AGORA-net has been conceptualized and designed by Michael Hoffmann, Director of the Philosophy Program in the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Michael Hoffmann’s research focuses on the question how creativity, cognitive change, and learning can be stimulated by constructing diagrammatic representations, and by experimenting with those representations. This idea has first been developed by Charles S. Peirce in his concept of “diagrammatic reasoning.”
Since 2010, the AGORA project is funded by the United States-Russia Program of FIPSE, the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, U.S. Department of Education (Grant P116S100006). From 2010 to 2012 the project was part of a collaboration with Bauman Moscow State Technical University, and since 2012 it collaborates with the Institute of Philosophy in the Russian Academy of Science (find more information under “Contact us“). Both these collaborations focus, first, on the development of online media for engineering and engineering ethics education and, second, on the development of engineering ethics in Russia.
We want to provide a tool that can be used …
… for educational projects: Learning to Reason and Reasoning to Learn
The ability to reason is crucial for every area of education. Analytical skills as well as critical and structured thinking are essential for being an educated person. We can distinguish three components that are essential for reasoning:
Based on this distinction, AGORA-net aims at improving reasoning skills with regard to three dimensions: the ability to argue, to structure, and to respond creatively to objections.
The first dimension, the ability to argue, refers to the need to know some basics of logic. We are convinced—as the Association for Symbolic Logic in their “Guidelines for Logic Education” has stated—that “the increasingly technical demands placed on people by the information revolution makes it all the more important that people understand basic logical principles of reasoning.”
The second dimension of reasoning, the ability to structure, refers to three problems: (A) Students often feel overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of scientific and technological issues, i.e., how to structure these in a coherent manner. (B) As information can be structured and framed in multiple, and often conflicting ways, sense-making poses not only the challenge to find one structure, but to evaluate alternative structures and to defend what seems to be the best one. (C) The third problem concerns the risk of oversimplification: students need to understand that the simplest structure is not necessarily the best solution as important information may be unaddressed. Moreover, students need to appreciate that knowledge is evolving.
AGORA-net can be used for individual learning and for collaborative and problem-based learning environments where it guides and structures collaboration among students. The software “puts something in the middle,” a visual representation of arguments and debates.
… for public deliberation and civic engagement: How to organize large-scale deliberation effectively and efficiently?
Research on engaging the public in political decision making goes back at least to Juergen Habermas’s conceptualization of the “public sphere” and its role in legitimizing government in the 60s of the past century. Today, there is a broad academic interest in “deliberative” and “participatory democracy.”
The main problem regarding the goal to engage citizens is that it is far from clear how to organize citizen and expert participation efficiently and effectively. As Peter P. Swire reports, the Obama-Biden “campaign learned how to cope with a motivated group of just over 10 million individuals. After Election Day, the transition and later the administration had to respond to the concerns of over 300 million Americans, as well as interested persons in other countries.”
There is no question that there is a phenomenal interest in participation. But how can it be possible to structure such a huge amount of input without frustrating both overwhelmed politicians and engaged citizens? And how can it be possible to include and motivate those who are already disengaged?
The objective of the “AGORA-net: Participate – Deliberate” project is to provide a web-based tool to organize and structure large-scale deliberation. In contrast to tools such as blogs and wikis which are mainly accumulating input in a linear form, AGORA-net focuses on the interactive construction and revision of graphically represented argument maps.
AGORA-net will open up a space on the web in which citizens can argue for positions, formulate counterarguments, and revise argumentations as long as it takes to formulate the strongest possible position. Instead of simply adding statement after statement, AGORA-net establishes an infrastructure of deliberation that channels input and allows the sharpening of positions in an ongoing process by utilizing more and more knowledge.
The status of positions or chains of arguments–whether they are defeated, questioned, or unrefuted–is immediately visible for everyone, challenging thus the authors of an argumentation and the community of deliberators to develop counterarguments to objections or to revise positions so that they can cope with criticism.
Instead of the linear structure of the usual discussion–where “on top” is always the one who had the last word, but not necessarily the best justified position–AGORA-net is result-oriented: The best defended position is always on top. Instead of flooding participatory processes with millions of entries that are often repetitive and too simplistic, AGORA provides a self-organizing structure that challenges the user community to deepen their understanding of issues, to listen to others, to change habitualized reasoning processes, and to strengthen positions that can then–together with their supporting argumentations–inform real policy making.