Synchronous Online Teaching

Education in times of (post)-Corona

Since the beginning of the 2019/20 academic year, I was toying with the idea of creating an online pre-recorded philosophy course to share on platforms like Udemy.

While perhaps appealing in monetary terms if the course was successful, I was hesitant about the feasibility of creating one such course and making it interesting for the public.

My skepticism was motivated by the nature of the subject matter: philosophy. Math, physics, history, economics, and many other fields make it fairly easy for professors to design an informative course to the benefit of students. All they need is a proper grasp of the material, good equipment to record, and a relatively fun way of communicating the lessons.

Philosophy, however, is different for several reasons. First, there’s already plenty of content (free and paid) out there that explains philosophical concepts, gives a coherent overview of different philosophical traditions, and provides a compelling commentary on the work of renowned philosophers.

So putting effort into creating one more such course, I thought, was not going to be adding much value. Why would people buy my content if they already have enough material that is available for free?

My discussions with my undergraduate students, and people who attended my lectures at some point all highlighted one aspect that I thought was a key element in what I did as a professor: my classes were mostly discussion-oriented.

This realization was good enough for me to think about a way to create something of value. In my classes, I rely heavily on establishing space for dialogue between participants to explore the philosophical topics being discussed in a more applied manner.

For example, if I’m explaining Stoicism, once I finish expounding the tenets of this school of thought, I ask questions to steer the conversation into a more applied manner.

I subsequently encourage the participants to explore this philosophy in a way that relates to their life experiences. They often end up reflecting on the possibility of incorporating such a philosophy into their daily routine. These exchanges are particularly interesting. You never know what to expect, but almost always end up learning something new.

Taking that into consideration, I started offering freelance synchronous online courses for a wider public in June 2020. It wasn’t the first time I did that, because the Spring semester (January-May 2020) at university was also carried out online.

As a new freelance venture that targets people who are interested in philosophy, my experiment has been on average a very pleasant one!

First I would like to add that it is important to keep in mind that in this article I am interested in providing a reflection on the difference between synchronous and non-synchronous online teaching/learning. Not whether or not online learning is better than a face-to-face one.

The upsides of such a trial are many. Three are worth highlighting: a) there seems to be an untapped niche market of people interested in synchronous online learning. b) the online format makes it possible for people from around the world to join in and add a different flavor to the discussions. c) all my effort is put into preparing for the course because there’s no grading or any other departmental-like tasks to keep up with.

The added value of this online format is created by the added dimension of human interaction that is by and large missing from pre-recorded sessions. There are endless possibilities to make the course more interesting, tweaking it constantly so as to keep up with the latest market trends.

The downside is that it might not be scalable. The optimal number of participants should not exceed 23 in order to ensure that everyone gets a fair share of time to participate in the ongoing dialogue, as well as to keep the discussions manageable and well organized.

A pre-recorded course might be easier to handle, and if marketed properly might even be more lucrative. But synchronous online learning has the potential to bring people together to exchange ideas, learn new things, connect with other people from around the globe.

If you’re interested in getting to know more about my project to bring philosophy back to the marketplace and my online venture, you can follow me on Twitter @decafquest. Thank you.

Philosophy in the marketplace:

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