Professor Michael Sandel’s Justice class has been a fixture of Harvard’s College of Arts and Sciences for years, serving over 15,000 students on campus. Professor Sandel’s teaching style is distinguished by the Socratic dialogues he facilitates with hundreds of students in Sanders Theatre, and he was featured in Ken Bain’s research study of excellent teachers, What the Best College Teachers Do. Like several of the first HarvardX classes, Justice had an online life before HarvardX. In 2009, WGBH partnered with Professor Sandel and Harvard University to broadcast the Justice course on television, which was complemented in 2011 by justiceharvard.org, a site combining online videos and discussion forums. The first of the 12 episodes of WGBH’s Justice production has been viewed by millions on television and on YouTube. This is a course with a long, highly regarded history.
JusticeX extends the Justice learning experience onto the edX platform. The course officially launched on March 3, 2013; content was released starting March 12. All course content, including the final exam, was released by May 31, and students wishing to earn a certificate needed to submit all graded work by August 2. Participants could still register and use the courseware beyond this submission date, and we collected data on activity through September 8, 2013.
Table 1. Important Dates in JusticeX
|December 19, 2012||Registration Opens|
|March 3, 2013||Official Course Start Date|
|March 12, 2013||First Content Released|
|May 31, 2013||Final Exam and All Content Released|
|July 31, 2013||All Graded Material Due for Certificates|
|September 8, 2013||Date of Report Data Collection|
The courseware consisted of 24 content chapters, each organized around a video lecture of approximate 20–30 minutes. Each lecture, mainly recut from PBS video, was packaged and accompanied by a selected reading or two; a three-question self-test (un-graded); a lecture-specific discussion prompt; and a poll question. The poll questions asked people to respond to a specific issue of moral reasoning with a “yes” or “no” answer. When poll respondents selected yes or no, they were shown the results of the poll and taken to a discussion forum specific to their response. In this discussion forum, the course team offered a counter argument and solicited a response.
To illustrate how these pieces fit together, it is useful to explore the components of the Lecture 1 chapter. In the first video lecture, Professor Sandel introduces the subject of JusticeX by posing a hypothetical scenario in which a train trolley is headed towards a collision that will kill five people, but this accident can be avoided if a person throws a switch to divert the trolley, killing a single person. Following the lecture, the poll question asks if it is morally permissible to divert a train trolley in such a way that it will kill one person, but save five lives. If a person responds yes, they are asked if it would be permissible to kill a healthy person and distribute their organs to save five others. Students are also given the option to change their responses to the poll questions. The self-test questions in the Lecture 1 chapter probe students’ understanding of the definitions of “consequentialist” and “categorical” moral reasoning. The additional discussion prompt asks people to reflect on a hypothetical about using torture to extract information about a bomb planted in New York City. The accompanying reading comes from Professor Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, and it further explores the trolley dilemma, illustrated by an account of actual events from Afghanistan where soldiers who released two teenage goatherds found themselves soon after attacked by a large group of Taliban fighters. Together, these resources provide an introduction to an approach to moral philosophy that attempts to navigate the complexities of universal principles and specific contexts and situations.
Two chapters were released per week, and every three to six chapters, a five-question multiple-choice quiz was released, for a total of five quizzes in all. At the end of the course, a 25-question multiple choice exam was released as well. Students needed to get 60% of all the questions correct (30 of 50) in order to pass the course.
The JusticeX course had several additional pieces of content. After every two weeks, the course staff released a “weekly forum digest” summarizing issues that arose in the forums and making suggestions for discussion norms and strategies. Professor Sandel hosted two live Q&A sessions that were recorded and made part of the courseware. In the 2013 residential course, Professor Sandel had several satellite sections participating from other universities around the world, and he engaged students in these sections in dialogue with his Harvard students in Sanders Theatre. Three of these videos were included in the courseware for JusticeX. Finally, teaching fellows hosted “office hours” using the forums three times a week, choosing dedicated times to respond rapidly in the forums.