Harvard University Professor Michael Sandel’s lectures on justice, one of the school’s most popular courses, are also a hit on YouTube. They’ve been viewed millions of times and have elicited thousands of comments. But unlike the students in his class who can actively participate in the discussions, the online audience can do little more than sit there and watch.
Now, a 3-year-old startup wants to change that experience. Net Power & Light, based in San Francisco, is making its debut with technology it calls Spin that turns online education into a group activity, even if the participants are on opposite sides of the globe.
The company has released three free iPad apps that allow users to create virtual gatherings where they can all watch educational content together from sources such as Harvard, Stanford University, TED and the National Geographic Channel. Users can also fast-forward to the best parts, pause the program so the group can debate a particular point via videoconferencing, or jump to a different clip.
“Teachers felt web-based learning wasn’t giving them the full experience,” Tara Lemmey, co-founder and chief executive officer of Net Power & Light, said in an interview. “Education shouldn’t live by itself. It’s a world of together.”
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 the 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. Much 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. 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 and elsewhere. It’s part of an attempt to create a virtual classroom where students from around the world can actively participate, he said.
“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.
“I think we kind of moved to a whole new stage,” he said, referring to the emotional bonds the technology could foster by replicating the experience of a physical gathering. “It’s what makes you feel more connected.”