Could Free Online Law Courses be the Wave of the Future?
If you’ve been following recent developments in the online education space, then you have likely heard of websites like Coursera and Udacity, which offer what are referred to as massive open online courses (MOOCs). Students now have access to a wide variety of courses from a broad range of institutions (none of which are law schools, so far).
Most MOOCs are “self-study” in that students watch the lecture materials (typically video, or audio files), read the reading materials, and then submit assignments which are typically peer-graded. Many courses include an interactive discussion board in which students submit questions and comments, and in many courses, comments are then voted up or down by fellow students. At the end of the day, the curriculum of many online law schools is quite close to what is being offered in MOOcs (in other words, there is a lack of synchronous interaction).
Which Online Law Courses Would Make good MOOCs?
While certain law school courses that are informational or “seminar”-based might be good candidates for MOOCs because the educational goals of such courses is providing students with exposure to new or different areas of law, most quality law school courses would be difficult to teach using a MOOC format. Why? Mainly because law school is a much different learning experience than any other type of graduate or undergraduate program. A quality law school education is aimed at two key pedagogical goals: teaching students how to learn and teaching students how to think. Both of these goals are achieved through the use of synchronous, interactive learning including, for example, the Socratic method, in which the law professor engages in a “give and take” conversation with a single student.
The conversation resembles more of a cross-examination than a conversation, but the professor’s goal is to force the student to form a legal conclusion based on the facts at hand. Once the student has stated a conclusion, the law professor explores, through a continued series of questions, how valid the student’s conclusion is by introducing additional facts, or otherwise examining the logical premises of the student’s conclusion.
All of this to say, is that much of the learning in law school occurs in real-time. For that reason, many MOOCs could be a useful tool to expose students to interesting areas of law, or to provide students with exposure to the development of certain doctrinal areas. But arguably, a student would be missing a key piece of a very important component of their legal education if such student were not exposed to a variety of interactive experiences. Thus, teaching fundamental critical thinking skills that require students to think on their feet and change legal conclusions based on changing facts would be difficult using an asynchronous MOOC format.