A Quandary of Accessibility

Justice addresses issues of technology and global education head on

Michael J. Sandel’s “Justice,” Harvard’s mass-attended introduction to philosophy and moral reasoning for undergraduates, has continued to push the boundaries of traditional education this semester by bringing students from around the world into his lectures. On one recent Friday morning, students from Sao Paolo, Shanghai, New Delhi, and Tokyo joined Harvard students via Spin, a technology from startup Net Power & Light, to take part in Sandel’s famous participatory lectures. The inclusion of this technology in the classroom brings to the fore two seminal questions. The first concerns the use of technology in the classroom: As digital technologies become increasingly enmeshed with our lives, they prompt changes in education that outpace other developments in teaching. The question, therefore, is what marks an appropriate level of technology and social media use for a college lecture? The second asks whether the use of internet phone calls is in fact symptomatic of a drop in teaching standards that has gone too far.

While using Spin in a lecture of roughly 400 students might give the appearance of such a decline, we should avoid applying one definition of rigor to judge all classes at a single institution. No one standard exists for defining what makes a good class at a top undergraduate institution like Harvard College. Justice is well known for its inclusion of students’ opinions and for pioneering the filming and freely accessible digitization of each of Sandel’s lectures. Accessibility, both to education and to different sources of knowledge, implicitly sits at the core of Justice’s mission. For this reason, Sandel’s decision to include student opinions from across the world in Harvard’s Sanders Theater does not appear inconsistent with the goals of his class. The clear challenge is therefore to optimize the use of Spin, and any technology, so that it contributes to enhanced student engagement with the core material of Justice.

No two classes are the same, and Justice in particular follows a very different model from most Harvard classes. As a result, some aspects of teaching standards vary too. In Math 55, or in a literature seminar, it is easy to see why the addition of social or digital media would seem a distraction from the intellectual consistency of the course. But for Justice, a different set of concerns exist. Since this course has sought, for better or worse, to subvert the norms of a lecture by emphasizing learning from peers alongside and simultaneous to learning from a professor, an effort to create as diverse a pool of peers as possible seems worth the disruptive risk. As Sandel commented to The Crimson, “It was exciting to see students wrestle with these hard ethical questions across national and cultural boundaries… It offers us a glimpse of what a global public discourse might be.”

Fundamentally, Justice’s experience of technology in the classroom demonstrates the potential of innovative methods of sharing ideas and information, but cautions us to the challenge and hence preparation needed to integrate new media into the classroom and produce positive effects. As experience accrues over time of using digital technology carefully, a “global public discourse” might become less of a gimmick and more a sustainable method of learning.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: Dec. 26

An earlier version of this article erroneously claimed that Michael J. Sandel used Skype to connect students from around the world in his lectures. In fact, the technology used was Spin by San Francisco-based startup Net Power & Light.

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