HU sociology professor uses his passion for technology, ethics to teach students

John McKnight’s ethics courses cover a variety of topics, from pop culture to driverless cars and even algorithms for online banking. His work and research also deal with science and technology’s connection to ethics – both in real life and in science fiction.

McKnight is currently in his first year at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology teaching classes in the Interactive Media program. As an assistant professor in Sociology of Emerging Technologies, he looks at how people use, interact with, and think about technology such as movies and video games.

This deep dive into pop culture and media surfaces in his work outside the classroom. His recent presentations include discussions on Marvel Universe characters’ moral standards when responding to terrorism and advanced technologies, politics in Star Wars, and civic values in World of Warcraft.

In one of his latest projects, he contributed a chapter to the upcoming book “100 Greatest Video Game Characters,” which profiles the most influential creations in this medium.

His chapter covers HK-47, a droid character that debuted in “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” that McKnight describes as a “smart-mouth assassin droid” that he says brought a level of dark humor to Star Wars and made a significant impact on the franchise as a secondary character.

Also, McKnight is working on a current project on the economics of Web streaming shows, which he says will tackle how finance, fandom, and community mix together in this evolving technology.

McKnight says he came to video games, in particular, as a sociologist.

While attending graduate school, new online game communities, spaces, and chat rooms began to form, and he started to look at the basics of online communities, including how gamers get along with each other — how they argue and how they compromise.

“Technology isn’t just about writing some code and getting a game to ship on time,” he says. “These things profoundly shape who we are, what we believe and how we get along with each other.”

Similarly, he approaches topics in the classroom in terms of how to use these subjects to teach real-world lessons.

His hope, he says, is that students learn that history, sociology, and ethics all matter.

“You’re going to be a person in the world, and your skills can make it better or make it worse,” he tells his students.

He wants to help students to walk through how they can make a difference with the subjects that they are passionate about.

McKnight says his lessons proved their effectiveness in reaching students when a recent class spent 20 minutes discussing ethics of the Jedi in Star Wars.

Students questioned whether fictional characters who are the “good guys” can be trusted with power despite ignoring elected representatives and whether these characters who are above emotion could be trusted to show ethics of compassion.

“This could have been a digression, a waste of time, but the students asked serious questions,” he says. “They talked about government regulation of business and the role government plays in making ethical decisions for people.”

Accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Harrisburg University is a private non-profit university offering bachelor and graduate degree programs in science, technology, and math fields to a diverse student body. For more information on the University’s affordable demand-driven undergraduate and graduate programs, call 717.901.5146 or email, Connect@HarrisburgU.edu