The Coolest Law School Course Ever

Professors Charlie Nesson of Harvard Law School and his daughter, Rebecca Nesson, a computer scientist and instructor at Harvard Extension School, are giving a course this fall called Law in the Court of Public Opinion that will be taught in part at least within the virtual world of Second Life and by their online avatars.

The course description says this:

If we do say so ourselves, the course will be unlike any that has ever been taught. It is a course in persuasive, empathic argument in the Internet space. Throughout the course we will be studying many different media technologies to understand how their inherent characteristics and modes of distribution affect the arguments that are made using them. Students will be immersed in this study through project-based assignments in which they will be using these technologies to make their own arguments.

The Nessons put together a video talking about the course and showing their virtual Doppelgaengers in action:

Even cooler is the fact that anyone with an internet connection can get access to the course materials and may also be able to participate in the course in a limited way. Check the “at large” page of the course site for instructions, which should be coming soon. The course begins September 10.

Kooky? yes. Even a bit hokey. Likely to fail? yes. But. This is what the academy should be working on. This is an interesting and exciting use of technology. This is a rebuke to all the law profs whose technical ability extends to the use of email. Get with it, law schools, or get left so far behind by your students that you’ll approach the vanishing point.

And librarians… imagine a Second Life in which people learn how to use libraries…


  1. I vote hokey. ;-) I agree Simon, at least it’s innovative. My one question would be whether the profs involved have enough online or tech credibility to make it work. It’s one thing to say ‘blogs, wikis, podcasting’ like everyone else, but what happens when the students show up? Are they far more sophisticated that the so-called teachers?

    Should be interesting to watch.

  2. Charlie Nesson has enough folks around him at the Beckman Centre that this will work. It’s the imagination he has, even if he has a chequered reputation with some of the students. Yet another ageing hippy prof.

  3. Indeed, Steven: hokey and, as Simon says, an aging hippie prof (though I don’t think there are enough of those left to qualify for “yet another”). But it’s simply the willingness to try something new that I’m responding to. After all, we’ve just recently criticized law firms for failing to be innovative. Law school teaching hasn’t changed in something like 50 years (PowerPoint notwithstanding), and the academy has failed to take advantage of the available technology to improve pedagogy. Money is one problem, but time and effort are more important.

    The broader point I didn’t make is the role of games. Huge sums of money and talent are being poured into the making of video/computer games, as anyone in the vicinity of a young person (or a geek, aging or not) will know; they are immensely sophisticated and in effect teach players large amounts of information and skills that get lapped up eagerly. Of course: earnestness can be the kiss of death. But the possibilities for role playing and teaching scenarios are quite fascinating.

  4. For those interested in Simon C.’s comment, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law is online at:

    I’m still questioning this. Not the innovation, but the approach. Huge leaps in tech culture typically fail — why the ‘bleeding edge’ can be so dangerous. If it’s a stunt, that’s fine, but the students will see right through it. Again, back to credibility.

    I just think that sometimes you have to hold back the guy that’s saying ‘forget podcasting, that’s been done, same with vodcasting, let’s do the second life thing. We’ll be cutting edge!’.

  5. No given what I saw in the Berkman Centre eight years ago, and the quality of minds associated with the initiative (Lessig, Zittrain, Lemley etc.) this is not a mindbogglingly quantum leap. Look at the sort of student papers coming out of HLS, and this fits. But don’t expect that Asst. Prof. X at the University of Kamloops Night Law School will be able to replicate it.
    It’s taken time to grow the flower to this extent.

  6. I understand. Weinberger, Winer, Gillmor, etc. I know, it’s a big list… and I’m not questioning the collective mind share @ Berkman.

    I’m just skeptical. You’re not questioning whether this is a stunt, even a little bit? Didn’t this guy do a class around the O.J. Simpson case a while back? And don’t they call him billion dollar Charlie? There is a history here.

  7. Okay, how’s this: Just in case you thought that using Second Life was too nutsy for words… former Virginia governor and (some say) Democratic presidential timber, Mark Warner, is going to be interviewed this afternoon in the form of his avatar on Second Life — his idea. (

    Governor Warner: “In Second Life, distances and time differences vanish. It will allow us to reach people through a whole new medium.

    “Social technologies can be great tools for political change, and virtual worlds like Second Life might be the next tool for engaging people in the real world democratic process,” said Governor Warner. “We want to use Second Life to continue the conversation about the direction of our country. My avatar is also pretty funny looking. That alone makes it worth checking out.”

    You can check it out within Second Life if you download the program or after the fact at Beats kissing actual babies, I guess.

  8. I was tempted to come to Charlie’s defence but he’s perfectly capable of doing that himself.
    Instead let me point you to the transcripts of Larry Lessig’s forays into this type of avatar-tormented nouveau monde: and
    And here is Larry’s note –
    Hokey you may think it, but serious academics have already been playing with these tools.

  9. Simon, if you’re feeling the need to come to this man’s defence, I’ve probably made my critique too personal. Not intended.

    As to SL as a tool, I haven’t played it yet (either of you?, just curious…), but I have played a number of other MMORPGs. Yes, there are infinite possibilities to replicate every aspect of real life. And yes, it looks like a potentially innovative technique for academics. But, I reserve the right to be skeptical when anyone from outside uses these games to push the ‘attention economy’ or when marketers are looking to make a buck. The potential for backlash is huge.

  10. After reading the Post on Friday, I wonder whether any of us are ready for this sort of chaos: