Massively Overhyped Obfuscated Concept – MOOCs in Legal Education

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any education related publication in the 21st century must at some point cover the topic of MOOCs. So let’s get it out of the way, shall we?

As a known supporter of open content and technology, as well as someone who works in education, I like to pretend that people are dying to ask me, “Sarah, are MOOCs going to save law schools?”

My answer? No. No they are not.

Okay, I guess I could flesh this answer out a bit, and not just because I should have about 800 more words to make this a respectable blog post.

So how about this: No, MOOCs will not save law schools …but they might save legal education.

Confused? Let’s start from the beginning.

While it sounds like something a Scottish cow would say, MOOC is actually an acronym for “Massive Open Online Course.” To the idealists among us, the name stands for the best and highest ideals in education. It provides an opportunity for education to stop being a business and degrees to not merely act as bureaucratic hurdles to enter a profession. It speaks to the highest and most noble goal of education – self -improvement and knowledge for knowledge’s sake without being hampered by barriers of money, location or other access issues. Much like how Andrew Carnegie created libraries throughout the world at the end of the 19th and in the early 20th century to allow people to self-educated, MOOCs promised to be the 21st century equivalent with all the perks and potential that technology allows.

This is why it’s so depressing to see them misused and co-opted by that those who either wish to continue the status quo in education or that use MOOCs as a malevolent rather than benevolent tool.

Malevolent is a little harsh, but it rhymes.

A difficulty in keeping MOOCs on the benevolent path – besides the fact that we exist in a capitalistic society in which seemingly everyone makes monetary gain a priority – is that the all the letters in MOOC are arguably open for debate.

  • Massive – For some law seminars, over 20 students is huge. But does this mean 100? 1000? 10,000? How many students in a course qualify it for massive categorization? My opinion is that as long as you don’t cap enrollment, it counts since it could theoretically become massive.
  • Open – In my last column, I discussed the differences and confusion surrounding the terms “open” and “free” when it comes to content. These are also present in the discussion of MOOCs. Does open mean that anyone can join, regardless of previous grades, academic background, money, etc.? Does it mean that it’s not behind a password or paywall? Does open apply to the course materials and the technology used to hold it and therefore allow anyone to copy the course? Some even take open in this context to mean that as much as feasible, impediments that would stop those that are disabled in some way (e.g. blind or reading difficulties) from participating in the course have been ameliorated.
  • Online – You would think that online is a pretty straight forward term, but you are forgetting that this is academia and that every word is up for interpretation! Is the course and its contents, including all readings, presentations, etc., existing solely in an online environment or will a print text be used? Does online mean “live lectures” or is reading a series of videos previous recorded sufficient?
  • Course – Yes, even this can be debated. If a course is completed without a grade appearing on a transcript somewhere…is it a course? What if it’s self-directed and with no set time limit for completion? What if there is absolutely no assessment done, either by the student or the professor. WHAT IF THERE’S NO PROFESSORS?

So you see, there’s lots of wiggle room involved in the definition of MOOC. By and large, I think this is a good thing. Learning is such an individual and subject specific process that educators should be as free as possible in order to create the best environment for their students.

The problems occur when those loose terms are co-opted and the good P.R. of MOOCs is used to perpetuate the inequities and inadequacies currently in place in the educational system. These include:

  • Lack of meaningful pedagogy
  • Financial barriers
  • Technological barriers
  • Lack of meaningful interaction with faculty
  • Degree or credential as meaningless administrative hurdle

Looking at some of the business and educational plans out there, it’s easy to confuse a MOOC company (which seems like an oxymoron) with the fly-by-night diploma mills of old. The one term of MOOC that they really only embrace is the “open” for open admissions. And it gets even worse…traditional universities are using MOOC providers as outsourcers for their some of their courses. So while a student may be paying for a “real” university education, they may in fact be getting a MOOC in order for the university to save money.

I really don’t want to leave you with the impression that all MOOC providers are bad people and that there is no quality to be had in free or even quasi-free or open education. Quite the opposite

is true. If anything, one of the main take home points that I want to emphasize is that you should not abuse MOOCs or use the term as a substitute for online courses within the confines of your traditional legal educational establishment.

I had a second point up towards the beginning of this post…that while MOOCs may not save law schools, they may save legal education.

Legal education is part of the broader justice system (whether or not anyone on either side wishes to admit it). There is currently a huge justice gap in our countries and it’s up to all of us to work to solve it. Lawyers are often too expensive for most average people to engage for routine matters. Even if a person chooses to help themselves, they often can’t because the law is locked up or otherwise inaccessible; legal information is costly in the United States and hard to decipher or have adequate context for understanding in any jurisdiction.

Legal education has made efforts to assist with lessening this gap through clinics or help lines. But why couldn’t a law school offer a MOOC on legal subjects aimed towards the needs of the general population? Much like a clinic, the MOOC doesn’t necessarily have to be only staffed by (expensive) attorney-professors. Pedagogically, teaching others is an excellent way to gain mastery of material. Current law students could be used to assist others while at the same time increasing their own knowledge and skills. What would this look like? Students could take the regular property course offered by law schools all over North America. Then, in a later semester, they could apply this knowledge to practical, everyday situations and create a course on, for example, “Landlord and Tenant Issues in Toronto.” Access to justice as well as legal education are improved by the effort.


  1. Let the debate rage at CALI – remember the MOOC program we are putting on there, Sarah? I throw my gauntlet down!

  2. I love your second point, and hope sufficient benevolence, willingness, and funding exists to press such initiatives forward. Resources from the PLEI community and great projects like CanLII Connects can offer a great start.

    Food for thought is that the “online” aspect of the MOOC may itself be a barrier to many who might otherwise enjoy the benefits of a MOOC of legal issues.

    [As an aside, the first MOOC I (quite passively, I admit) participated in was offered by none other than CALI. We highlighted it to our students as an opportunity to at least observe discussion of issues in a corner of real world law practice (if US).]

  3. There is a simple answer to your question: What would law students creating public Landlord and Tenant information look like? In one word: Horrible.

    If the “regular property law course offered by law schools all over North America” is similar to the one I took in first year (in Ontario), then that course in no way prepares students to opine on modern residential tenancy law. Ask us to give opinions on whether or not “A” has a better title than “B” to Blackacre, and we can do that. Ask us anything practical about what to do if a tenant isn’t paying rent and we’ve got no clue.

    By and large the education of law students is proudly impractical. As you pointed out in a February 24 blog post this year, law students are expected not to be practice ready at graduation … why then would you expect them to be able to give useful legal advice?

    First set up the “MOOC-CLE” programs you suggested in that earlier article, get the law students some practical education, and then start considering having them contribute further to public legal education.