Inviting conversation

By Dawn Wiseman

As the glowing red background suggests, Mr. Hide is the Devil’s advocate.
“Some of the things he says are based in truth,” admitted Jack Ornstein (Philosophy), “but most of it is extremely exaggerated, untrue or just irrelevant.” Dr. Ornstein on the other hand, whose video backdrop is a nice calming blue, provides a more measured view of the subject at hand.

Dr. Ornstein and Mr. Hide are the two online personae Ornstein (yes, the same one) and eConcordia developed to invite his students into a conversation about biomedical ethics.

Patrick Devey, Director of Research and Development at eConcordia, said that the “Jekyll and Hyde concept for the videos was spawned from sitting in on Ornstein’s class and listening to him make points that were so right or left-wing, depending on the situation, that it would incite — or infuriate — his students to debate with him and their peers.”

The students clearly enjoy the show. His PHIL 235 course, now offered through eConcordia, “is breaking all records for enrolment in the Philosophy Department.”
The course, which is available both for- and non-credit, examines some of the central questions in biomedical ethics from the right to bear children to private health care, the doctor-patient relationship, abortion and euthanasia. The difficult subject matter is intended to “get students to think for themselves,” explained Ornstein.

While literally offered to anyone in the world through eConcordia, Ornstein said that because some countries, cultures and religions take a very different view on biomedical ethics, he stresses the base assumption of the course very clearly at the beginning. “We start from John Stuart Mill's principle that 'Over himself, over his own mind and body, the individual is sovereign.' The right of self-determination is paramount.”

Teaching online means Ornstein never meets his students. Instead, he and a team of teaching assistants engage learners through the course content and online discussion.

“In the classroom, I liked to engage students through teasing, joking and questions. Online we provoke and stimulate in different ways.”

As such, the course website integrates features such as the posting of news stories related to biomedical ethics and a polling section called “You be the Judge.”

Devey explained that this feature was also inspired by Ornstein’s live classes. Students are provided with short scenarios and asked to choose one of two options. One of the questions they are asked to consider is whether vaccination should be mandatory for all school-aged children. As soon as a student votes, he or she immediately sees how opinion is running in the class as a whole.

Students are also expected to contribute to the course through the discussion board. Each week questions related to course videos and readings seed the online chat.

The board is very active said Ornstein. Since retiring from teaching after 38 years, 35 of them at Concordia, he now has the time to drop into the discussion every day. “I’m impressed by the level of discourse.”

Just as he learned from students in the classroom, Ornstein finds he is learning from students on the discussion board. “Some of them are obviously practicing medical professionals who bring a very practical perspective to the class.”


Concordia University