Introduction to Bioethics MOOC re-launches April 15

In 2014, the Kennedy Institute of Ethics launched its six-week Introduction to Bioethics course on the edX platform. The massive open online course (MOOC) made Georgetown history when it went live to a global audience of thousands — and in 2015, it is back with expanded content and a brand new platform.

The course features lecture content from seven senior research scholars on the same topics as last year’s course — ranging from abortion to euthanasia to medical tourism — but has been expanded to ten weeks, oriented around five themes in bioethics.

From the course overview:

Respecting Autonomy. The first theme explores one of the founding issues of modern bioethics: the importance of respecting the autonomy, or self-determination, of patients and research subjects. Why is it so important? What are its limits? And what about the autonomy of doctors and nurses?

Bioethics and the Human Body. The second theme explores issues around the human body. One unit will look at fascinating questions around enhancing the body, the other will ask us to think hard about what disability — and “normal” — really means.

Bioethics at the Beginning of Life. In one unit, we’ll look at the fascinating world of “collaborative reproduction” — new ways of creating babies and building families, and some of the ethical issues they raise. In another unit, we’ll explore the important and difficult issue of abortion. Good and reasonable people disagree on this topic: we’ll be exploring different views to help all of us think more deeply about it.

Bioethics at the End of Life. The fourth theme explores the other bookend of human life. One unit looks at the end of life for those who can no longer speak for themselves — those in a persistent vegetative state, for instance. What parameters should guide our decision making here? And what is the definition of death, anyway? Another unit takes on a critical issue that is hotly debated right now: for those who can speak for themselves as they approach death, does the right to autonomy include the right to request help in hastening one’s death?

Global Bioethics. The fifth and final theme explores a variety of bioethical issues in an increasingly globalized world. One unit will take on the urgent and complex issue of climate change: what does the perspective of Environmental Justice add to our understanding of the ethics here? The final unit surveys three issues of emerging growth: medical tourism, outsourcing medical research to developing countries, and ensuring food security in the 21st century.

MOOC team members cite “improved quizzes,” sharing “the same good content with a sleeker look,” and an “exciting discussion environment” some of the most exciting new features of this iteration of the course.

Careful pedagogical thinking undergirds many of the specific design choices made for the new MOOC platform, says Jake Earl, a graduate fellow of the KIE working to develop course content.

“The new learning environment lets students progress through course at their own pace, to easily skip ahead to topics they’re most interested in, or to review material that they’ve already worked through. It gives them flexibility to work in a way that best fits their schedule and their interests.”

Colleague Colin Hickey, also a graduate fellow, agrees. “I think students will benefit from the way we’ve pulled out key concepts or distinctions to highlight them” after faculty lecture videos conclude, he says, and “new comprehension check quizzes along the way should help students figure out if they are really getting some of the key takeaways, and if not, they’ll know where to dwell a little longer to make sure they are learning it all.”

Even more than that, says Hickey, “what I’m most-most excited about is how we’ve incorporated some classroom interaction with Georgetown undergrads.”

A series of short videos filmed last fall in a live Georgetown class rounds out existing video content. The class, taught by 2014 MOOC course fellow Travis Rieder, experimented with a “flipped classroom” educational model which utilized 2014 MOOC content. (Read more about Rieder’s hybrid course here.) KIE director Maggie Little visited the class for a series of Q&A sessions following specific topics, which were filmed for inclusion in the 2015 MOOC.

“When Maggie speaks with the students,” says Hickey, “we get a real simulation of being in a college class, and we get to see a nice back-and-forth unfold around these issues. It’s fluid and dynamic. It adds to the content of the videos and really lets the material breathe.”

Just as in 2014, this year’s MOOC will feature constant updates and support on Twitter at a dedicated handle (@BioethicsMOOC) as well as rolling updates on the KIE Facebook page.

“Having that additional layer of social connection with our global classroom was one of the most inspiring aspects of last year’s course,” says KIE head of communications Kelly Heuer. “When students from around the globe are able to connect with one another directly, talking about important issues like end-of-life care and comparing cultural perspectives — that’s bioethics touching people’s lives. That’s when we know our course is making a difference.”

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