Some months back I had the opportunity to pull together a presentation on web-based education in parapsychology. Working on the elements of the talk made me realize how much has changed in education since I was young. When I first got interested in scientific/academic parapsychology in the early 1970s, the most common way to become educated in the field in the English-speaking world was to read on your own. If you were lucky there was a class in your area, or if you were really lucky and had the financial wherewithal and the necessary prerequisites, you could take a PhD in psychology either under Gertrude Schmeidler at City College in New York City or with John Beloff at the University of Edinburgh, among a few others around the world.
The Department of Education at the American Society for Psychical Research run by Marian Nester produced a guide to on-site courses around the country and elsewhere. It was invaluable for identifying courses and programs from adult education to degree programs, but if you couldn’t relocate to where the classes were taught or to the vicinity of the best libraries in the field such as the Garrett Research Library of the Parapsychology Foundation, you were on your own. Students could buy books from the Foundation or request reading lists from the PF and other societies and organizations dedicated to the field such as Society for Psychical Research or the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man (now the Rhine Research Center), figure out how to get your hands on the titles and then read read read. It wasn’t such a bad way to learn, of course, but it was certainly a little lonely.
After a peripatetic freshman year followed by a year off playing hippie shop keeper, I was lucky enough to land at Mundelein College in Chicago. On the faculty in the psychology department was John Bisaha who had a serious interest in the field. So unlike a lot of my cohort in the field, I had the opportunity to take 15 undergraduate credit hours in parapsychology: an introductory course and a Senior Thesis Project with Bisaha at Mundelein and a research seminar then on offer at Northeastern Illinois University also in Chicago (a course I ended up teaching about five years later).
Distance learning courses at the time were correspondence courses. You signed up, got a package in the mail with books and assignments. You typed up your assignments probably on a manual typewriter and mailed them off to your professor. You were lucky if you got a letter back. Usually it was a note with the test, or a grade. Then a certificate arrived in the mail. It worked, but it was oh so slow and impersonal.
Education for the 21st Century
Things have changed completely thanks to technological progress. Even in parapsychology. Kids today have a totally different experience than we did, and a totally new set of opportunities, not to mention competencies and priorities. Trying to get the potential of new technologies to enhance and expand education in parapsychology can be a little tough, however. Some of us in the field are only computer literate, totally clueless about PSPs, iPods, iPhones, Xbox, Wii, Second Life, OpenSim, Blue Mars or other 21st century stuff. School kids, on the other hand, know so much some educators call them “Digital Natives.” There’s a YouTube video put together with a British primary school class that says it all.
If you missed Digital Nation on PBS earlier this year, you can also access that here for their not-always happy view of these technological changes.
Of course, that the YouTube video linked to above was made at all indicates that there are teachers and school administrators who have not moved far enough away from the model of education depicted in the photo below to “engage” their students really and truly.
Still, it is important to recognize that the number of primary/middle school/high school teachers out there who aren’t tech savvy is steadily decreasing. I am not sure the same can be said of college teachers and university professors in general. And in our field we have three problems: (1) There are not many sites or individuals who are dedicated to education at all; (2) there is among many of us a very imperfect sense of how fast technology is changing; and (3) there is, for most of us, no clear understanding of how current and future technologies can cure our specific educational ills.
I think, for some higher education faculty, the disconnect from the modern world goes pretty deep. It’s not that educators (or potential educators) aren’t podcast virtuosos. It’s that they don’t Google or YouTube and wouldn’t know their Facebook from their Twitter or their Ning. These folk interact with the internet as little as possible. They not only miss out on some powerful tools that would make their working lives easier, they also miss experiencing the increasingly global nature of our world.
There are a lot of YouTube videos that put the changes I’m talking about into perspective. A number of versions from different years and in different languages exist of Karl Fisch’s video “Did You Know?” and its cousin, “Shift Happens.” One that was put together in December of 2009 is a “best of” compiled from other versions uploaded to YouTube last year.
