Can watching sci-fi movies lead to more responsible and ethical innovation?

This week was the start of what is possibly my favorite class to teach–The Moviegoer’s Guide to the Future in the Arizona State University College of Global Futures! It’s a class that uses science fiction movies to explore the subtleties surrounding socially responsible and ethical innovation. And as you might expect from the title, it’s one that’s firmly focused on the skills and perspectives needed to build a better future.

I first taught the class in 2018, and since then it’s regularly attracted between 80 – 100 committed undergrads specializing in everything from business to biology. In the class, we aim to transcend conventional disciplinary boundaries by exploring unconventional ways of thinking about the future, and our responsibility to it. And to spice things up, we use a bunch of science fiction movies to get the creative juices flowing.

A Global Futures Class Built Around Sci-Fi Movies

The Moviegoer’s Guide to the Future class was developed around the the idea that the experience of watching, enjoying and discussing science fiction movies as a group can inform how we think about socially responsible and ethical innovation in quite unexpected and powerful ways, while jolting us out of the ruts of conventional thinking. This is where the movies we watch create a creative space for sharing perspectives, knowledge and ideas around socially responsible and ethical innovation that come together in interesting ways, and a space where everyone has something to contribute.

Over the past three years, the course has been amazingly successful. Through the movie-watching sessions, discussions, and assignments, I’ve seen metaphorical lightbulbs go off in the heads of our students as they’re exposed to new ideas, or when they realize that it’s OK to share ideas and aspirations that transcend the boundaries of their chosen disciplines. These experiences often reflect a growing awareness of how we all need to think differently about the nexus between technology, society and the future if we’re to ensure that innovation benefits as many people as possible.

This year though, COVID has forced us to rethink the very foundations of the course as the virus has prohibited squeezing a hundred warm bodies into a lecture hall masquerading as an intimate movie theater.

A Viral Rethink

When I first started developing The Moviegoer’s Guide to the Future, I wanted to find a way of shifting much of the educational content it represented out of the classroom, so that we could spend our time together as a class exploring the broader ramifications of emerging science and technology. As a result, much of that content ended up in the book that accompanies the course–Films from the Future.

The book provides a solid foundation for thinking creatively and deeply about socially responsible and ethical innovation. But book-learning about emerging technologies and the social and ethical challenges they raise only goes so far. To me, transformative learning has to be felt, to be experienced, and to involve engaging the heart as well as the mind. And this is where watching and experiencing movies together leads to a unique shared experience for learning as they simultaneously tap into our intellect and our emotions.

In fact, given the right environment and guide (and both are critically important for this approach to learning to succeed), it’s quite startling how effective watching movies together can be in class.

Over the past three years, I’ve been blown away by the feedback from students taking the course on how it’s impacted and changed their thinking. But much of it has been based on the in-person experience, and I must confess that I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to replicate this as we shifted the class online.

Thankfully, if this week’s first class of the new semester is anything to go by, the course is going to be better than ever this year–even with the new mode of delivery.

Zooming in to the future

This year we’re teaching the class through Zoom, where we watch and discuss each week’s movie together as a class. Admittedly, the experience isn’t as spontaneous and visceral as it is in a lecture theater. But I’ve been surprised at how close it gets. And with going virtual, there are things we are doing now that either wouldn’t have been possible with the in-person class, or we simply wouldn’t have thought of.

One of these is the ability for students to text-chat about the movie as they watch it–something that’s not possible while watching in person, but that makes perfect sense while hanging out online with a bunch of friends while watching films online. This opens up ways to engaging with others that simultaneously build community and trust, while enabling conversations that would be much harder to have in a physical classroom.

Another innovation that I’m particularly excited about this year is the extensive use of an online discussion and engagement platform that allows students to asynchronously explore new and interesting ideas as part of a diverse community–much as they would using social media. We’re using Yellowdig Engage, which is a learning platform that’s new to me. But so far it looks like it’s going to go a long way to replicating the learning environment we were able to create with the in-person class. And I must confess that I’m kid-in-a-candy-store excited to see how things work out here!

Of course, teaching virtually is not the same as teaching in person, and I’ll miss standing at the front of a hundred engaged students, orchestrating conversations that often go in unexpected but always interesting directions. But that aside, I’m excited by how well the new virtual format is panning out. And I’m especially stoked that it looks like we’re going to retain an essential part of the secret sauce that makes this class so effective: the sheer enjoyment of watching movies together that are made to entertain!

Entertainment-catalyzed learning

Entertainment is perhaps too often under-rated as an important aspect of effective teaching. There’s sometimes a feeling that learning should be hard and laborious, and only worth it if there’s pain involved. And I’m sure there’s a place for this type of learning–although I’m struggling to imagine where that is! But there’s also a place for courses where learning occurs because the class is entertaining.

Of course this can be overdone–we’ve all had to suffer through classes where the instructor tries too hard to be entertaining, and we die a little inside in the process. But done right, entertainment has a remarkable ability to open the way to seeing the world we live in–and the futures we’re building–in new ways, and to engaging with others more openly, honestly and empathetically than we may otherwise do.

This is an environment that I strive to create in The Moviegoer’s Guide to the Future course as we grapple with complex challenges that need every ounce of creativity, honesty and empathy that we have. And it’s one that is catalyzed quite exquisitely by the movies we watch together.

This is why the in-person aspect of this class has always been so important to me, and why I’m so pleased that it looks like we can replicate it online.

The bottom line here is that we’ve never been more in need of ways to inspire the next generation of future-builders to be better builders of our global futures. And rather than place a roadblock on what we’re achieving through The Moviegoer’s Guide to the Future, COVID is inspiring us to make the course even more effective, relevant and impactful.

At least, I think it is based on week one–hopefully I’ll feel the same in 14 weeks time!