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Just Lectures? — A Review of the edX Justice MOOC

Professor Michael Sandel made headlines twice this year with regard to his ethics class (called Justice), which has become a staple of the Harvard experience.

edX justice mood sandel harvard

Bernard d’Agesci (1757-1828), La justice, musée de Niort via Wikimedia

In addition to playing to students packing Harvard’s Memorial Hall, Sandel has taken his show on the road, delivering versions of the course to even huger audiences in Asia (a phenomenon that caught the eye of the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman who used the launch of the edX version of the course to talk about what MOOCs might mean to an ever-flattening world).

But Justice has also generated its share of controversy. For when a group of Philosophy professors at San Diego State University wanted to attack decisions made by administrators to license MOOC content from edX for use in U.C. classrooms, they framed their concerns not as an attack on their administration, but as a letter (written more in sorrow than in anger) addressed specifically to Professor Sandel (which somehow found its way into the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education).

But beyond those headlines, those of us who decided to commit a dozen weeks to the class were more concerned with whether or not Justice was anything special.

I’ll admit to a developing snobbishness with regard to survey classes that devote brief amounts of time to numerous monumental thinkers, as well as a tendency to resist being impressed by celebrity profs. But thankfully, Professor Sandel’s avoids the pyrotechnics that can sometimes obscure the hollowness at the center of many a celebrated class, getting right down to the business of guiding undergraduates through the thicket of ethical choices.

Sandel takes a thematic vs. a chronological approach to the material, starting with the basics of whether an act should be judged from a consequentialist framework (i.e., whether choices should be judged based on their results) vs. whether decisions can have their own intrinsic moral worth. And like all good moral philosophers, he’s got a bushel full of thought experiments contrived to ensure that no decision comes off clean.

Should you steer an out-of-control trolley car to avoid killing five when you’re decision will unquestionably kill one who would not die had you not made a choice? Answer “Yes” and you’re next asked whether you’d throw a single fat man off a bridge into the path of the same trolley to also avoid those five people being killed. Answer “No” and you have to confront why it’s worth taking four more lives in order to avoid making a fraught decision.

These dilemmas follow you as you continue onto Utilitarianism (that great foil of moral philosophy which takes “the good” to mean the greatest amount of pleasure and least amount of pain for the greatest number), followed by the works of Locke, Kant, Aristotle and Sandel’s own favorite philosopher John Rawls. And along the way, there are detours into the Libertarian thinking of Robert Nozick and the Communitarian ideas of Alasdair MacIntyre, with the work of these and other thinkers applied to dilemmas such as free choice, distribution of wealth, war and peace, and gay marriage.

Sandel’s lectures are based on highly polished set pieces (his book What’s the Right Thing to Do? contains many of the same arguments and anecdotes), and production values are as high as anything I’ve seen in a MOOC class to date. But keep in mind that these are the same lectures that have been floating around iTunes U and YouTube for many years, meaning edX’s Justice is largely built from repurposed existing material.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach (indeed, I hope more MOOC classes can be built around existing content based on polished, professional lectures delivered in existing college classrooms). But given that the creators of this course started with so much stuff already in the can, [pullquote position=”right”]I wish they had put a little more time into the ancillary material related to the class, notably homework assignments and quizzes which consisted primarily of multiple-choice questions with obvious answers (which made the 97% I earned as my final grade less than fully satisfying).[/pullquote]

Regarding whether Justice represents a threat to every other ethics course taught on the planet, I’ve got to lump this class in with the Philosophy of Death class I finished last month as leaving me disappointed in not being able to really mix it up on ethical and moral issues with classmates during and after the bell rings.

The discussion forums didn’t really help much with regard to student-to-student interaction, given that they fill up almost immediately with thousands of required responses to prompts associated with each lecture, a dynamic that creates lots of unread monologues but little dialog. Which means that Sandel’s presentation – as strong as it is – needs to be incorporated into a framework where students can argue out their opinions even if (as Sandel’s course proved) we will never come to a clear answer to our moral questions since justice is all about a journey with no obvious destination.


Editor’s note: This guest post is from Jonathan Haber at Degree of Freedom, who is tracking his progress in trying to learn in just twelve months everything he would if enrolled in a four year liberal arts BA program and using only free resources.  Along the way he is writing reviews of courses he completes, some of which he generously allows us to republish here. To get all of Jonathan’s MOOC reviews, and more, be sure to sign up for the weekly Degree of Freedom Newsletter.


Jonathan Haber (19 Posts)

Jonathan Haber is a Boston-based writer and educational specialist whose Degree of Freedom project is experimenting with whether it's possible to learn everything you would get from a four year liberal arts degree in just twelve months using only free educational resources. You can follow his progress at