Background. “Sociology of the Paranormal” has been filling classrooms to capacity for over 25 years. I’d like to believe that students are clamoring to improve their critical thinking skills in this thinly-veiled course on scientific method and the sociology of beliefs. More likely the pop-culture appeal of its subject matter brings students through the door. Uncritical claims abound by proponents of astrology, psychic mediums, ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, quack therapies, ESP and many other topics. These are fueled socially by sham authorities, celebrity endorsements, social media and traditional mass media. From an academic perspective this topic is an ideal vehicle to convey the power of critical thinking and scientific method to assess paranormal claims made in public forums. As a social science course, we go beyond mere debunking to also consider why 90-95% of adult Americans express belief in one or more popular paranormal claims—despite overwhelming scientific evidence against them. These examinations take us through, among other topics, the physiology of perception, the psychology of belief formation, the social psychology of interpersonal influence, and the sociology of media, culture and collective behavior. We also spend a good deal of time on a variety of deceptive practitioners whose promotion of pseudoscience have caused real harm to the unsuspecting.
On-line Conversion and Rationale. The course has evolved incrementally each year since I first taught it around 1990. The conversion to on-line delivery is a natural advancement. I have increasingly integrated non-text-based materials such as audio and video clips, info-graphics, traditional data charts, and other media. I have also moved beyond assessing performance strictly with multiple choice quizzes and exams, now also incorporating self-running multimedia group presentations and structured term papers. Whether or not we like it, students increasingly are expected to learn effectively and to perform well online. In keeping with this trend, Sociology of the Paranormal will contribute to the development of these skills via engaging subject matter approached in a scientifically rigorous way. Based on my own online teaching experiences, I am certain that Sociology of the Paranormal will flourish in this format. The internet has become the primary source for practically all of the information students receive about paranormal and fringe science claims. It is only fitting that an on-line course be designed to help students grapple with the torrent of pseudoscience and other bad information that crosses their screens daily. Because currently I post all course materials on Blackboard, and already incorporate a fair amount of online media, converting to online delivery is more of an incremental step than a revolutionary change. Finally, on-line delivery will allow this course to reach a greater diversity of students, especially non-traditional students, those with daytime jobs, or those who simply prefer learning outside the walls of regular classrooms and scheduled lectures. The Department of Sociology gradually has been diversifying its online offerings, and a fully online option for this course would be in keeping with Departmental trends and fully endorsed by the Department Chair. To help ensure a smooth transition and up-to-date delivery methods of an ADA-compliant course, I was also awarded a grant to participate in the 2018 3Ds Bootcamp for the design, development and delivery of online courses.