Jan 4, 2017

New Online Course - World Views And Values

One of the popular online courses I designed and taught several years back - while still working in traditional academia - was World Views and Values.  Intended primarily for transfer and degree-completion students, it was described as more or less an Intro to Philosophy course.

I was given considerable latitude in designing the course, so I decided to center it around a set of key thinkers and texts that my students were unlikely to have encountered previously - and perhaps would not as their studies proceeded - but whose ideas they would find enriching to read and think about.  I also created over 50 lecture videos for my students, and uploaded them into YouTube.

Viewers have been leaving comments expressing wishes that they could enroll in that course for several years (and those videos, to date, have had close to 50,000 views).  So, as we started building out our ReasonIO online academy, I decided to make World Views and Values one of the first classes I moved to that new platform.  So now, anyone anywhere in the world can enroll and work through the same course my online college students took and enjoyed.  And right now - for the month of January - we're offering a special coupon for enrollment at a preferred price of $39.

What We Study In The Course

When I first sat down to design my World Views and Values course, one of the main goals I had was for the students to be introduced to an array of great thinkers from the history of philosophy - to get to read and study at least one of their main works, and thereby to come to appreciate the scope and importance of their ideas.  I wanted to focus on thinkers who grappled with key themes - the nature of reality, the relationship between the human being and the cosmos, the scope and types of knowledge, human nature and the parts of the human personality, free will and determinism, the ordering or disorder of society, the play of the virtues and vices, justice and inequality, relations between genders, races, and classes. . .  among others.

I also wanted to divide the course of study between thinkers that any decent introduction to philosophy would have them encounter, and other thinkers who deserve to be read but often don't get studied.  Accordingly, here are the great minds I selected:

  • Plato - we read portions of his classic dialogue, The Republic, mainly from books 2, 3, and 4, but also some portions of book 6 and 7 (so that we can examine the allegory of the cave)
  • Epictetus - typically students read only his short work, the Enchiridion, but in my course, we read selections of the longer and more detailed Discourses.
  • Boethius - we read the entirety of his Consolation of Philosophy, a work that connects and contrasts well with the two earlier texts, representing the transition from the ancient to the medieval period.
  • Rene Descartes - for this great early modern philosopher, we work through all of his Discourse on Method, a highly popular and influential text presenting the a new approach to philosophy, culture, and society.
  • Thomas Hobbes - we read portions of his stark masterwork, the Leviathan, presenting as radical of a departure in social and political philosophy as Descartes' work does for epistemology and metaphysics.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau - continuing on with a critic of Hobbes (among others), we read the entirety of his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men, introducing a key theme that will run through the remainder of the texts for the class.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft - we examine portions of her Vindication of the Rights of Women, which brings Rousseau in for needed criticism, and develops an articulate argument for equality between the genders.
  • Karl Marx - in addition to reading the whole of the short and influential Communist Manifesto (co-authored with Friedrich Engels), we also look at his earlier and fragmentary Estranged Labor.
  • Martin Luther King - we finish up the course by studying a text often mentioned but less often read than it ought to be, the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  We also look at a speech about which one can say the same, "I Have A Dream".
There are many more thinkers who worthy of being added to a class of this sort - I had considered, for example, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, John Stuart Mill, and Hannah Arendt as possible additions in a later iteration of the course.  But as time went on, I determined that for this course, I would stick with these nine in particular.  They provided a good set of starting points for my students, who could then go on equipped to enlarge and expand their understanding of the history of ideas on their own.

The New Version of World Views and Values

The version of the course I'm now offering in our ReasonIO online academy is in most respects the same as the course I built for my college students.  It includes the same set of lecture videos, the same lesson pages, and the same handouts on the material.  Since the new course isn't for credit, there aren't any homework or graded assignments included in this new version. 

You will find, however, the same discussion questions I gave my earlier students to reflect upon, and the new course contains discussion forums in which students can leave comments and engage in ongoing conversation about the texts, the ideas, and their applications.  I've also added a new feature - quizzes over the course material, one for each thinker, designed to help students determine how well they are understanding the thinkers and their works.

All of these features are pretty commonplace now - at least for good, well-designed online courses - and together they provide a rich, cohesive online learning environment for students.  The key is, of course, for the students to be engaged in an encounter with the thinkers through reading their texts. The course elements aren't designed to substitute for - but rather to support and enhance - the study of the works themselves. But from what students tell me, they do go a long way in helping students make sense of these great books of philosophy.

One of the other aspects that makes this new version of the course more attractive than the older version is that students get to work at their own pace, rather than remaining within the confines of the 10-week term of the original course.  Most of the college students who took the earlier course did complete it, but many of them expressed regrets about not having as much time as they would have liked.  A few others - these were often working professionals taking most of their courses online - found themselves falling behind, and then unable to complete the course.  

Now, with this new version, once a student is enrolled, he or she retains lifetime access to the course and all of its materials. The student quite literally has all the time in the world to progress through all of the lessons, to develop as solid an understanding of the philosophical texts and thinkers as one might like.  I like that idea, just as much as I relish the notion that the resources I've developed - instead of being sold to a handful of students, by a college that charges several thousand dollars per course - can offer elements of a high-quality education to a vastly larger and more diverse set of students all over the world for years to come.