Opening Statements

Extreme Makeover: Textbook Edition

Posted Dec 1, 2008 10:30 PM CDT
By Harris Meyer

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Photo by Tim Pannell/Corbis

Does Apple’s wildly pop­ular iTunes website hold the key for the fu­ture of legal education?

Some educators think so, and at a recent gathering at the Seat­tle University School of Law on the future of the legal course book, a variety of legal education reformers, publishers and technology firms suggested that the iTunes one-website, one-button framework may be just the kind of make­over that legal education needs.

“There needs to be a simple message,” said Ed Rubin, dean of Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville. “Otherwise it will be difficult to convince nontechnologically oriented faculty to participate.”

Rubin and the others attending the fall conference believe the reliance on appellate decisions and the Socratic method needs to be replaced with in­novative teaching to better prepare students for today’s prac­­tice of law. Indeed, last year two ma­jor studies—one from the Car­negie Foundation and one from the Clinical Legal Education Association—called upon legal educators to focus more on preparing students for real-world professional practice rather than cramming them full of doctrine.

But how to accomplish such innovation remains elusive.

The Seattle conference provided participants with an opportunity to air their ideas with each other as well as with a variety of publishers and technology companies on how to change the curriculum in a more flexible, student-friendly manner that takes advantage of the digital age.

Conference organizers Ronald Collins of the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C., and Seattle University law professor David Skover both outlined their prototype of an online teaching database. The database would allow professors to create their own course books by selecting and ordering materials, including cases, statutes, podcasts, videos and other audiovisual components. The teachers could customize the materials with comments, problems and quizzes while students could download the materials to a computer or electronic reader, and pay the publisher for those select materials.

Others proposed more radical electronic innovations to help law students learn. Seattle professor Gregory Silverman, for example, has thought about using a video game like World of Warcraft in class to have teams of students compete against each other to complete virtual missions, such as drafting contracts in a remote gal­axy, reaching different levels of mastery.

The participants also ac­know­ledged numerous speed bumps in the way, including the cost and difficulty of creating high-quality e-course books, faculty resistance to digital materials, copyright barriers, lack of a clear business model for publishers, lack of standardization in online platforms, and incompatibility with current bar exams.

The law professors can’t tell the publish­ers what they want because they don’t know yet, said John Mayer of the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruc­­tion in Chicago.

“Maybe it’s time for lots of experimentation.”

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