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MOOC, Distance Education, and CLE

 You can’t turn around these days without bumping into discussion of MOOC—massive open online courses. At the latest ACLEA (the Association for Continuing Legal Education) meeting, MOOC were the subject of the final plenary. Often the final session of this conference is sparsely attended or wrapped up early in favour of the cocktail hour. This time, though, it was one of the very best sessions; the audience, made up of continuing legal education professionals from across North America and overseas, paid close attention throughout and followed up with many questions.

Our speaker was Tanina Rostain of Georgetown Law. She did an outstanding job educating us about the MOOC phenomenon. The concept really took off in 2012. So far, three providers offer the majority of MOOC: edX, Coursera, and Udacity.

  • edX is a non-profit created by Harvard and MIT; its mission is to bring “the best of higher education to students around the world.” They partner with a variety of excellent universities, such as Berkley, McGill, U of T, and Cornell.
  • Coursera is also a non-profit, founded by two computer science professors from Stanford. Coursera is also aligned with a number of first-rate universities, such as the University of Edinburgh, Columbia, Brown, and UBC.
  • Udacity is a for-profit educational corporation; it grew out of free computer science courses offered at Stanford. It offers courses in business, computer science, design, math, and science. So far, they have 28 courses in their catalogue.

Judith Gaskell recently shared her MOOC experience here on Slaw, and there’s been plenty of media coverage, too, including from the Globe and Mail and the New Yorker. Even Stephen Colbert featured Anant Agarwal, the president of edX, on his show.

MOOC raise lots of issues, especially:

  • to what extent can MOOC replace or supplement the traditional university experience?
  • can online lectures replace in-person lectures altogether?
  • what is the quality of the educational experience?
  • how is student engagement achieved?
  • what form does student-teacher interaction take?
  • what will the effect on existing faculty be?
  • what is important about the university experience?
  • what’s the business model behind all this?
  • is this just another way of collecting data about users (students)?

Do MOOC have a future as part of a legal education? So far, the number of law MOOC on offer is very small: edX offers five law courses, and Coursera offers eight. None of these courses come from our Canadian law schools.

As far as I can tell, much of law school continues to be lectures about substantive law. Are lectures on evidence or constitutional law very different from one Canadian law school to the other?

I can see how having an additional resource —lectures from excellent teachers—would be very helpful for law students. I recall that some profs were famous for their clarity; competition to get into their classes was fierce. Wouldn’t it have been great to access their lectures?

Perhaps MOOC in the core law school topics could be used as the basis of a “flipped classroom” approach. To prepare for a course, students would review an online lecture, which would be followed by in-person tutorials to cover the material more deeply.

One way to look at MOOC is as the latest form of distance education, but with some important differences. The price and the players are different. MOOC offer something exclusive and highly sought after (lectures from excellent universities) to all. And for now, most are offered for free. But the principles of distance education—providing education to learners who aren’t gathered in a classroom—haven’t really been changed by MOOC.

CLE providers around the world have been offering distance education for a long time now. Distance education is an important aspect of our work here at CLEBC. Over the years we’ve tried to deliver courses in a way that could be accessed by all British Columbia lawyers. The concern we heard most often, though, was that continuing professional development was unfairly costly to lawyers outside the Lower Mainland. Not only did they have to pay the registration fee and miss a day of billing, but they also had to pay travel expenses to attend the course.

When the Law Society of BC announced plans to require that all members meet continuing professional development requirements, we began to work intensely to develop the infrastructure to meet the education needs of lawyers throughout BC and level the educational playing field for lawyers who practice outside the Lower Mainland.

Now almost all our live courses are also offered as live webinars. We also offer a webinar archive subscription. If two or more lawyers watch an archived session together, they can claim CPD credit for doing so.

CLE-TV is another of our distance education initiatives. These one-hour online courses are delivered live from our studio and are usually offered at lunchtime. Most have an interview format, with opportunities to ask questions of the presenters through text chat.

We’ve also created our first self-paced e-learning course; this too meets the CPD requirements of BC lawyers. With this option, lawyers can complete an online course at their own pace. These short programs are interactive, with questions interspersed between video clips of a previously recorded CLE-TV program. Most modules provide credit for ethics and practice management.

Could MOOC (or something similar) replace distance education from CLE providers? Given the size of our market in BC (just under 11,000 practicing lawyers), and given that law (and especially practice) tends to be very jurisdiction-specific, it is unlikely that there are enough BC lawyers with common educational needs for mass courses to be developed.

Even so, MOOC may have a significant impact on university education, public legal education, ways of learning, and student expectations. No doubt all of us in the CLE world will be keeping a close eye on the MOOC movement.

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