The take-home message of “Shift Happens” is that web-based resources and the technologies by which they may be accessed are increasing exponentially. These resources include web-based informational sites like encyclopedias, dictionaries, themed informational sites put together by hobbyists, professional associations, colleges and universities and so on; photo and video/audio aggregation sites like Flickr and YouTube, among many many others; blog sites on every topic, of every depth and breadth; virtual displays from Google Maps to Rome Reborn; virtual worlds like SecondLife, and on-line courses taught through a variety of methods including such web-conferencing interfaces as WizIQ, among many, many others. (To get a specific and global view of what kinds of changes are being made around the world, go to http://www.WizIQ.com and then put “Connecting Online 2010” in the search bar. You will find around thirty presentations from the recent conference that are free to view. Clicking on the titles of each class will give you a description of both the topic and the presenter. You will have to sign up for free WizIQ account to view them, but they are all worth it.)
Two of the key facts presented in the “Best of Shift Happens” video mentioned above is that a 2009 US Department of Education study found that one out of six current students are already taking courses on-line, and that, on average, on-line students out perform on-site/in-class students. The reality is, of course, a tad more complex. (See an article published on the Insider Higher Ed website last June for a deeper analysis of the difference. And the recent PBS documentary, Digital Nation, mentioned above provides some insight into this difference as well, if you click here.) But certainly online education has enormous potential for parapsychology.
The horror depicted in the picture to the left used to be the norm: longs lines waiting to get into some big room, our class enrollment slips clutched in our hands; getting to the front of the line at long last only to be sent back to advising (usually located in another building) because the class we wanted was closed; more long lines with a new schedule request and more closed classes; back to advising again well, you get the picture!
Few college kids have been subjected to that experience since the 1980s. But what is more common today and even more convenient are the centralized web portals that modern universities offer. Through these sites, prospective students can apply for admission, current students can browse course schedules, register for classes, manage the content and progress of the classes they are taking and much more. (Click here for an example of these types of portals, this one from the University of Virginia.)
And while there are still expensive textbooks to purchase in those schools that don’t rent textbooks or have e-book textbooks, a lot if not most of the readings students need to work through are available online. This saves today’s student from having to struggle with the number of books and badly bound coursepacks that we juggled. Instead, students can now depend mostly if not completely on full-text books and articles available to be read online or to download in whatever format is convenient.
Having web-based courses and resources allows anybody anywhere in theory at least to access the relevant content. Access is, of course, moderated by the costs of the course and materials but also by the availability, cost and speed of internet connections in the potential learner’s home area. A lot of governments, educational agencies and institutions are very concerned about how to provide affordable broadband access to every household. A lot of countries are still a long way away from universal access, including the USA.
Whatever the advantages or disadvantages in general, web-based education is enormously important to our field. Our needs are different from conventional fields because we have very very few on-site locations these days where students and new researchers can take courses in academic/scientific parapsychology, much less complete a program in some aspect of our discipline. There is NO standardized curriculum, and thus NO shared educational experience. That problem is complicated by the interdisciplinary character of the work we do, the burden that popular culture places on us, and the restrictions that the skeptical movement seeks to impose. Not only are we endlessly attempting to integrate the interests of a wide variety of scientists and academics into a cohesive conversation but we are also forged under wildly inaccurate depictions of the field promulgated by popular culture coupled with the shrill insistence of the skeptical movement that only they are legitimate providers of our content. It seems to me that web-based education in our field, provided by members of our community, could not be more needed.
Before I start talking about the history of online courses in parapsychology, I want to define a few terms that are useful when thinking about web-based education. First, LMS/CMS. These stand for “Learning Management System” and “Classroom Management System,” respectively. These are software programs like Blackboard (used by a lot of colleges and universities, very powerful, but priced for institutions) and Moodle (increasingly adopted by colleges, universities, and schools, open source and free to download so in the realm of possibility for individual teachers). These systems and others like them provide a web-based framework for face-to-face and online courses alike.
