MOOCs in law schools

Last week both Frank and I blogged about the MOOC, the “massive open online course.” Also last week a substantial and prominent group of academics posted an open letter to the ABA that urged legal educators to consider, among other reforms, “building on the burgeoning promises of internet-distance education.” (The letter garnered positive press in diverse fora.) Might the MOOC platform be part of that “promise”?

I don’t know if I agree with Frank that the MOOC, by “contributing to centralization and hierarchy,” helps to undermine civil society. For this post I’ll leave that question aside, in favor of a more pragmatic sort of observation: Most doctrinal law courses are not lecture courses. The so-called Socratic method that they deploy, though much maligned, in many ways parallels what teachers do in the “upside-down” pedagogy urged in conjunction with sites like Khan Academy. Upside-down students consume lectures at home, online. Then in class teachers “coach” them as they undertake what otherwise would have been “homework” problems. The teacher/coach addresses misunderstandings, poses new problems, and suggests extensions as students practice their new skills. This – particularly the posing of problems that are extensions of the lecture material – is not unlike the string of what-ifs posed by the uber-Socratic Torts professor in Scott Turow’s “1L,” who offers his class a long series of ever more fantastical hypos as they move, collectively, from bewilderment to anger to engagement.

The analogy can be resisted in two ways. One is that it casts the case report in the role of the MOOC lecture; but while lectures are designed to elucidate, cases often obscure at least as much as they illuminate. But this problem is at the heart of lawyers’ work. One must determine what the law is from sources, especially cases and statutes, written with goals other than explaining the law with limpid clarity. Doing this is a foundational skill for lawyers.

The other mismatch is that the Socratic teacher, in either his Turow-era incarnation or in the “soft Socratic” mode more prevalent today, hardly seems like a coach. Certainly students report feeling more hazed than coached in many Socratic classrooms. I, from my first day as a teacher in a 1L classroom, imagined that students on the receiving end of questions I ask all the time (“But is that what the case really says?” “Where, exactly, does the case say that?” “What if we changed the following two facts…?” “How does this subsection of the statute interact with the language in the previous subsection?”) felt that they were being supported as they tried to cement and extend an understanding they already had from the reading. But they often don’t feel that way, which frustrates both me and them. Such frustration is a failure – attributable both to the particular Socratic teacher and the academic culture in which Socratic teachers operate.

I mean to suggest that law school already routinely does one things MOOCs do, which is to turn learning upside down – but with texts playing the role of the videotaped lecture and slideshow. I suppose it is possible that the audiovisual nature of the MOOC is superior to words on a page for some students, who, after all, use textbooks even in lecture courses. But I am more interested in whether we can learn from the culture of the MOOC to change the lived experience of the Socratic classroom into one that feels more like coaching.


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