The power of Spin

I was invited to see what for the moment I’ll call a new video conferencing technology in action today. I trooped over to Harvard’s Sanders Theater to watch Michael Sandel teach a session of Justice, focusing on the moral aspects of collective responsibility, or what we owe each other, and what society owes us.

Sandel stood underneath both the Latin script on the wall above the stage and a huge projector screen, with six video windows on it, not unlike a gathering of Skype windows. These connected his Harvard class to students in universities in Shanghai, Tokyo (where it was 1 a.m.), New Delhi and Sao Paolo (as well as a connection to San Francisco). Sandel engaged students from each place in his hour-long Socratic discussion of our moral obligations.
Sandel used an iPad app called Spin, put together by Net Power & Light, a San Francisco startup that is emerging from stealth mode. I don’t know enough about Net Power & Light’s technology to say much about how it works, but I wanted to note some quick impressions:

It isn’t nearly as good as telepresence technology, but the iPad video was pretty good. As a way to create a five-country live video conference in classrooms more than 11,000 miles apart, running over WiFi, it was excellent. There were some small hiccups in the audio, but nothing worse than what you would get over a cell phone. Spin is obviously cheaper than telepresence.
They did ask us to turn off our cell phones and any WiFi connections we might have, though we were told that was because of concerns over the massive power outage in Cambridge last night.

He didn’t do anything fancy, like bring in outside video or audio. But it turns out that this was the third time Sandel has used the Spin technology to connect students for a global discussion of political philosophy, and we journalists (I think I was the only journalist working for a U.S publication in attendance) were shown a clip from a previous class where he brought in a guest speaker via Spin.

It’s not clear to me that it works any better than something like Google Hangout.

It took several people running iPads around Sanders Theatre and one grad student running the session via another iPad (I think) to make this work. That’s not going to fly for most classroom environments. That said, overseas, there was only one iPad per classroom, and students who wanted to speak could either walk up to it, or someone brought it over when Sandel called on them.

It was clear that on the topic of the day, students in five disparate cultures mostly shared the same sense of collective responsibility. (Whether people not in the intellectual elite would agree with them is a different question.)
The journos went downstairs afterwards for a chat with some students, Sandel, and Tara Lemmey, Net P&L’s CEO [disclosure: I am friendly with Tara, which may color my comments].

The three students said they liked the interaction with students from other places. They want better audio, but they also want to use the technology more often, and especially in their discussion sections (large Harvard classes like Justice often include discussion sections, led by graduate teaching assistants).

Sandel told us he feels like the technology “is opening the Sanders Theater and the Harvard classroom and inviting the world in.” He hopes to expand his use of it, though there’s nothing firm on that front.
Tara said the Spin platform was initially built for people to play music together.

I liked how Tara corrected me when I mentioned ‘users’ of the Spin system.

“It’s a design criteria that we don’t use the word user. Nobody’s allowed to use it. They really do get banished in the organization if they do. We talk about people.”

I’ve started playing a bit with the Spin tool. I hope to write more on this soon. I don’t know that it’s revolutionary or disruptive. But it might not have to be to be hugely useful.

Leave a Reply