If you click here, you will find the LMS that Dr. Ciarán O’Keeffe uses for his online certificate program for field investigators and others. The LMS can be branded for the school using it. It provides a class schedule, the syllabi, room for participants and their biographies, blogs and activities, places to download readings and other information, and to upload assignments and take tests. The instructor can keep track of what the students are doing, check their exercises and activities for grading or engage in other forms of assessment.
A “synchronous” course is one in which students and teachers are together. Face-to-face courses are synchronous in that students are expected to be there physically when the Prof is lecturing. Online courses can be synchronous too if students and teachers meet online using such web-conferencing software as Adobe Connect Pro, Elluminate or WizIQ, or through Skype’s conference call facility that has a ton of teaching-friendly add-ons and these few barely scratch the surface of what’s available out there.
Face-to-face courses that include “asynchronous” aspects such as when the students access the readings and take the tests online are called “blended” courses. Some online courses are completely asynchronous. In these students interact with the course content at any point along a pre-determined class duration but are not expected to interact with the teacher or the other students in real time. Blended online courses combine synchronous and asynchronous elements. And some online courses even some online degree programs take place in virtual worlds like Second Life. Such courses can either closely approximate traditional face-to-face education or are blended, using such LMSs as Pathways or Sloodle, among others.
The take-home message here is that modern on-site classes frequently if not always have some online elements to them; and online classes can have both real time (synchronous) and any time (asynchronous) elements.
History of Online Courses in Parapsychology
Dr. Bierman’s Course
Professor Dick Bierman (Universities of Utrecht and Amsterdam) has been a pioneer in parapsychological research for all of his career, so it is entirely fitting that he is also the pioneer in online education in parapsychology. His for-credit course, now called “Meaning of Exceptional Experiences” was offered every year from 1994 through 2008. The course provided an online library of readings, online chat sessions with experts in the field, class projects and assessments and contact with the Professor. In its early years, the successful coordination of such a course was a spectacular feat of technological expertise for which Prof. Bierman deserves high praise. In addition to web-based resources, students also read Richard Broughton’s Parapsychology: The Controversial Science (1991) and used Mario Varvoglis’s CD Psi Explorer. Recent iterations of the course also included informational YouTube videos such as this one on NDEs.
The AIPA Course
I’m proud to say that Carlos Alvarado and I were involved in another early online course in parapsychology offered to Ibero-American students. Held in 1998 under the auspices of the Associación Ibero-Americana de Parapsicología (AIPA), Carlos and I, then in Puerto Rico, coordinated the course. Because individually-owned internet access was not common at the time, it was decided to set up the course with “nodes.” Class leaders had internet access and through them the participants in their face-to-face meetings were connected to us and to the other nodes (class sites) in the network. (Below is the Curitiba class photo.)
Three groups met in Brazil (in Curitiba, Recife and São Paulo), two in Mexico (in Querétaro and Mexico City), one in Santiago de Chile, and one in Santiago de Cuba (who participated through email). “Auditors” in Portugal, Scotland, Puerto Rico and in Miami, Florida accessed the course materials as well. Among the class leaders were Alejandro Parra (Buenos Aires, Argentina), Vera Lúcia Barrionuevo and Tarcísio Pallú (Curitiba, Brazil), Valter da Rosa Borges and Jalmir Brelaz de Castro (Recife, Brazil), Fátima Regina Machado and Wellington Zangari (São Paulo, Brazil), Brenio Onetto-Bächler (Santiago de Chile), José Raúl Naranjo Muradas (Santiago de Cuba), and Eugenio Ledezma and Ramón Monroig Grimau (Querétaro, México). (Below is the Querétaro class photo.)
Our preparation included translating most of the readings from English to Spanish and Portuguese many of them were articles and book chapters drawn from, among other sources, the Parapsychology Foundation’s Parapsychology Review. As coordinators Alvarado and I maintained the website and developed discussion questions for each topic. Class leaders downloaded readings and printed them out to distribute to their students, introducing the topic at hand any way they saw fit.
