As much as I enjoy discussing how technology can improve and enhance legal practice, I firmly believe this technological transition has to begin before – in the law schools. Despite, or perhaps in spite of generational differences, the vast majority of legal graduates are technologically illiterate. Changes to the way that legal education itself is delivered may make the difference.
Central to this change is the realization that lawyers are no long the gatekeepers to legal information. Access to justice demands that justice be accessible and comprehensible to the public. This may lead to further development of legal education programs intended for the public.
I’ve previously mentioned the use of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) by some American law schools for the public. The Chronicle recently conducted a survey of professors offering MOOCs. Many of these instructors believe MOOCs are “worth the hype,” and thought that online classes could reduce the costs of education. However, teaching these free online courses are enormously time consuming for these instructors, who indicated their regular coursework suffer as a result.
The growth in community college enrollment, especially when contrasted to application slumps in some areas of higher education like law schools, may provide some clues as to what the public is really interested in. Applied teaching, where education is connected to the real world, is one of the primary appeals. The flexibility of educational programs and services offered is another.
Legal education isn’t just for lawyers any more. Osgoode Hall is already providing non-credit education for professionals, many of whom have no legal education at all.
If a party is initiating a small claims procedure and cannot afford a lawyer, why shouldn’t there be a weekend workshop on what to expect? If a couple is separating and knows a divorce is imminent, why couldn’t an online course over 6 months provide them the basics on property division, custody and access, and court procedures? What lawyer wouldn’t want to refer a prospective client to an educational program that could foster more of a partnership-type of relationship? When lawyers are no longer the gatekeepers to legal education they may have to start thinking about how they can become the keymasters, who can provide clients access to the tools and resources they need.
For law schools this may the revenue stream they badly need, and for the public it might be the technological change making legal education accessible and affordable.
The biggest advantage of these online programs is the metrics instructors receive. Like any online analytics used by businesses, schools can determine which subjects are most engaging to students, and hopefully identify ways to improve the syllabus. Some courses include an auto-grading function.
The American Council on Education is exploring whether MOOCs should provide participants credit at colleges by charging fees instead of tuition. But these proposals have received strong opposition from faculty and governing bodies. In The Chronicle survey 72 per cent of faculty believed that participants should not receive credit, but expect that this will come in some form in the future.
Those supporting academic credit are typically teaching courses like math, science, and engineering, which are somewhat easier to develop automatic grading systems for. In other words, subjects that are drastically different than teaching law. Or are they?
Law schools purport to teach law students the law, not how to write law school exams. The manner in which these exams are evaluated is one of the most coveted secrets in legal education. There’s no science to how these things are marked, at least not one apparent to law students. Although there are vague references to the IRAC method, many law students don’t figure out how this actually works until some time in 3L, at which point they’ve opted for seminars and essay-based exams anyhow.
One of these online education course systems has recently announced an artificial intelligence system which can accurately grade essay responses. The system works by entering 100 marked essays into the system, and then grades any essays on the same basis as the professor who marked the original 100 entries. The most significant benefit from this approach is that it reduces human error and the effect of things like human fatigue. Any variations within these automated systems are similar to what you would find between human evaluations.
Concerns exist about gaming these systems, and opposition exists for these measures as well. In my own experience with automated educational tools like TurnItIn, I find they are invaluable in helping to save time and flag problems but still require diligent effort to review the content itself. One of the more promising uses of these tools are teaching students how to write better. In other words, automated grading systems can act as an educational tool when provided to students to review their work before submission.
Law school instructors could create an essay template within an automated grader which would flag key concepts or cases which students overlook, prompting them to review their notes and research a point of law. Better yet, written assignments could include a factum or legal pleadings with preferred or necessary elements, so that the practical skill of drafting is taught instead of presumably absorbed on the job.
If legal education no longer needs to be provided in the classroom (or even to law students), and doesn’t even require instructors to spend much time on grading, then what will be the point of faculty at all? This concern might be the real reason for much of the opposition to technology in education, but like the automation that the manufacturing sector faced in the previous century, these knowledge workers will have to either adapt or become obsolete.