P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 1
8 January 2001
Pathways Conference on the Use and Value of Philosophy
PATHWAYS CONFERENCE ON THE USE AND VALUE OF PHILOSOPHY
From 'The Glass House Philosopher' page 86
It is a remarkable fact that out of the 250 or so students who have enrolled on
the Pathways to Philosophy programs since 1995, none to my knowledge have ever
communicated with one another.
All that is set to change. I'm wondering if it is going to be a change for the
Pathways was set up as strictly a one-to-one distance learning program. The
student-mentor relationship was sacrosanct. No-one need ever know that you
dabbled in philosophy in your spare time. Pathways units arrived in anonymous
brown paper envelopes. Your mentor was your personal philosophy therapist.
I wasn't deliberately trying to cultivate a mystique. It seemed the appropriate
way to teach philosophy. The setup has worked remarkably well and there have
been very few complaints.
What is even more surprising, however, is not one of our students has ever
questioned the arrangement. I can recall only one instance in five years of a
Pathways student asking to be put in touch with other students following the
same program. Why the reticence?
Meanwhile, other internet distance learning programs have emphasized group
activity: e-mail discussion lists, conferencing and live chat rooms. Everyone
seems to be going down the road of technology.
A lot of it has of to do with hard economics. Increasing numbers of students
are now instructed by computer programs, and tested by multiple-choice
questions. Why expend valuable teacher-hours on lectures and tuition, when
students can spend the time conferencing with one another, with occasional
interventions from their instructor?
It is an interesting question, what students would choose, if they had the
choice. But why choose? Why not have the best of both worlds? That's my idea.
Just to test the water, I have set up an online conference for Pathways and
Diploma students on 'The Use and Value of Philosophy', hosted by the Institute
of Education, University of London, with the assistance of Martin Gough, who is
using the conference server as part of his UK Government funded project into the
'Wider Benefits of Learning'.
You don't have to be a Pathways or Diploma student to log in as a guest and use
the specially set up 'Practice!' conference. The quickest way to get online is
through a web browser. Go to http://clsconf.ioe.ac.uk/login/practise!/.
Username and password is 'guest'. There's a 'Help' file too. I've tried it out
and it's a piece of cake.
There is also a dedicated software program you can download called 'First
Class' which adds a few refinements to the conferencing experience. Both PC and
Mac versions are obtainable free by going to
That's the technology, what about the philosophy?
My impression of e-mail discussion lists and conferencing is that the exercise
can rapidly become a terminal bore. Endless wrangling and argy-bargy over "what
I really meant to say was..." which you would never get in a face to face
conversation (where participants have the added clues of facial expressions and
body language, as well as tone of voice to rely on). Worse, the discussion tends
to get dominated by two or three aggressive individuals who love to sound off.
Students who are required to participate in online conferences as part of their
university course describe the experience variously as depressing, intimidating
and a complete waste of time. It just doesn't work the way it's meant to.
I have a theory about what the problem is, and what would put it right. The
fundamental error is thinking that you can mimic the dynamics of a face-to-face
discussion in an online environment. In reality, text-based conferencing is a
poor substitute indeed.
Live video conferencing, if it is done well, can overcome most of these
objections. Even better than a row faces on video screens would be lifesize
holographic 3D images (which I am sure will come before long). But that is
completely missing the point. Text-based conferencing is a different medium, a
medium which educators have yet to learn how to use properly.
I can't think of an academic subject better suited to this medium than
philosophy. Plato would have had a field day.
The subtitle of the Pathways philosophy conference is 'a Socratic dialogue'.
That should give a clue. My idea is that the participants will be constructing,
crafting a piece of text. Their role will be that of collaborators, rather than
adversaries, like the collaborators on a script. All the conflict will be
between the philosophical arguments, not the people.
Nice in theory, but can it be done? Frankly, I don't know. But the only way to
find out is to go ahead and try!
Some questions and answers:
'What can I do in an online conference?'
- You can post messages, which can be read by any of the participants in the
- You can chat with conference participants who are currently logged in, using
- You can send private e-mail messages to any of the participants in the
- You can include file attachments in your posted messages.
'How long will the conference last?'
- There is no set time limit. However, in order to provide a structure, the
conference will be organized in separate Rounds, each lasting a set time.
'Are there any other rules?'
- Each participant will be limited to posting a maximum number of messages in
each Round. We will start with three messages from each participant, and see
how that works out.
- The most important rule is, Treat the other conference participants with
'How can I join?'
- The conference on 'The Use and Value of Philosophy' is open to all Pathways
and Philosophical Society Diploma students, present or past. Just e-mail me
that you are interested in joining, and I will send you a username and
password, together with instructions for getting started.
- The 'Practice!' conference is open to all. Just go to
http://clsconf.ioe.ac.uk/login/practise!/. Username and password is 'guest'.
'Is there a time limit for joining?'
- No. But why wait? The conference is all set up and ready to start. Jump in,
the water's lovely!
(c) Geoffrey Klempner, 2001
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