History of the Project

an argument map

The AGORA project started in 2010 supported by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education (Grant P116S100006). The first funding period ends August 31, 2015. Under the title “Online Media for Engineering and Engineering Ethics Education,” the project began as an international collaboration between Bauman Moscow State Technical University (BMSTU) and the Georgia Institute of Technology (GT). Its first goal was to share best practices and to develop new tools and pedagogical approaches in the area of science and technology, focusing on new online media for engineering and engineering ethics education. The second goal was to offer opportunities for intercultural learning and language immersion through a student and faculty exchange program.

The project’s research component concentrated, first, on the development of the collaborative and web-based argument visualization software "AGORA-net" which is now freely usable from all over the world (the code is open source). The software allows synchronous and asynchronous construction of arguments and more complex argumentations (networks of arguments and counterarguments) on the web. Secondly, we developed an innovative curriculum and learning materials for a new approach to engineering ethics education in which the AGORA software plays an integral role.

AGORA-net has been designed to stimulate reflection and to confront users with the limits of their own understanding; that is, to stimulate critical reflection on one’s own assumptions, especially those that usually remain hidden. We call this “reflective argumentation,” a concept that has been developed in a major paper of this project (Hoffmann, 2015).

The curriculum that we developed focuses on doing philosophy in collaborative settings or, more precisely, in student teams that try to cope with “wicked problems,” as Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber called them in a seminal publication (Rittel & Webber, 1973). The challenge of wicked problems is that they can be “framed” in a variety of ways, depending on the often conflicting needs, interests, world views, beliefs, and values of the people involved. Starting from Rittel and Webber’s assumption that wicked problems should be approached by “an argumentative process in the course of which an image of the problem and of the solution emerges gradually among the participants, as a product of incessant judgment, subjected to critical argument,” our curriculum realizes so-called “problem-based learning” (PBL) in small groups of students. Student teams are challenged to engage in such an “argumentative process.” They are confronted with a short description of a wicked problem—mostly one referring to an emerging technology whose ethical dimensions are not yet fully clear—and tasked to identify a large variety of positions that different stakeholders might formulate based on their respective perspective on the problem in question. By collaboratively constructing justifications for these perspectives and positions in the form of graphically represented argument maps in AGORA-net, students should learn to understand their legitimacy, and the limits of their own understanding. This approach has been described in Hoffmann & Borenstein (2014).

Novel in this approach is the use of AGORA-net as a tool that is specifically designed to support, structure, and facilitate collaboration in groups of students without the need of facilitators. In a small empirical study we provided evidence—based on survey research—that our approach to AGORA-facilitated problem-based learning (PBL) can provide a substantial and satisfying PBL experience for students that is successful with regard to intended learning goals without facilitators (Hoffmann & Lingle, 2015).

The AGORA web portal is based on a design by ziyodesign.com


Hoffmann, M. H. G. (2015). Reflective Argumentation: A Cognitive Function of Arguing. Argumentation, 1-33. doi: 10.1007/s10503-015-9388-9

Hoffmann, M. H. G., & Borenstein, J. (2014). Understanding Ill-Structured Engineering Ethics Problems Through a Collaborative Learning and Argument Visualization Approach. Science and Engineering Ethics, 20(1), 261-276. doi: 10.1007/s11948-013-9430-y

Hoffmann, M. H. G., & Lingle, J. (2015). Facilitating Problem-Based Learning by Means of Collaborative Argument Visualization Software. Teaching Philosophy, 38(4), 371-398. doi: 10.5840/teachphil2015112039

Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.