Monday, September 10, 2012

Online Legal Education

I spent most my summer learning how to teach online. The bottom line - in an online class I can cover more material and my students can learn it more effectively. However, this method of teaching and learning is not for everybody.

This was the first online class offered by The University of Akron School of Law. I was selected for this experiment for a number of reasons. I have taught the course in question ("Commercial Paper") many times over a period of 30 years. In addition, in teaching, researching, and blogging I make extensive use of the internet. I already had experience with several different online content management systems, including Westlaw, Springboard, Wordpress, and Google Sites. Finally, as a tenured full professor, it wouldn't have mattered much to my career if the whole experiment had been a dismal failure.

I was drawn to this opportunity for several reasons. First of all, I want to help make legal education less expensive. That's why my Constitutional Law textbook is available online to my students free of charge. Second, having raised four children including one with serious health issues I knew how helpful it would be to be able to attend school from home. Finally, I like a challenge. And this turned out to be challenging on several levels.

I spent more time preparing for this course than I have since I started teaching law in 1983. It was necessary to reduce all my lecture notes to powerpoint presentations - and to make those presentations attractive as well as informative I learned how to illustrate the slides. By the end of the course I had developed over 40 separate powerpoint programs on different aspects of Commercial Paper.

I also prepared self-assessment quizzes on every separate subject that we study in Commercial Paper. I did this by breaking up five years worth of examinations by topic, and supplying answers to each of the questions. Altogether these quizzes approached each subject from several different perspectives.

Finally, it was necessary to prepare "whiteboard slides" for every case, every problem, and every provision of law that we studied and discussed in class. Even after the slides were created it took substantial time to organize the slides in groups and load them onto the online learning platform before each class.

It was worth it. Just like me, students worked harder preparing for class. They spent time studying the powerpoints and the self-assessment quizzes as well as the reading the textbook. More class time was devoted to analysis and less to lecture. Students had time to ask questions about details instead of basic principles about this area of law. We also had time in class to discuss emerging developments in the law of payment systems. At the end of the course my students performed better on the examination than ever before.

There were often "technical difficulties" with audio, video, or internet connections. Some students found these problems extremely distracting. Most shrugged off the problems as the price of working online.

The single most unique aspect of the online learning platform that we used was a feature called "breakout rooms." The program allowed me to create small working groups and permitted the students in each group to write on the group's "whiteboard." In the breakout rooms students briefed cases and solved problems in small groups. I would visit each group and after several minutes I would recall the students to the common "room" and summon the whiteboard screens that they had developed in the small groups. Students from each group would explain their answers to the class. This proved to be an efficient way to cover cases and problems.

There are some drawbacks to online education. I missed interacting with my students face-to-face. Not only was it not as satisfying from a personal standpoint, but I could not look at people's faces to determine who was and who was not understanding the material. It was also not satisfactory for students who need the discipline of the classroom to prepare or to pay attention.

However, for self-learners this is a superior method of education. Students who are willing to spend time learning the material on their own, but who can also come to class so that they can ask questions, implement their knowledge, and receive immediate feedback, appreciate the expanded opportunities that online education offers. Also, because it is so easy to create small groups, visit them, call them back, and share their work with the class, this method of education rewards those who learn well by working with others.

It is my opinion that the online platform is most appropriate in areas of the law that (like Commercial Paper) are heavily rule-oriented - where there is a large body of relatively objective legal doctrine that must be memorized and applied in diverse and complex situations. In more subjective areas of the law (such as Constitutional Law and Jurisprudence) that depend more on the identifying underlying values and weighing those competing values against each other, I suspect that it is more important for teachers and students to be in each other's physical presence.

However, we must also consider the tremendous logistical advantages of online education. Students may attend class from anywhere in the world. I am currently offering online one-hour programs on different topics  of Constitutional Law to Akron alumni and students, and I have some students temporarily attending Constitutional Law online because of medical necessity. Online education is becoming more common primarily because of these costsaving and timesaving features.

Ready or not, online education is coming. As teachers we don't have an obligation to learn how to teach online. We have an obligation to learn how to teach online effectively.

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