Professor Michael Sandel’s lectures on justice, part of some of Harvard University’s most popular courses, are also a hit on YouTube, viewed millions of times with thousands of comments.
Unlike the students in his class who actively participate in discussions, the online audience can do little more than sit there and watch. That’s about to change, thanks to a three-year-old startup based in San Francisco, Bloomberg.com reported on its Tech Deals blog.
Net Power & Light Inc. is making its debut with technology it calls Spin designed to turn online education into a group activity, even if participants are on opposite sides of the globe. The company has released three free applications for Apple Inc.’s iPad that let users create virtual classrooms with educational content from sources such as Harvard, Stanford University, TED and the National Geographic Channel.
The effort is part of the wider trend of educators and entrepreneurs harnessing technology to teach online. Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun founded Udacity Inc. last year to deliver courses, mainly on computer science and robotics.
“Teachers felt web-based learning wasn’t giving them the full experience,” Tara Lemmey, Net Power & Light’s co-founder and chief executive officer, said in an interview. “Education shouldn’t live by itself. It’s a world of together.”
Using Net Power & Light’s apps, users can fast-forward to the best parts, jump to a different clip, or pause the program so the group can debate a particular point via videoconference.
The sharing, reacting and questioning that occur in group settings enhance the learning experience, which is why Net Power & Light has focused on enabling those types of exchanges in its technology, said Lemmey, a serial entrepreneur who was formerly president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“It offers great promise of convening groups of people, students and also citizens in general to engage in discussion and debate of important questions,” said Sandel. “It can potentially be a very valuable tool for civic engagement and enriching public discourse.”
Other features in the apps include a shared chalkboard so users can draw on the screen, and individual audio controls for members in your group. Like a real gathering, more than one conversation might be going on at a time. Enlarging or reducing a participant’s picture on the screen adjusts their volume.
One of the apps, called Together Justice, is built around Sandel’s course on justice. Users can invite others to watch the 12-part series of lectures, which include discussion guides. The Harvard professor also plans to use Net Power & Light’s technology this semester to connect his students with those at universities in Tokyo, Shanghai, New Delhi and Sao Paolo.
“The global class is the next stage in the experiment,” Sandel said. “We would listen to one another and learn from one another.”
John Seely Brown, former director of Xerox Corp.’s Palo Alto Research Center and a member of Net Power & Light’s board, called the technology a “breakthrough” that adds a new experiential layer to our digital lives.
“It’s what makes you feel more connected,” he said.