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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bioethics

April 7, 2014—Bioethics affects everyone at some point in life. Georgetown’s new online course will give individuals all over the world an opportunity to learn about some of life’s most complex and controversial questions.

Designed by Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute for Ethics, Introduction to Bioethics begins on April 15, 2014. More than 25,000 people from 155 countries have already enrolled in the massive open online course (MOOC) through edX. According to Associate Professor Maggie Little, who is also the director of the Kennedy Institute, the six-week course will tackle many of the issues that we deal with every day.

“In virtue of being embodied creatures, and the specific kind of biological creatures we are, we face particular kinds of moral challenges: we are vulnerable to disease, we give birth, we die,” Little said. “We use technology—and culture—to shape our own biology, to extend life, challenge our biological limits, manipulate our bodies and our planet. All of these facets of the embodied human experience generate ethical questions, and the attempt to grapple with these questions is what we call bioethics,” she continued.

Bioethics is a relatively new field that brings together many disciplines, including philosophy, law, medicine, and environmental science. Students won’t need a background in any of these disciplines, Little says, but they will leave the course having learned about topics in each area.

Each week of the course will center on a theme, such as the beginning of life or the end of life, and will be led by two professors. “We’ll take issues like abortion, food ethics, and climate justice and give people an introduction to what the controversy is, but then do what we are calling ‘deep dives’ on some critical distinctions and concepts that oftentimes get lost in the heat of debate,” she explained.

The course will be taught by seven Georgetown faculty members: Professor Tom Beauchamp, Associate Professor Maggie Little, Professor Madison Powers, Associate Professor Karen Stohr, Professor Rebecca Kukla, Professor of Medical Ethics Robert Veatch, and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Christian Ethics John Keown.

But the course won’t feel like a series of guest speakers, Little says. Instead, each professor has been actively involved in the course, curating readings and discussion questions as they would for their own classes. For students, it is an opportunity to hear from seven leaders in the field, each with their own teaching style. “There’s a personality for everyone,” Little said.

Little and her team have worked to create a course that is “much more active and interactive than just sitting in a lecture hall,” she said. “You can broadcast a series of lectures, or you can design an immersive pedagogical experience that makes full use of the tools available in a massive, open, digital context. Our MOOC is committed to doing the latter.”

The Kennedy Institute’s MOOC was designed specifically for edX and is not a course offered at the university. “We wanted to build a course from the ground up to take advantage of the web environment and what you can do with it that you can’t do in a normal classroom,” she continued.

During months of planning, Little and her colleagues scrutinized their pedagogical goals and carefully chose which aspects of the course were best portrayed by lecture, visuals, or discussion. While the online medium offered new opportunities for learning, it also created new challenges.

“How do you create a community of learners when it’s online, which can feel anonymous, and how do you create a sense of continuity and trust in a course where you have seven faculty?” Little said.

These elements of trust and community are critical for a course on bioethics, which explores controversial and often personal issues. “One of the things we’ve talked about is [that] online forums can often bring out the worst in people. Just like being behind the wheel, people are often more vicious than they would be if they were talking with the person on a street in their neighborhood,” she said. “One of the challenges we’ve given ourselves is—what would it take to scaffold a respectful, thoughtful community on difficult topics?”

In response to that question, the Kennedy Institute’s team will be involved in the course throughout the six weeks. They will monitor discussion blogs and pull compelling questions from students for the professors to discuss in short videos.

Little hopes that Introduction to Bioethics will help individuals understand the nuances of issues surrounding life and death, health care, climate change, food ethics, and emerging technologies. “It’s not about what you believe but why,” Little said. “And when you really try to press the why, you often end up refining your views and understanding how people tussle with it.”

—Elizabeth Wilson

Related Information

Sign up for GeorgetownX’s Introduction to Bioethics, a six-week course that starts April 15, 2014. Learn more about the course and its development at making-the-MOOC-org.