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Philosophy gets FIPSE grant

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 17 - January 18, 1996

The Department of Philosophy at Virginia Tech has received a three-year grant for $96,746 to develop classes using stand-alone instructional software, electronic listservs, and the World Wide Web to improve the effectiveness of individualized instruction.

The grant is from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education. The grant is 30 percent of the total project budget of $319,401. The remaining $222,654 is being contributed in personnel time and support services by Virginia Tech.

The purpose of the project is to free the students and faculty members from the traditional lecture "credit-for-contact" mold and overcome the problems of large classes. The principal investigators are Gary Hardcastle, Valerie Hardcastle, and Harlan Miller, all of the philosophy department.

Through the grant, individually paced (though externally modulated) sections of two introductory philosophy courses will be offered, employing a mix of HyperText, multimedia modules, small tutorials or workshops, individual tutoring, and group electronic discussion.

"With this mix of computer-based and human instruction, it is possible to individualize and personalize courses for large numbers of students, while at the same time increasing the number and quality of class interactions," Valerie Hardcastle said. "Since instructors and students will interact with one another through what is essentially personal conversation, it will be possible to tailor communication to individual needs. This flexibility will allow our high achievers to accomplish more and our low achievers to get the attention they require. In short, students with incompatible learning styles won't be thrown together in large lecture classes and forced to endure instruction designed for someone else."

The new classes will allow students who would not ask questions or participate in large lecture classes to do so. The classes also will allow instructors to accommodate the extraordinary range of student readiness and the different learning styles of individual students, who will be able to proceed at their own pace. They can consult instructors, teaching assistants, on-line or off-line electronic resources, and each other whenever and as often as they require.

Instructors will spend their time consulting with students, evaluating progress using benchmark tests, and grading electronically submitted essays. Time now spent repeating the same lecture to two or three different sections will be devoted to guiding and encouraging student interactions among a larger group of students who have studied a common body of material.

"Our project is the result of an attempt to re-think central aspects of our teaching mission at Virginia Tech from the point of view of quality and effectiveness," said Gary Hardcastle. "We believe that a creative use of electronic technologies can go a long way towards teaching large numbers of students very, very well."