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What Philosophy Tells us About Online Learning

Philosophy is often thought of as a purely abstract field, with distillations like “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing,” “I think, therefore I am,” or “liberty consists in doing what one desires” often dominating common perceptions. However, works from the philosophy of education have been gaining traction recently in application to online learning. An array of prominent thinking can be useful in helping educators promote educational success in online teaching and learning.

Greek Philosophy: Experiential Learning

Socreates, Plato, and Aristotle, are the clear starting points for philosophical application—given their wide influence in the philosophy of education. As Paul Stonehouse, Pete Allison, and David Carr suggest, one of the ways to evaluate the work of these thinkers is by focusing on their conceptions of experiential education. For Socreates, his elenctic method is the idea that learning exists through questions that identify what the student knows and does not know. This can be more clearly and practically articulated as the role of the teacher as merely a facilitator, “thoughtfully assessing where the student is, and prompting the student’s own discovery.” In a similar vein, Aristotle contends that “experience provides the raw material for reflection” and that “as knowledge is gleaned from each particular experience, more general understanding is developed.”

Taking the Greek premises to the digital learning world, it is clear that there is a significant emphasis on exchange and grounded real-world applications. Discussion is a major aspect of learning, with the teacher becoming a guide for self-actualized educational tasks. Class discussion may seem to fall out of favor in digital environments, but there are plenty of ways to apply pedagogical techniques and technology to facilitate conversation, both student-to-teacher and student-to-student. As for real-world style learning, educators are exploring ways to incorporate edTech, and orient approaches more in tune with teaching 21st century skills.

Pragmatism and Educational Approaches

Experiential learning is also a central focus for many in the philosophical tradition of pragmatism. A key example of this is the work of John Dewey, whose ideas presented in his books School and Society, Democracy in Education, and Experience in Education are major touchstones in the philosophy of education. Leonard J Waks notes that, for Dewey, considering education requires a consideration of classrooms, which seem to spatially reflect the ways in which learning is to occur. The classroom is the flowchart of knowledge dissemination, it, quite literally, stages the relationship between teacher and student, based on layout. This represents a specific type of problem wherein students are structured en masse into an inactive scenario; “in such an arrangement, there is no room for thinking, which is inherently active.” Dewey’s rejection of this spatially-constituted learning environment equated to the model of experimentalist education that sought to overcome these boundaries.

This position eschews traditional teacher-student dynamics and constitutes an alternative where “student thinking replaces rote memorization and shallow understanding at center stage; from the start, students are situated in activities that require them to experiment with ideas as they pursue ends that matter to them”. Dewey’s examples were art lessons, gardening, and nature study, but with this premise comes a clear connection to the digital world.

While many features of the learning community Dewey envisioned are impossible online, various forms of technology could offer similar experiences. Virtual reality (VR) in STEM education, for example, creates an almost limitless classroom, by offering realistic visualizations of a variety of learning scenarios. Students can learn through application, vai a digital environment. Moveover, there have been several moves already to translate practical studies into remote learning. In these ways, online learning is compatible with Dewey’s thinking, which leads Kelvin S. Beckett to write that “if [Dewey] were with us today, teaching online, he would guide and lead learners as they all together sought to renew their scholarly and professional communities.”

Applying Post-structuralism in Education

Applying post-structuralist thought to education is inherently complex because many of the thinkers in this area do not explicitly write about education. However, as Chris Drew notes, it is still a useful subfield to pull from for thoughts on learning.

One example of educational application of post-structuralism, according to Drew, is with Gilles Deluze and Félix Guattari’s concept of rhizomatic thinking, which is about looking at the different ways of thinking about things rather than finding the root of knowledge. Rhizomatic thinking facilitates forms of rhizomatic learning, wherein “knowledge is negotiated, and the learning experience is a social as well as a personal knowledge creation process with mutable goals and constantly negotiated premise.”

Negotiated knowledge is an increasingly prevalent idea in a highly technified world. Accordingly Jenny Mackness, Frances Bell, Mariana Funes apply a rhizomatic model to the design of a massive open online course (MOOC). They found that “many participants could relate to and welcomed the anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchical characteristics of the rhizome, but that knowledge and understanding of Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptual principles of the rhizome was more difficult.” Each class was situated around a question (ex: “Embracing Uncertainty,” “Community as Curriculum,” etc.), and no objectives were outlined. This approach exemplifies how this type of design changes the teaching and learning process. This diversion from traditional pedagogy can, by extension, be considered when thinking through higher education course and assessment design.

Philosophy in Education: Takeaways

While online learning seems new and canonical works of educational philosophy seem old, these ideas provide a helpful basis to understand the pedagogy behind the digital learning world. Educators can raid these ideas to find what works best for their classroom. From Greek philosophy, we get an emphasis on discussion, a component of learning that should not be forgotten in remote contexts. The pragmatists offer a consideration of experience, which invites us to think about ways to make online learning more applied and practical. Finally, the poststructuralists give us a lens to see knowledge, which influences how we approach assessments and course structure in higher education. Overall, with some creative application, philosophy may help us move forward in remote learning.

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