April 03, 2007

Socrates 2.0
The Birth of an Online Masters in Bioethics

In the Scientist this month, I chronicle the development of the Alden March Bioethics Institute's new Master of Science in Bioethics degree [Click here to download a flyer], beginning with my fight with the Apple and Google people and ending with their victory and our cool new program (which replaces a five year-old program using ancient technology and a small pool of visiting faculty):
Last summer, I had a religious experience at the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif. I was on the Google campus by invitation to attend Science Foo Camp, a small gathering of people in science, medicine, and computing. Google, Nature, and the O'Reilly Group sponsored the event. At the meeting, we gathered around tables, pit fires, and indoor tents, as we reached across disciplines using technology.

For my session, I proposed the following: Socrates would not teach ethics on the Internet. It was a heady claim to make at the forum where Web 2.0 was invented. At least two people in my session clearly believed they were actually channeling Socrates.

Going into the session, I was really sure of myself. I've taught ethics. Whether my students are future doctors, attorneys, scientists, or physicians, they seem to glean the most when they are forced to consider presuppositions about life and profession. For more than a decade I have held that professors inspire this encounter when they roam the room, lock eyes, and compel contemplation.

Online education, in other words, wouldn't cut it. Sure, there was a place for certain things. You could teach research ethics regulations on a cell-phone browser. Online lecture notes and PDFs of readings? Fine. Chat on the Net has been so effective it even results in marriage. On Secondlife.com, people certainly explore moral boundaries. But learning about the moral life on iTunes? Sorry, not buying that one.

There's no good reason I should have such reticence. I started one of, if not the first, bioethics Web site in 1994; built a unique journal around online debate in 2000; and created the first editors' blog for a biomedical journal in 2004. I waste a lot of time online. Yet when it came time to write a grant to teach research ethics to clinicians and government officials in Ghana, I didn't even consider distance learning. My jet airplane-dependent research ethics training program application fell flat because flying people to America from Ghana to take classes was too expensive. Duh. I began to doubt my convictions.

And so I found myself in Mountain View arguing a case to some leaders of Apple's iTunes University, who were eager to hear that I was wrong. I gave my defense of the Dead Poet's Society's theory of teaching to people who actually use iPods to teach college students. They didn't disappoint.

Right away, we began to test the question. We recorded actual ethics cases in progress, interviewed experts on the questions at hand, and built simulation models for learning the foundations of clinical ethics. We integrated live chats and threaded chat and group projects such as a bioethics wiki. We made it all portable, so that students from India or rural South Dakota could participate. Instead of looming professors, we opened additional dimensions of interactivity, and built a learning community that lasts longer than two hours twice a week. It was so much fun that I found myself working all day and all night, and within three months we'd submitted an online masters program to the State of New York. I forgot Socrates and wanted to meet Steve Jobs.

And so this fall the first class will begin at masters.bioethics.org, an entire program built around these technologies. The pilot certificate program we're offering now has taught us that students would like their professors to have a rewind (and stop) button, want intensive mandatory ongoing conversations, love having a library of relevant interviews with professionals from science and medicine about real cases, and sustain a level of dialogue that I've never seen matched around a physical table. We won't really know whether our program worked until the first class graduates in a year, or perhaps the effects will manifest themselves later as the alumni continue to use our online resources.

So would Socrates teach ethics on the Internet? Maybe, maybe not. But the intensity of real ethical decision-making seems to work with iTunes U and other technologies far better than the Textbook 1.0 approach of ten years ago. And maybe that's the point: Socrates definitely wouldn't have used an anthology.

[You can read the complete column and the rest of The Scientist here; in other news about the new masters program, Alicia Ouellette, director of the AMBI Health Law & Bioethics program, was interviewed In the AlbanyTimes-Union about the new Juris Doctorate/Master of Science in Bioethics 3 year degree program. And Albany Business Review discussed the sponsorship of Apple for the new Masters program]

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