At the second session the individual groups answered the discussion questions and the class leaders wrote a summary I posted to the website. Alvarado and I then digested the responses once all the classes had posted and wrote our own commentary that I also posted to the website.
At the next class meeting, class leaders presented the discussions of the other groups and our commentary, the readings for the next topic were distributed, and on it went until all eight topics had been completed. (To the left is the São Paulo class photo.)
Because our participants spanned so many time zones, we did not investigate the possibility of connecting in real time. Instead we attempted to establish a sense of “community” by posting photographs of each class to the website.
A Selection of Online Courses and Programs in Parapsychology
University of Edinburgh
Dr. Caroline Watt of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, offers a single course on parapsychology. The course is usually taught three times a year, and utilizes a variety of materials such as PDFs of the topic introduction and journal articles, MP3 recordings of interviews with experts, a textbook, themed discussion groups set up in blogs, and a self-scoring quiz. The course itself is not accredited because it does not include a formal assessment exercise. Certificates are based on regular participation with the course materials.
Dr. Watt’s course is extremely well-balanced. Her experts include both prominent skeptics and prominent scientists who are positive about parapsychology, its research and findings. Course topics include: the historical context, spontaneous paranormal experiences, testing ESP and PK in the laboratory, the latest developments in laboratory research in the field, prevailing theory and concepts, belief in the paranormal, how to test psychic claimants and implications of the field’s findings.
The University of Philosophical Research
The University of Philosophical Research is a graduate-level distance learning university with an internationally known faculty that offers Masters Degree programs in Consciousness Studies and Transformational Psychology. Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove, a well-respected member of the parapsychological community, and primary interviewer in the important Thinking Allowed PBS series, is both the Dean of the Program for Transformational Psychology and the instructor for the parapsychology course on offer. Psi Research surveys paranormal phenomena and theories based on current scientific knowledge. Synchronicity, distant viewing, clairvoyance, precognition, and survival of consciousness after death are discussed.
The School of Parapsychology
Although I’ve mentioned The School of Parapsychology before in this blog, it’s worth looping back at this point to give you a better idea of what’s on offer. One of Dr. Ciarán O’Keeffe’s courses is called “Foundations of Parapsychology.” Although unaccredited, O’Keeffe has deep experience as a field investigator and as a teacher and critic of the usual training on offer for paranormal investigators. “Foundations” provides a broad survey of the field of parapsychology. O’Keeffe also offers “So You Want to Be a Ghost Hunter?” that includes onsite training weekends in the UK for fledgling field investigators in collaboration with his colleague Steve Parsons.
Australian Institute of Parapsychological Research
The Australian Institute of Parapsychological Research awards both the AIPR Certificate in Parapsychology and the AIPR Advanced Certificate in Parapsychology. The AIPR certificate programs are conducted through a series of correspondence courses. The goals of the certificate programs include giving the student the opportunity to cover a broad area of parapsychological research and become familiar with the problems faced by researchers in the field, as well as to be able to examine parapsychological research critically. Individual courses cover individual phenomena or problem areas. Assigned and additional readings are not covered by the course tuition. Assessment takes the form of a single essay that is then used as the basis of students’ grade. Students are also encouraged to utilize outside readings available from other sources and to correspond with the course instructor, Dr. Lance Storm (who was the PF’s Bolton Fellow in 2007).
The AIPR Certificate Program, like the School of Parapsychology program mentioned above, are not accredited and do not provide the students with transferable college hours but are, nonetheless, well worth taking.
HCH Certificate in Parapsychological Studies
The HCH Certificate in Parapsychological Studies provides an accredited option for individuals who would like to take a certificate course. Taught by Loyd Auerbach, a field investigator with a very deep experience, the program is offered by the HCH, an hypnotherapy institute that also offers other kinds of psychological and spiritual training.
Auerbach’s certificate program is comprised of 60 hours of parapsychology coursework, available both through on-site and online options. Continuing education units can be obtained for the individual courses, or they can be taken as non-credit courses. The basic phenomena of the field are covered in single courses, and courses are also offered that specifically cover survival research, field investigation techniques, and theories and models. Tuition can be split up by individual courses or handled as a lump sum for the certificate program as a whole.
