind.

Students can enroll in this course for FREE, and they get access to 22 videos, 16 downloadable handouts and worksheets, and a host of other resources (quizzes, reflection questions, discussion forums, lesson pages, curated links. . .)  So, why create this course?  And why offer it for free?


Modern Stoicism And Online Community

Over the last year (as I think most of my readers remember), I was invited to become officially involved within a project group that plays a key role within the broader modern Stoic movement - known at present as the Stoicism Today group.  This took place formally when I assumed the role of editor of the blog Stoicism Today, and that has meant becoming much more involved in Stoic Week, the STOICON conference, and some of the other connected projects, groups, and efforts.  All of that in turn has also meant getting to know and interact with quite a few intersting members of the modern Stoic community.

All of this developed, I suppose, out of my own growing interest in and online involvement with Stoic philosophy.  This included taking part in the Stoic Week classes in 2014 and 2015, creating videos each of the days of those Weeks, writing a guest post for Stoicism Today on Epicteus' views on familial affection, and even developing and teaching an online course on Epictetus' Discourses (for an online institution I later resigned from).

I was honored to be asked to step into the editorial position at Stoicism Today, and started in March. Later on this summer, I expanded, redesigned, and taught an online course on Epictetus' Discourses and Enchridion - no longer working for another academic institution, but instead hosted on our own ReasonIO Moodle site - and in the process of that course redesign created a slew of new commentary videos on Epictetus' Enchridion.

As a bit of a side-note, for several years I've been producing commentary videos on G.W.F. Hegel's massive work, the Phenomenology of Spirit.  The series is called "Half Hour Hegel", and each of the videos (I've created about 140 so far!) works through one to four paragraphs of the work.  Really close reading - skipping nothing - going line by line!  This format met its "proof of concept" over a year ago. .  . and that got me thinking that maybe I'd start applying that same approach to other thinkers and texts central to the history of philosophy.

So this summer, then, I decided to do precisely that with Epictetus' Enchiridion.  It's a short, but rich and sometimes puzzling text - so it seemed like a manageable side-project.  As it turned out, it took me 21 videos to work through all 53 chapters of the book, each of those commentaries ranging from 25-35 minutes in length.  So this year, going into Stoic Week, I realized that, by contrast to other years, I already had quite a bit of Stoic content available that I could release to the public as a way to participate and celebrate during the week.

That got me thinking.  We were already exploring new online platforms that we could site our existing course content on, and build new course content in.  I already had video content covering the entire Enchiridion in serious depth and detail, and a few of the other resources that would help to create a full course environment for studying the text.  Why not build that class as our first one in the ReasonIO Academy on Teachable, then offer it to students for free after Stoic Week?

Donald Robertson has been providing the Stoic Week class (and his longer Stoic Resilience and Mindfulness Training class) for free, year after year.  And recently, Massimo Pigluicci developed a very nice Stoicism: The Very Basics course, also provided for free.  So, it seemed fitting to me that I offer this first class on a key text of Stoic philosophy for free as well.  It could end up, like those excellent classes offered by my colleagues, providing valuable educational resources not only for individual students and lifelong learners, but also for the broader modern Stoic community as well.


Online Entrepreneurship and Education As A Common Good

As a separate topic, there's quite a lot more to say about the business of developing, offering, and teaching online courses, and I'm only going to touch on a bit of that in this post (perhaps I'll revisit and expand on some of these issues in future discussions).  I'll start by saying this - like another colleague, Kevin de Laplante, who you might know as the guy behind the excellent Critical Thinker Academy - if I could afford to make all of my work free, I'd happily do so.  And when I can, I typically do!

That "can" of course, remains - at least at the present time - on my earning enough of an income through my other work to make it feasible to do work uncompensated (or in some cases, for example, the YouTube videos, with quite low compensation in relation to the amount of work involved).  That is, to support myself and my family, and to do all the mundane things small business owners need to do, like pay taxes, meet expenses, cover medical costs and the like (boring but necessary stuff).

There's a wide range of situations that the people who develop good to excellent online educational content find themselves in.  Some are effectively bankrolled and supported by their own or some other institution - that's a nice position to be in, but it's like the old saying goes, "good work if you can get it," and frankly, here in the US that's only a few.  It may well be different in other places (a few of my European correspondents sometimes chide me for not offering everything I do for free, under the assumption - I have to guess - that somehow the state would be supporting my work!), but that's the way it is here.

Other creators or content live at an entirely opposite and penurious extreme. Perhaps they develop something quite good, say a wonderful, witty, brilliant series on YouTube that reaches tens of thousands of learners worldwide each year, providing them with content those learners can incorporate into their own self-guided study (or perhaps even bundled into educational packages by other online institutions!)  These says, you don't earn much developing real educational - as opposed to "edutainment" - videos on YouTube, certainly not enough to support oneself.   But if you do so, you may in fact benefit thousands of people (as well as YouTube and Google!).

Then there's the people like myself, somewhere in the middle, or rather moving in a different vector than where those two extremes exist.  We're those online educators who either started out with or had to develop an entrepreneurial mindset, attitude, and practical way of doing things (I'm the latter).  Some members of this group, I think, really are motivated by a desire to make as much money as possible from people using their content.  Some, like the aforementioned Kevin and myself, view the moneymaking part of entrepreneurship as a perhaps eventually dispensable but currently present necessity for supporting education as a common good.

As a side note - perhaps something I'll write more about later on - there is a different aspect to entrepreneurship that, however one feels about charging for services and products, is very attractive for those who adopt that way of life.  And that is getting to determine for oneself what one will do, build, offer, teach. . .   It's not just a matter of "being one's own boss," which I think most people think of as simply not having a boss (I have one - myself - and he works me pretty, pretty hard!).  It's not a matter of not having to be accountable to anyone either - try that with clients and see how long you stay in business!

What it involves is being enabled to create and and develop the elements, structures, content, whatever you like to call it, that provide an education to other people in a format that makes sense to you.  I did that with this class.  There's 53 short chapters to the work.  As opposed to what we might get done within the confines of a traditional15-week semester, where the Enchiridion might get one or two class sessions, we can actually go through the entire work.  We can devote to each portion, each idea, each passage of the text the level of attention it deserves.

So, why offer this class for free?  It's part of walking that balance - between treating the products, skills, knowledge that go into providing education to learners worldwide as a common good, on the one hand - and making sure that I have the opportunity to get adequately recompensed for the amount of labor I put in and benefit I provide others through my educational work, on the other hand.  The key there isn't just those two sides of the balance - it's the forward movement, the growth, embodied by the metaphor of "walking" a dynamic balance.

I'm hoping to build our ReasonIO Academy into a new online location offering a whole host of great courses for students, lifelong learners, and working professionals worldwide.  Any given student enrolled in the free Epictetus' Enchiridion course may or may not end up taking the other courses we develop and offer - some will, some won't, and it's so hard to predict which is which that I don't even bother trying to guess - but now they certainly will have a clear, experientially-based idea of what the classes I produce are like, and whether they want to enroll in additional courses when they become available.