Agora: web-based ethics education

The number of Dutch engineering students studying ethics is increasing: students from a wide variety of engineering fields such as information technology, chemistry, biomedical technology, etc., all receive a basic training in ethics.  Personal feedback and discussion is highly desirable when learning ethics, but can be difficult to provide when class sizes are large.  The computer program Agora, named after the marketplace where Socrates said philosophical thinking should take place, was developed to address this issue. The designers of the program were not satisfied with existing electronic models, like the one by Harris et al. in Engineering Ethics; Concepts and Cases, which tend to conceive ethical theories as sets of principles and rules that can be applied to cases and offer little space for critical reflection and personal judgment.  Agora, by contrast, helps provide a deeper understanding of ethical theories and encourages students to engage in ethical reflection.

Agora offers a library of cases pertaining specifically to different technological disciplines, as well as several models for a step-by-step analysis of these cases. These models have different aims.  Some of them allow students to exercise a specific skill, for example, to make a distinction between facts and values, or to learn how to identify ethically relevant options for action from which a person can choose. These models teach students to distinguish between ethical and non-ethical elements of a case, and how ethical concepts are used.

Other models create more theoretical understanding, helping students to interpret the value of the chosen options for action from a specific ethical perspective, such as a utilitarian, Kantian or virtue ethics perspective. The program offers a step-by-step model that helps students to deliberate about the case according to a specific theoretical approach.  But their results are also put into a critical perspective: different theories allow for different conclusions, and which one do students think are best? Agora offers questions that encourage students to develop their own judgment, leaving room for discussion.

The program also offers possibilities to get a deeper theoretical understanding in so-called theory chambers, which are virtual rooms in which students can walk around, talk to philosophers and do exercises that teach them the fundamental ideas from a specific theoretical approach.

Agora has many advantages for teachers as well as students. It allows teachers to build their own ethical cases and analysis models, to share cases and models with colleagues and to use existing cases and models from the library. The system supports course logistics (enrollment, deadlines, distribution of training materials), providing feedback to students (both individual and collective) and grading student work. For students Agora is a complete digital learning environment for ethics courses, where they can study theory and work on assignments (both in teams and individually).

Agora is developed and maintained by the TU Eindhoven, TU Delft, Universiteit Twente and the Kanazawa Institute of Technology (Japan), and is used on a smaller scale in several other institutes in higher and university education. It is a webtool (http://www.ethiekentechniek.nl), compatible with most modern browsers, that currently supports three languages: English, Japanese and Dutch. Agora is licensed for use to universities and individual teachers (fees depending on usage).

For more information contact dr. Philip Nickel.