11 Aug 2009

On Wikis in Teaching Law

Over the last two years I have built the wiki-based platform for teaching law school courses that I, as one particular teacher, need. Because it was built out of free software tools that are simple, general and flexible, anyone could at no cost adopt mine as is, change them to suit her own needs, or start again to build something more appropriate to different styles of instruction. But I’m intentionally not talking about technology choices now. Anyone who looks at the courses herself can learn all she wants to about that in a click. Here I want to talk only about teaching and learning.

Courses have different purposes. In a legal history course, for example, I want students to get a sense of the broad sweep of historical development; a sufficient fund of technical information about legal change and social control over time to ask thoughtful questions about legal development, both inside and outside our historical frame; and a sense, through direct experience with primary sources, of the process by which historical knowledge is acquired and historical insight is both incubated and unsparingly tested.

In my first-year course on intellectual orientation to life in the profession called Law in Contemporary Society, I want students to learn how multi-disciplinary thinking contributes to legal creativity in practical terms. I also want them to practice editing their own and others’ writing, working much more interactively than is done in the typical “legal writing” course taught by an adjunct or a novice.

In Computers, Privacy and the Constitution, I want students to participate with me in assembling information about the use of surveillance, data-mining, and allied technologies by the State, and devising technical, political, and legal initiatives whereby citizens and others can defend privacy and other civil liberties from government overreaching.

Different as these course objectives may be, the model of interlinked texts everyone can collaboratively edit, in which every version of every document is always available, suits each set of objectives quite well. In history courses, the lecture notes, student questions and dialog resulting from questions, research problems, scanned primary sources submitted in response to research questions, referenced introductions to scanned primary documents, and important secondary works now in the public domain can be blended together to create a living, constantly-developing body of knowledge that is a true History Workshop. In the course for first-year students, the exchange of ideas and writings I hoped for but could never achieve in the course’s earlier versions, from 1988 on, is at last a reality. My electives in Internet Law are becoming true specialist seminars, where the most important new material is immediately available and students can think about and refine their contributions to the conversation throughout the semester and beyond.

Text-building in wiki has not only allowed me to break away from limitations set by the usual procedure of courses, it has also made possible including parties outside the classroom in the thick of the exchange. Throwing away community from term to term benefits nobody. Students benefit from extended opportunity to develop and improve; alumni of the course benefit from seeing how the conversation adapts to recent developments and watch as our worst fears or dearest hopes come true; and the invited guests who occasionally come by to write and read have an opportunity to shape the conversation for future as well as present participants, without having to travel or interrupt busy schedules to contribute.

Having all the work accessible to everyone in every version radically alters how I evaluate my students’ performance. I can get away from the stupidity of grades and provide narrative evaluation in an accountable context. I can provide guidance and mentoring for individual students without inhibiting teamwork, which is central to all law practice and almost totally absent from traditional law school settings. At last, the infrastructure for a legitimate form of law school evaluation is available.

What has happened so far is just the beginning. But at the moment that law school urgently needs to be reformulated—because the profession law schools like mine have been feeding for two generations is being reorganized in a cataclysmic, disorderly process that is destroying firms and transforming careers wholesale—we at last have the tools to change our pedagogy in ways the times are going to demand.

permalink | teaching | 2009.08.11-02:00.00

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