The Masters Program at Coventry University
Coventry University in the UK offers a part-time masters of science degree in parapsychology that is taught entirely online. Like the certificate programs mentioned above, the MSc covers the following basic topics: the history and philosophy of parapsychology, research methods, anomalous experiences, extrasensory perception and psychokinesis research and survival research. Transpersonal psychology is also included and students are expected to complete a masters thesis based on original empirical research. The program is fully accredited. Dr. Ian Hume and Dr. Tony Lawrence are involved in this course, among others.
Finally, a note about Atlantic University. Recently Carlos and I were hired by Atlantic University. I will be taking up the post of Director of Academic Affairs in June and Carlos will be the Scholar in Residence. We couldn’t be more excited! In the press release that announced this change in our lives we will always be volunteers for the PF, never fear! Kevin Todeschi, the CEO of both ARE and Atlantic University also announced plans for a masters program in parapsychology to be offered at AU in the future.
At the moment, in addition to a number of unique and worthwhile courses on transformative theories and practices, Atlantic offers a course called “Principles of Parapsychology,” taught by veteran psi researcher Dr. Douglas Richards. The course provides a broad background to the field and is accredited.
Providing Education in Virtual Worlds
In addition to the traditional online courses, education can also happen in a variety of virtual worlds. The YouTube video below provides a brief introduction to immersive education and to my and Carlos’ passive education “builds” in Second Life.
Second Life, the virtual world featured in this little video, has over 17,000,000 “residents” and at any given moment between 50,000 and 80,000 residents are in world. Age restricted to 18 years of age and above, Second Life has proved to be a fruitful place for university and graduate school education, for corporate training, for skills-based training in a wide variety of disciplines including nursing, medicine and other helping professions. Other virtual worlds, such as Reaction Grid, have provided havens for grade school teachers teaching computer, communication, math and science skills to students. And some schools have set up their own virtual worlds, that live behind university firewalls, and are either built from scratch, based on the open source OpenSim, or set up with the help of the proprietary virtual world companies like Linden Lab who owns Second Life.
The immersive aspect of the experience, the potential for the formation of global collaborative communities, the potential for art, culture, and community: all of these are elements unique to virtual environments that can be used for teaching and learning. There are good arguments for setting up an educational “shop” in Second Life or in other virtual worlds. Second Life itself offers a number of case studies that can inspire educators in our field to “jump in.” For those interested in a good place to get a handle on what can be done, the videos of presentations delivered at the 2010 Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference archived on Treet.tv are a good place to start. Another source of inspiration are the International Society for Technology in Education Eduverse lectures, also archived online.
But It is important to remember that web-based education is not about the technology; it’s about the content. A truism that should always be kept in mind is that the technology must serve the pedagogical purpose. The worst thing to do is to adopt a technology without a clear idea of what your educational objectives are. A lot of the universities who have recently run screaming from Second Life did just that. They came inworld without a plan, and left because the technological investment never paid off. Not all technologies are optimum for all objectives, and sometimes a mix of old and new, online and offline, synchronous and asynchronous is the way to realize your educational goal.
In parapsychology, our educational goals have to flow from what the field is lacking, and that is a coherent presentation of the shared intellectual and methodological heritage that underpins our discipline and its future success. Our courses and programs must coalesce around the following: We need to understand our history (and not just our Anglo-American history). We need to understand the underlying questions that move our field forward. We need to be conversant with the methodologies in use now so as to be ready for the new methodologies that will come. We need to intertwine what we know with conventional science, integrating our particular knowledge into the scientific mainstream in a rigorous and thoughtful way. And we need to accomplish all of this in an environment that does not suffer from the continual harping of amateur and professional skeptics who pronounce so authoritatively on everything we do and say without a shred of actual knowledge.
Taking advantage of web-based educational delivery systems, utilized in a careful way, can, in my opinion, achieve these goals for parapsychology.