When Washington University School of Law enlisted the help of 2U, Inc., (www.2u.com) to develop its online master of laws program, the challenge was to figure out how to make the Socratic case method work in an online environment.
Further complicating the challenge was the issue of scalability. It might be possible to engage a small group in synchronous session in a Socratic dialogue, but that approach would not work with hundreds of students enrolled in the program.
To solve this pedagogical puzzle, several faculty members and 2U instructional designers looked at a key assumption about the Socratic method—that it is highly interactive. It is highly interactive, but not for everyone all the time. “In a class of 100 students, at any given moment it's highly interactive for only one of those 100 students while the other 99 nervously await their turn,” says Ian Van Tuyl, 2U's chief content officer.
Although students benefit vicariously from the Socratic method when they are not active participants, the idea of simply recording an excellent Socratic dialogue would not be an adequate substitute for the face-to-face version in which students (at least occasionally) are active participants.
Bidirectional Learning Tool
Van Tuyl and his colleagues pursued the idea of devising a way to accomplish the Socratic case method asynchronously, but in a way that would have each student respond to the questions posed by the instructor.
They came up with the Bidirectional Learning Tool, a software system and production methodology that enables each student to respond at specific points in a recorded Socratic dialogue. Here's how this method plays out in the program: Two students and the instructor sit at a round table and engage in a Socratic dialogue. Three cameras record the discussion—one trained on each student and one trained on the instructor. The instructor engages the students in a spontaneous Socratic dialogue as in a face-to-face class. Then the instructor looks into the camera and poses a question to the student viewing the recording (e.g., “Online student, why is this case in federal court to begin with?”). At that point, the online student must respond to the question before the video can continue. Depending on the question, the instructor may require the student to respond via audio, video, text, or multiple-choice question.
Each student responds to each question without hearing or seeing the other students' responses. Once the case is over, students can have access to each other's responses to critique and perhaps vote on which they thought were the best answers.