Sunday, August 01, 2004

Abstract - Philosophical Conversations in a Virtual World


My paper will start from an understanding of philosophy as a love of wisdom, defining wisdom as knowledge of the most appropriate means for achieving the best ends. It will locate philosophy very much within everyday life, in contradistinction to the philosophy constituted by academic discourse, and argue that the task of a philosopher is to cultivate wisdom both in his/her own life and in the lives of those around him/her. This is the teaching role of the philosopher. I will suggest that the best end in life is to live a fully human life and that a philosopher can teach us the most appropriate means for achieving this end. In doing this I will explore what it means to be fully human.

Setting the contemporary role of the philosopher within the virtual world, I will suggest that the advent of the World Wide Web and its associated technologies has greatly increased the opportunity for the philosopher to fulfil his/her pragmatic teaching role. For example, the philosopher now has a ‘free space’ in which epistemological principles and norms can be explored, challenged and revised.

Additionally, the virtual world provides for the possibility of reaching a much larger number of students. It also provides for communication through a variety of different media. However, with new opportunities come new difficulties.

Sims writes that, ‘The problems confronting educational technology developers are clearly defined – how to develop computer based environments to engage the learner in effective instructional communication without generating interactive interference.’[i] Sims continues his paper by noting that, ‘Whitby introduces the notion that storytelling and narrative are critical determinants of communication, which is the ultimate goal for educational multimedia applications. In his paper, Sims acknowledges that, ‘developing applications in such a way that the learner is integrated into some form of narrative may lead to implementations which reduce the gulf between potential user and designer’[ii], but concludes that narrative can both interfere with and promote engagement in interactive learning.[iii] Sims then considers the theory of play which, it is claimed, can offer elements for the design process that allow for greater interactivity and engagement with the media. For example, elements such as risk, friendship and problem solving can all help to enable interaction and engagement.[iv] Sims concludes that the challenge facing multimedia designers is to ‘develop applications which minimise the potential for interactive interference,’ in order to ‘enhance the interactive process.’[v] He further suggests that employing the dual concepts of narrative and play will provide a means of achieving this end.

The work that Sims has done suggests to me that, in terms of the role of philosopher as virtual teacher, we need to find a model for interaction in which the philosopher and student meet in their full humanness. Thus, my paper will eschew the concepts of narrative and play in favour of using the concept of conversation in the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer to examine the relationship between teacher and learner in the virtual world. I will focus upon the notion of ‘conversation’ in an attempt to offer a ‘new’ conceptualisation of interactivity between the student and teacher in which the full humanness of both parties is present in a distinct existential virtual space.[vi] The success or otherwise of this interaction will be very much contingent upon whether or not an essentially impersonal space can be reconstructed to become a place of fully human interaction.

In the context of discussing the humanness of virtual space, the paper will develop to consider the tension between control and freedom in the design of multimedia and distance learning modules. It will focus in particular on the idea that, from a pedagogical perspective, aspects of the multimedia environment must necessarily be ‘ill defined’ or ‘ill structured’ if authentic conversation is to be carried out.[vii]

[i] Sims, Roderick. Interactivity and Narrative: Strategies for Effective Learning in Collis, B. Ed-Media. P.703.
[ii] ibid. P.704.
[iii] ibid. P.706.
[iv] ibid. P.707.
[v] ibid.
[vi] Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. Second Revised Edition. Translation Revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marhsall. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Corporation. 1989.
[vii] Merril, David M. First Principles of Instruction. Submitted for Publication to Educational Technology Research and Development. 2002. P.10.