October 23, 2012

The Less-Than-Ideal State of Web 2.0 in Law Schools – And How to Improve It

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 Table of Contents | Features | Frontlines | Technology | Business

September/October 2010 Issue | Volume 36 Number 5 | Page 22

LEGAL WEB 2.0 – Edited by Steve Matthews

The Less-Than-Ideal State of Web 2.0 in Law Schools – And How to Improve It

It’s commonly said that law firms are reluctant to put new technologies to use, to the detriment of lawyers’ productivity and professional development. But is the situation much different behind the ivied walls where your firm’s next generation of lawyers is being educated?

What’s happening with technology behind those ivied walls and up in the ivory tower? You could be forgiven for imagining that law schools are hotbeds of Web 2.0 innovation. After all, Web 2.0 is about sharing information, collaboration, involvement—the shift, that is, from simply “publication” to “participation,” from consumption to production—and what better terms than those to evoke the values of good teaching and learning?

But with the exception of individual outliers here and there, the reality is that law schools have been slow to adopt and promote the benefits that the newer Web technology offers. Attend a law course at random from among the tens of thousands offered each year, and you’ll likely enter a scene that would be very similar to one you would have encountered a half century ago or more. Why this reluctance to adopt, and what shifts would improve the situation? Let’s explore both questions.

What’s Underlying the Conundrum?

There are structural reasons that explain, at least in part, the reluctance to adopt new technologies in law schools. As you may remember, the psychological strain of being in the law begins in the academy. Indeed, according to one study in Law and Human Behavior, law school can be an even more stressful experience than medical school. The main cause is the fairly straight line that gets drawn in students’ minds from examinations through grades and on to their vying for that “good job” in practice. Compounding the problem is the often overwhelming debt that students incur thanks to high tuition levels, making the competition for high-paying jobs even more intense.

This stress trajectory makes law students disinclined to entertain what they perceive as education for its own sake. “Will this be on the exam?” is not just an annoying question: It’s as much a cri de coeur as anything, an attempt to exercise some control over the fates. All this, then, bears on the adoption of Web 2.0 technologies in a couple of ways.

First, the active learning—the “participation”—associated with new technology adds to a student’s workload; and it usually doesn’t entail contributions from the instructor that can be cherished and refined as potential keys to unlock issues on the exam. The result is that it’s seen as irrelevant at best. Second, the collaborative nature of much of the new technology, a marvelous benefit in the abstract, runs afoul of the highly competitive nature of law school. Again, thanks to existing grading systems that generally place marks on a curve or rank students, one student’s gain might well mean another student’s loss, with the result that group work, so much a central part of business schools, is fairly rare in law schools, whether or not supported by technology.

Many faculty members, too, are reluctant to adopt anything that will add to their already significant workloads. And as a coping strategy, many have settled into a system for teaching that, while not ideal, is seen to “work.” New technologies mean not only confronting student resistance but also disruption and some significant learning on the faculty’s part, because IT is becoming ever more sophisticated. Easier, perhaps, to supplement the casebook, adjust the lecture notes and reprise last year’s course. Add to this the fact that for young faculty, where we might find the greatest interest in, and experience with, new technology, research and publication in traditional, respected journals is still what counts if they want to get tenure.

As a final point on structural problems, IT support by the law school is critical. Which of us doesn’t know that, even with respect to good old Web 1.0 technology such as PowerPoint, things will fail just when you don’t want them to? If good IT support is not available, both on an emergency basis during class and as an aid to planning and course development, technology might well prove more of a hindrance than a help.

How Might Things Be Different?

Let me suggest some of the technologies and tools that law schools and those who work in them, faculty, students and staff alike, might do well to consider. And in so doing I’ll mention just a few of those who are experimenting with these tools already.

Wikis. Most law courses already have a course Web site produced via a course management system such as Blackboard, Moodle or West’s TWEN, where course outlines and materials may be available. These systems also provide a discussion forum as part of the site, and if students can be persuaded to expose their thinking, these can add a dimension to the course. But if the course were to make a wiki available, the class could produce something quite impressive, with each student contributing, say, an exploration of a part of one topic from the syllabus, each refining and elaborating on the work of others, until they have produced, in effect, a textbook tailored precisely to their needs.

