Two to three times a week, talking robots, cartoon animals, and humorous drawings of celebrity figures make appearances in my Problems in the Philosophy of Religion classroom. In full color, but with oddly stilted voices, they discuss evil, Anselm’s proof for the existence of God, the foundations of morality, or the nature of time. They don’t talk for long – each conversation lasts only two minutes or so — but they have become an integral part of this upper-level undergraduate class, and of the way my students learn philosophical concepts from ancient to modern.
The robots, which students choose and animate using the web-based XtraNormal program or another animation program of their choice, first appeared in my classroom in 2010, when I was looking for something more engaging than the “2-minute” response papers that I had been assigning. In those papers, students were to critically respond to a specific philosophical reading the class had done for the day, highlighting what they thought was good about the argument, and where they thought it might not be so good. Often, the papers did just that, and launched us into interesting and fruitful discussions. More often, however, students would end up in front of the classroom, reiterating the argument rather than critically assessing it. They were repeating ideas rather than engaging in dialogue. How to make this happen?
In the XtraNormal program, students must write in dialogue, much as if they were crafting a screenplay. This forces the kind of dialogic thinking I was hoping to get with the original two-minute response assignment. It also creates some useful social pressure as we screen every video at the beginning of class, and then archive links to the videos on the class Blackboard site so they are accessible for purposes of review, something students report as helpful come exam time.
What I have come to love most about the robots, though, is the sense of play they bring to what are often almost overwhelmingly serious topics. In looking at the world through robot eyes, and hearing it through robot voices, students are able to engage arguments they may have previously dismissed outright as dangerously counter to their world views. We can start a conversation.
For an example, click here: Robots Discuss William James
Alas, XtraNormal shut down services at the end of July 2013 (I weep for the end of the robots), but there are other animation programs which appear to be equally good or better, some of which I list below: