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Sep 18, 2022

Administrators are philosophers

They may or may not realize it, but it is true. They all have to practice some philosophy to make good decisions. Here is an example of a dilemma:

1. Some students want to take online classes, but we know (from the pandemic years) that it may not be good for them. Others want to be online and can learn just fine, while improving their access and family lives. Therefore, providing simple choice is not going to work, because choice is based on an assumption that people know what they need. If student knew what they need, they won’t be needing education.

2. There is no easy way to distinguish between the two groups. However, we can make educated guesses about groups of students and types of classes. Our guesses may be poor, but they may be better than unfettered choices of students. We actually do not know that for sure, but professors have more experience than students and should be able to make better decisions.

3. Some instructors want to teach online, but they are not good at it. Other professors want to teach online and are good at it. And yet still others do not want to teach online, but they are good at it anyway. We know this from the pandemic records. However, politically it hard to push them to teach in modality that students need, because the authority of making most curricular and pedagogical decision lies with faculty. We may be able to delegate the decision to groups of faculty members, but small group dynamics may get weird really quickly, we know that from the past experience.

OK, this was only a small subset of major factors that should be considered into the decision on how many online and f2f courses do we need to offer. The other factors include cohorted programs, where choice of modality is impractical, the institutional accreditation rules that prevent arbitrary changes of modality, the practicality of assigning instructors to classes late, after the modality is established, etc. In other words, the problem appears too complex to be solved. We can keep it unsolved for a year or two, but it needs to be solved eventually.

The only way to solve a complex problem involves an act of “zooming out,” that is trying to figure out what is this a case of? It involves getting out of the particulars and trying to find a more general perspective on the problem. Once you do something like that, you start practicing philosophy weather you know it or not. Philosophy is thinking about how you should think about complex problems.

The philosophical move of taking a broader view can be performed in hundreds of different ways. The choice depends on philosophers set of tools, knowledge of theories, and often preferences. The only way to know if you have found the right one is the result – is the solution you offer is any better than others, and better than a random guess? Regardless of the way you move, it takes time to think through. Philosophy is work; it requires some mental effort.

For example, the example I started with can be considered a case of paternalism vs. developmentalism. All educational institutions are riddled with a paradox: On one hand, schools are paternalistic; they make no sense without guiding and limiting student choices. Hence, we have constructed curriculum, and organized instruction. We want to prevent students from making major errors that could ruin their lives. At the same time, schools are developmentalist: if you want to teach students to make rational choices that are good for them, you must allow some errors to occur. Without making some wrong choices and experiencing negative consequences, students will never learn how to make their own good choices. For example, knowledge that you are not a good online student is better if it comes from your own experience, not because you were told so. If you examine closely, most of education is a balancing act between letting students make their own error and preventing them from making errors that are too large. School is a place for safer errors.

Again, I am not saying that my way of “zooming out” is the best one. I may or may not be a good philosopher, but I know the trade’s basic move. My intent was just to show how philosophy helps reframe the problem that is hard to solve otherwise. Indeed, making the philosophical move allows me to focus on a very specific aspect of the problem: taking an online class and having a bad time – is it a big error that can ruin your life, or a small one from which you can actually learn something?

In this particular case, we should probably look for some empirical evidence, and that is where social science comes in. But at least we know what to look for. And even without detailed evidence, I can make a guess that the error is probably not too large, and it can be made educational and less painful. All we need to do is offer some variety of classes with different modalities, so that students who struggle to learn online are not overwhelmed by many small failures. We should probably rule out offering classes by poor online instructors; just find a political solution for that. And finally, to make these choices educational, we should warn students before they sign up, what is involved in an online class, and help them reflect on their experience after it is done. Not all errors are educational; only those you reflected on as errors.

Sometimes solving a problem entails the correct estimation of its scale. Once you realize the problem may not be as big as you imagined, you buy some time for experimenting and seeing what happens.

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