See, for example, the report on the collective course outlines produced by Pamela Armstrong’s classes in Labor Law and Lawyering at Albany (at http://albanylawtech.wordpress.com/2010/05/28/wiki-course-outlines).

Virtual guests. Now that Web-based videoconferencing systems are better and cheaper, it’s possible to bring guests into the classroom no matter where they are physically. Even the popular and free VoIP tool Skype could serve in some instances. Busy practitioners might be unable to devote the time necessary to attend classes in person, but they might be happy to contribute if they can simply sit in front of their laptops or in the firm’s conferencing room.

Check out what Mercer Law School has done with this sort of thing (at www.law.mercer.edu/elaw/speaker.htm), setting up a “virtual guest lecture series” for an environmental law course.

Electronic casebooks. These lighten students’ loads both literally and financially. Not only do they save on paper and printing costs and provide students with material that’s easy to annotate, but they also avoid the extra copyright payment often required to reprint scholarly commentary by linking to the law library’s e-resources, where the copyright license has already been paid for. They also make updating casebooks a much easier task for instructors. As the Law School Innovation blog argued a few months ago (see http://tiny.cc/rvwlc), it’s time for “the demise of the living dinosaur that is the traditional law school casebook.”

Blogs. Since few things concentrate the mind like the prospect of publication, students might well apply themselves more diligently and creatively if their work products were destined to appear on the Web. Blogging tools like WordPress.com, Blogger and Posterous are free and make Web publication extremely easy. Often universities provide their members with their own adaptations of these tools. Harvard’s Berkman Center, for example, provides blogging space (see http://blogs.law.harvard.edu) to anyone at the law school who wishes it. A colleague of mine, Pina D’Agostino, began the Osgoode Hall Law School blog IPilogue, (www.iposgoode.ca/ipilogue), originally as part of her IP course, with student contributions.

Blogs also offer faculty an important outlet for timely commentary and “scholarship lite.” By the time traditional print journals finish processing a submitted article, the issues discussed may well have been altered by events or even rendered moot. And print journals don’t allow for enriching commentary and argument the way that a blog would. Yale Law Journal, for example, now maintains the Pocket Part ( www.yalelawjournal.org/the-yalelaw-journal-pocket-part), an online platform publishing current commentary of a less-ponderous nature than that found in its print version.

RSS , Facebook and Twitter. E-mail continues to work for most lawyers and law students as a means of getting important notifications. But for many, it’s helpful to have certain announcements and associated material set apart from their mail and the spam that comes along with it. One method of achieving this is via an RSS feed, an announcement channel, if you like, to which interested students can subscribe and get the news via a feed reader. There’s almost no downside to ensuring that course Web sites—and the law school as a whole, indeed—put out an RSS feed of important updates and notices.

And these can easily be sent at the same time to those massively popular social mediums Facebook and Twitter. Columbia Law School, for example, has the Twitter feed @ColumbiaLaw.

Smartphones. Finally, as you’ll know from your own experience, smartphones, whether BlackBerrys, iPhones or those running Android, are now ubiquitous and have become indispensable as communication tools. So it would make good sense for law schools to ensure that their main Web sites and those for individual courses are optimized for access by the small screens of these mobile devices.

Technology can’t resolve the structural issues discussed earlier, of course. And neither can it turn bad teaching into good or a weak scholar into a star. It’s all about the pedagogy and the research, not about the nifty and new for its own sake. But on both those counts, there are real benefits to be had from the wise adoption of some of the Web 2.0 technologies, assuming the other difficulties can be mastered or, at least, subdued.

About the Author

Simon Fodden is Professor Emeritus at Osgoode Hall Law School and the founder and administrator of Slaw ( www.slaw.ca), an award-winning cooperative blog on all things legal that has published thousands of contributions from around the globe.

Web 2.0 column editor Steve Matthews is principal of Stem Legal Web Enterprises. He blogs at www.stemlegal.com/strategyblog.