Philosophers have always had more than an academic interest in education. As early as the time of Socrates and Plato, philosophy has been essentially an educational endeavor. The primary mode of philosophical education has always been dialogue, and I firmly believe this is a most effective educational tool.
I view my role in the classroom (whether in person or online) as a dialogue facilitator. Of course, some of the material I teach necessitates lecture monologue.
But, learning only truly occurs when I can engage the students in a discussion and allow them to actively think about and apply the concepts of philosophy. Philosophy can often seem to be an abstract esoteric subject, but I believe that all the information I teach students can be applied to real-life situations, so I work to emphasize this in each class I teach.
Certainly, ethics cannot be taught without dialogue and application. It is not enough simply to teach ethical theory. Students must be allowed to examine the theories, critically evaluate them, and apply them to their own lives.
Ideally, education is a transformative experience. Students should come away from a class different from when they entered it. One component of this difference is that their knowledge of a particular field of study is enhanced. Because of this, they should be better equipped to make connections between different areas of knowledge.
But apart from these outcomes, I believe that education should transform a student’s general view of things, what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called our “picture of the world.” I don’t mean by this that education should indoctrinate a student into a particular view on a particular subject but that by exposing them to many views on many subjects students gain a richer sense of the world they live in, how they are connected to it, and how they are an active participant in the world of ideas.
William James once said, "there can be no final truth in ethics any more than in physics, until the last man has had his experience and said his say." I think that this is the fundamental purpose and benefit of education: to allow students to have their say by giving them the tools to think critically and to formulate their say.
An important part of education, then, is to allow students to better articulate and reason through to ideas that are their own. I do not view it as my role to tell students what to think, but rather to teach them how to think. Philosophy is uniquely suited to this task since philosophy is, essentially, a method for thinking clearly about difficult subjects. But this method can be used for non-philosophical subjects as well.
As an online instructor, I face the question of whether this process can work in such an environment. I believe that it can. Even though distance learning is different from in-person instruction, there is no reason to think that the positive benefits students receive in the classroom cannot be achieved online. Achieving these results requires different methods and innovative techniques, but the goal remains the same and the goal remains achievable. Ideally, education is a transformative experience. As an instructor, I am responsible for making the class a rewarding transformative experience for students, but it is also the case that the process works in reverse. I learn from the dialogue of teaching just as the students do. At its best, the learning process creates a positive feedback loop where my learning encourages the students to learn more and ask more questions which in turn encourages me to learn more to teach them more.