Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Online learning and law schools

An editorial in today's New York Times appropriately cautions against a wholesale, reflexive move toward online courses in higher education, and the caution is especially appropriate in the context of legal education.

As anyone following developments in legal education knows, law schools are, like other components of higher education, scrambling to find ways to cut skyrocketing costs.  I'd be surprised if many law schools don't consider increased reliance on online courses as a cost-cutting measure.  But many of the drawbacks of online education are magnified in the law school context.

The Times editorial mentions one such drawback:  the inability of at-risk students to get individualized attention from instructors in an online-only format.  Law schools, particularly (but not exclusively) those outside the "elite" top twenty or thirty, have at-risk students just like undergraduate institutions do.  These students often are surprised to find themselves at risk; most law students performed well in undergrad.  But learning the law is a challenging and unfamiliar process, very different from most undergraduate programs, and many previously strong students have trouble with it.  The best way to overcome those difficulties usually is to meet face-to-face with professors and academic support personnel; another good technique is to form study groups with fellow students.  None of these steps is easy to take in an online-only world.

And there is another consideration that is, if not unique to law schools, then especially salient in that context.  Legal education, even in a large lecture course, typically is more interactive than undergraduate education, and for good reason.  In my first-year Civil Procedure and Constitutional Law courses, for example, I spend a lot of class time calling on students without advance notice and asking them questions relating to the cases and other materials we have read.  The point of this technique -- often (and sometimes pejoratively) called "the Socratic method" -- is fourfold.

First, I want to make the presentation of the material more interesting by teasing out the central points interactively rather than declaring them didactically.  If the Socratic method is done well, not only the student "on call" but the other students in the classroom will try to think of answers to the questions the instructor poses and will attempt to predict where the instructor is going with a line of questioning.  This is a kind of active learning that I believe is more effective, most of the time, than passively listening to a lecture and taking notes.

Second, I want to give students experience thinking on their feet under pressure -- something virtually every lawyer will be called upon to do in practice, some of them quite regularly indeed.

Third, I want the students to know they're not alone in their frequent confusion.  When an on-call student struggles a bit (maybe a lot) with an answer, other struggling students realize there's nothing wrong with the process of struggle:  Everyone goes through it.  Of course this benefit too depends entirely on doing Socratic right; an instructor who humiliates a struggling student sends the message that struggle is unacceptable rather than a natural part of learning.

And fourth -- particularly in my first-year courses -- I want the students to get the message that preparation is essential.  An unprepared student will be embarrassed if he or she is called on, and that's not a bad thing.  Lawyers, after all, can't go to court or attend a meeting with a client unprepared.  Better to be momentarily embarrassed in front of a sympathetic group of fellow students than to cost your client a case or your firm a client.

None of these goals can be achieved to anywhere near the same degree in an online format, at least not until "virtual classroom" technology makes dramatic improvements.  Which is not to say that online instruction won't work for some aspects of the law-school curriculum -- specialized upper-level courses, perhaps.  But it is to suggest that law schools should strongly resist the trend toward online education in the context of first-year and other building-block courses.  To take these courses out of the live classroom would be to drain them of much of their value in training future lawyers.

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