Engaged Learning with Technology

UVU View.jpgOREM, UT - I was asked to address a group of faculty at the Utah Valley University, where there is a strong commitment to engaged learning. In the presentation that follows, I offer a model by which social media technology can be used to cultivate the active engagement of students in their own education. This model has been developed in my Philosophy courses taught at the Pennsylvania State University.

The model is based on two insights:

  1. Learning is social and so it is most effectively pursued in communities of education in which teachers and students are actively engaged together.
  2. Social media technologies are transforming education because they are able to open dynamic communities of learning between teachers and students.
The power of new social media technologies for education lies not in the information they deliver, but the communities they can create.

Let me begin with a short presentation on the pedagogy of blogging and why I think it is particularly powerful in cultivating dynamic communities of engaged learning.

In order to speak in practical terms about how faculty might begin to cultivate such a dynamic community of learning in their classrooms, I would like to highlight the structure of my course on Ancient Greek Philosophy at Penn State.

This course focuses on the question of Socratic politics and is driven completely by our course blog, Socratic Politics in Digital Dialogue.  All the writing for the course except for the final research paper is posted to the blog.

Here is the syllabus for my PHIL200 Ancient Greek Philosophy course in pdf format.

There are no specific writing assignments. Students write when they are moved to write by the texts we are reading. As faculty, I have clearly set out the expectations for the course in the Blogging rubric (.pdf), which is the key to the success of this model.

The other way I try to cultivate the active participation of the students is through the Weekly Round-up podcasts they produce in teams each week.  The goal of these podcasts is for students to reflect upon the week of class and to highlight readings, aspects of in-class discussion, blog posts and to connect them to issues of contemporary social-political concern.

Highlighting Success
Here I have gathered some links that highlight some of the ways we have been successful in cultivating a community of learning this semester:

  • Cody Yashinsky and Pam Dorian produced a weekly round-up podcast that focused on the media's influence on Philosophical discussion, the question of the Good and specific blog posts of the week.
Listen to Cody and Pam on Weekly Round-up #2
  • Themes and topics emerge organically as students gravitate to issues of common concern.  This semester some of those issues have included:

These examples beautifully illustrate the power social media has to cultivate a dynamic community of engaged learning.

Videos Tell The Story
Below you will find a three videos related to PHIL200.  The first is entitled The Story of PHIL200 in which my students and I recorded ourselves speaking text from the blog we had written during the semester.  We did this in part to try to capture something of the nature of our dialogue and, in particular, our encounter with an antagonistic anonymous commenter on the blog.  

The second is a video of a presentation outlining the basic structure of the course and the pedagogical principles behind it.

Finally, there is this documentary video of the course with student testimony, produced by my colleagues at Teaching and Learning with Technology at Penn State.

The Comments
Finally, the story behind the first comments you read below is this: About two hours before I gave this presentation, I emailed the class to tell them that I was about to present on what we were doing in class.  I invited them to comment and, by the time I went to present, I had a number of very good comments posted here to which I could refer.


This philosophy class has truly been the most different and unique experience I’ve ever encountered in my Penn State career. It is often difficult at a university this size to express one’s own opinion, to get to know your fellow classmates, or even engage with the material in a more profound way then memorization of facts. The blog remedies all three things I’ve mentioned. This format has forced me to reevaluate some of my own ideas on subjects ranging from political to philosophical and either confirms them to be true to change my mind. That constant challenging of one’s own opinions can be at time exhausting, but it is never boring and requires me to think critically and express my own point of view in a constructive and tactful way (tactful because I’ll have to see these people I converse with online twice a week for 75 minutes, so being polite and respectful is advantageous for one’s own personal safety). This is by far the most engaging and intellectually stimulating course I’ve taken at Penn State, although Philosophy is not my major nor would I describe it as necessarily an interest of mine overall. But the uniqueness of such a dynamic is so intriguing that one cannot help but become engaged.

This class is more challenging in comparison to most of my other classes because it requires participation through new ways--blogging and the podcast. Having such an on-going dialogue with other classmates helps bring forth arguments that I otherwise wouldn't have been aware of, and therefore my scope of learning has expanded considerably. In comparison to the usual writing assignments, participating via the blog is a lot more demanding. Since its not sufficient to sit one day prior to the deadline and get the paper done, one has to consistently keep writing and that makes it a lot more time consuming. Also, the fact that its an open dialogue, where other classmates can comment on your opinions, makes its competitive to a certain extent. In writing a paper, one just has to worry about putting forth their own understanding of the topic, which is very often the same as the interpretation other classmates might have. But with the blog, once an opinion has been put forth, it doesn't make sense to echo what's already been said, and you therefore don't get a chance to express yourself. I feel that while it is very beneficial to have such an open communitiy, but I'm not sure if it should be such a prominent part of a course for student evaluation.

Digital dialogue helps students in 2 ways:

1] it encourages shy students, who do not feel comfortable expressing their ideas in front of the whole class to participate in the class. Digital dialogue not only gives them a chance to discuss their opinions with others, but also helps to make them feel more comfortable talking to their classmates; thus, they are more likely to actually talk in class as time goes by and as they know their classmates better. Most likely, those students tend to have very special views and ideas of what we learn in class. When they have a place to express their views, it also benefits the whole class.

2] The second benefit of digital dialogue is that it gives students full control of their homework. Posting and Commenting are substitutes for homework in this class. Mr Long does not give us specific homework at all, for instead we are supposed to write regularly in this blog. Students are now responsible for their own homework- if they really like one topic, they can discuss it; and if they do not, they will see what the others think and get inspired. Unlike normal homework, which teachers have to spend nights and days grading and commenting on, students are now "checking" each other's work. Peer pressure really helps students to write more and think more thoughtfully. Sometimes students' comment can be more valuable- I am not arguing that students do not need teachers at all, I am simply saying: compared to only one commentary from a teacher, students now have 10 or 20 comments for their opinions. It really encourages students to participate more while freeing teachers from tons of work.

