Sunday, January 18, 2009

Online Parapsychology Course Reviewed

French philosophy student Louis Sagnières recently completed Dr. Caroline Watt's online course, Introduction to Parapsychology. Please welcome Louis as he shares his experiences as a student of the course in his first guest post for Public Parapsychology.

In September, I started Dr. Caroline Watt’s new online parapsychology course offered by the University of Edinburgh. I already have a bit of non-academic training in parapsychology. I’ve been a member of the student group of L’Institut Métapsychique International (IMI) in Paris for four years now, so I’ve had time to learn a bit about the field. But this course was a first for me, and I really enjoyed it. I would definitely recommend it to someone with interest in parapsychology with some or no previous knowledge.

Content of the class

The structure of the course was quite simple. Each week we were assigned one or two articles to read and some chapters of the Introduction to Parapsychology book by Harvey Irwin and Caroline Watt. And there were interviews by Dr. Watt of some parapsychology figures (pro-psi or skeptics). Everything but the book was downloadable through the site (WebCT of University of Edinburgh). Each week focused on one theme, “Psi in the laboratory”, “Unconcious Psi” etc. The interviews are organized to give the “expert of the week” the opportunity to discuss the week’s topic but also broader issues in parapsychology, which is a really good thing. And the mix of parapsychologists and skeptics is also a plus. Students are thus showed the whole picture instead of just the positive side of the psi quest.

Whereas the interviews are fun and easy to listen to, the readings required a lot more work. The book chapters were quite clear, but they were sometimes too quick on certain subjects. The articles, on the other hand, were sometimes really difficult. I wondered if everyone, especially those with no scientific background, was following the points made in the articles. I don’t think that technical articles are unnecessary in that kind of class, on the contrary, but maybe they could have been better introduced. The interviews did introduce material sometimes when the expert was the author of the article. Overall the whole content of the class is great, but it may be hard to follow for those with no previous background in parapsychology.

Class setup

The whole class is online, everything takes place on the website of the University of Edinburgh. And this was for me a big disappointment. Not that I dislike online classes, I’ve experienced a few and they are generally good, but an online course website needs to be easy to use and that wasn’t really the case. WebCT manages the environment of the site, and it really wasn’t great at all. Things are sometimes a bit hard to find, and the whole site is slow. Instead of using just one window and some tabs, every time you open something you get a popup window. Then you end up with three or four windows at the same time and you get lost. But I may be a bit picky since the after-class survey shows most students found the site good or very good. Actually, it appears that I was the only student that had a bad experience with the website.

Each week, one student gets to write a short essay (500 word) on the week’s topic, which is used to start up conversation. The forum that is used to do that wasn’t really easy to use, and I think it might have inhibited participation. The window in which one was supposed to write his essay was so small it could barely fit three words in a line. Reading wasn’t easy either. Nevertheless people did participate and conversations were enjoyable. Dr. Watt often intervened to give relevant information, to answer student questions, or to ask questions to bring better focus to the conversation. Her participation allowed the group to have feedback about their discussions and not be left in the blind.

Class population

For the class to be manageable, groups of ten were created. It enabled people to know each other quickly, and each of the participants had its own week essay assigned. It also made conversation easy to follow. Class discussions were nice, but they depended a lot on the group dynamic. On average, people participated once or twice per discussion. Dr. Watt told me that with the new group there was already three times the number of messages that there was with the previous group. So participation may depend a lot on the group dynamic.

People attending the class came from different backgrounds. Most of them never had followed a parapsychology class, but they all had certain knowledge of the field, some through readings and others because they were psychics. I don’t recall anyone being skeptic. But the class survey shows that some had actually been skeptics even though they weren’t really vocal about it.


My overall impression is a good one. Class material was good, sometimes a bit hard, but always appropriate. The few lows about the website are surely thing that can be fixed over time. This class is a good thing, and definitely somewhere to start for anyone interested in parapsychology. I would not suggest it for people who already have a good background in the field, because it is only an introductory class, but it’s a really good one.

Louis Sagnières

Louis is a PhD student in philosophy. He specializes in political philosophy and the impact that the Internet has on society. He has been a member of L’Institut Métapsychique International (IMI) student group for four years, and has done his master’s thesis on the impact of parapsychology on philosophy (the text can be found in french here).


Dennis Thompson said...

Excellent write up, as mentioned on my blog I hope to take the course this year,



Tom Ruffles said...

Louis, a very informative review. It would be interesting to see how the course has evolved over the last year or so, and whether they have ironed out the issues you mention.