There are also other benefits associated with it, such as: if one person by chance misses a class, she or he can go to the blog and listen to the summery podcasts and still learn what we discussed during class.

I agree with much of what Cody said. I would add that the blog combines the best aspects of both the writing and speaking mediums: it allows us to formulate our thoughts in the clear, well-structured, and concise manner intrinsic to writing, avoiding the digressions and pauses innate to spoken dialogue, and yet it also allows us to respond to each other individually, to take each other to task, to respond relatively quickly, and to keep the tone conversational and organic. We quite literally hold written conversations, and yet these conversations are bolstered by our recourse to our texts for key quotations, the ability to contemplate our thoughts before expressing them, and the opportunity to edit our thoughts before publishing them, thereby offering us the opportunity to criticize and engage our own thoughts not just those of others. Moreover, in combining the best of these worlds, students who lack self-confidence are given a golden opportunity to say what they might otherwise say in class on our blog. In this sense, then, the blog encourages the widest possible array of opinions. I truly think that the virtues of this learning medium are such that it elicits the greatest response from what is always a multifaceted classroom.

Thank you, Jingting and everyone, for these comments. I just want to clarify something Jingting said. She is right that more people review and comment upon each students work using this model, it is decidedly not less work for faculty. To remain engaged in a deep level with the ongoing blog conversation, to evaluate it and to integrate it into the ongoing discussion in class, is often more work than grading a set of papers three or four times a semester.

The main difference is, however, it feel a lot less like work because the teacher is learning with the students in the process.

What's great about this class is that no longer are we (the students) passive receptors of what our Professor feeds us. All too often do we simply go to a class, sit there and listen to the Professor's lectures, go home and regurgitate it in our homework/essays, and never really learn anything. With this blog though, and with the class in general, we don't just go to class, we ARE the class -- we are active participants. We aren't hollow shells waiting to be filled with the wisdom of the Professor; we are, in a sense, our own guides on the same journey together. And that's how higher education should be. I think William Butler Yeats said it best: "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

As Professor Long mentions in this post, we as a class created a community TOGETHER. It's a rare thing to really call a class a community, especially at a huge school like Penn State. But I can honestly say that, in creating this living document together with my classmates, I have made connections that will go beyond the end of the semester. In the blog, everyone has their own part, their own opinions, their own personality to add to the overall community. It's great. I won't be surprised if months or even years from now, I find myself returning to the blog and re-reading some conversations. I really wouldn't be surprised at all. In contrast, how often will I return to my class notes years after I've taken a class? It's just not the same.

All in all, I think Socrates would have very much approved of Digital Dialogue and its blurring the boundaries between the teacher and the learner. I definitely recommend other classes to try blogging out as a new medium of learning.

Engaging in conversation in the classroom is sometimes found as difficult; the digital dialogue helps students ease their ideas and opinions into the mix. Setting aside this opportunity, the digital dialogue also offers students a solid way of conversing. Through this method of conversation, students are able to draw upon past posts, comments, or general ideas which enables the class to be subject to a wide range of conversational themes. These themes can be viewed as an enhanced educational conversation; one may critique another students point-of-view, while that student may defend his/her position. To limit the digital dialogue to these few, but important points, does not do this method of learning justice. I will admit that I was skeptical prior to engaging into a digital "blog", but the benefits that have come from this system highly outweigh the early ideas I had.

Coming from an engineering curriculum into a philosophy class I definitely approached this class with a different perspective that my other classes. First of all, the platonic dialogue requires more insight and different types of analysis than my usual work load does. No longer can I just look at input output of equations and come to a well established dogmatically agreed upon answer. No, this class is much different and employs a different kind of critical thinking that I'm not quite used to. I'll admit I wasn't used to the online dialogue and the free flow of class. I'm more used to a this is the answer and it will always be the answer type of class. Just regurgitation of facts is what I was molded to become accustomed to, and that is not what this class is. This class has been a breath of fresh air in my academic career, albeit challenging, it has made me think with a different perspective than I'm used to, and this is among other reasons is why I'd recommend this course to others.

One of the best things about the blog was that it wasn't simply an aside to the class, it was a direct participant. What happened on the blog shaped and directed the what we spoke about, with relevant comments being brought up and showcased to everyone. It really made it feel like there was a dialogue going on that between inside the classroom and outside.

It's funny, really, because I know a few students (myself included) who would vie for their post to be shown. I rarely see students as active and engaged in the material as they were here.

Do you also have a rubric for you podcasts that you would be willing to share? Your blogging rubric is first class! I love your Prezi on blogging as well. thank you so much for sharing.

Do you also have a rubric for you podcasts that you would be willing to share? Your blogging rubric is first class! I love your Prezi on blogging as well. thank you so much for sharing.

mclean, thanks for your comment here. I did not make a rubric explicitly for podcasting. However, I did try to articulate my expectations clearly. Here is the relevant excerpt from my syllabus:

Assessment of the podcasts will be based on the following:

Podcasts must:

  • Highlight substantive aspects of the past week of class.

  • Be at least four minutes in length, posted by 6pm Monday after the assigned week.

  • Be produced in a well-organized and thoughtful way.

  • Add something of its own beyond the mere summarizing of the week—push the discussion forward in some substantive way.

  • Connect the material discussed during the week to some issue of contemporary concern.



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CpL Books

Aristotle on the Nature of Truth   The Ethics of Ontology


CpL Videos

Christopher Long's bibliography