Academic education, professional education & technology

by Paul Maharg on 27/02/2012

I  contributed a chapter to a book just out, edited by Oliver Goodenough and Marc Lauritsen, entitled Educating the Digital Lawyer (New Providence, NJ, Matthew Bender, 2012).  You can access an EPUB ebook version of the book free of charge (if you can’t access EPUBs, see discussion here).  It’s blogged by Stephanie Kimbro here and over at the Legal Informatics blog here,  and by Oliver on the Huff Post College.

The book is composed of papers presented at two conferences held October 2010 at Harvard Law School and April 2011 at Columbia Law School.  The conferences brought together around 20-30 academics and practitioners who, as the editors point out, are ‘deeply interested in the technology of law and how law schools and other institutions should educate students and lawyers about it’.  Having attended the Harvard conference (liveblogged here) I can say that the editors are right to point to that duality – academy and practice – as being an important element of the book and the conferences.  It’s a difficult mix to handle, but Oliver and Marc are expert at bridging the divide.  I know Oliver through the Berkman Institute at Harvard, and Marc through the Substantive Technology in Law (SubTech) biannual conferences, and it’s a hallmark of the work of both.

It’s an approach that’s still all too rare in these isles.  There are conferences and texts aimed at academics and practitioners separately: rarely do the two come together to produce meaningful joint output.  We need more joint platforms that produce something useful for both communities, because each needs the other, though you might not think so to read the literature of the last 40 years or so.  Having just completed the first draft of the literature review for LETR, I have to say I’m impressed by the levels of indifference, suspicion, skirmishing and occasional acid exchanges between the academy and the profession.  It exists in all common law jurisdictions to a greater or lesser extent of course, but it explains much of the sub-culture of regulation in England & Wales.

The LETR literature review starts with the Ormrod Report.  Before LETR, I’d only read extracts of the report.  Reading the full piece was an interesting experience.  If a report can be said to have an authorial voice, that of Ormrod was conciliation, attempting to bring together a educational system that was in danger of fissuring; and one can only understand how necessary that was by reading what the Ormrod Committee was reacting to – articles in the Law Society Gazette and other public statements on legal education in the 1960s.  The report was something of a contrast, too, to the earlier Robbins Report on HE, with its eloquent vision of a new higher education landscape (well described recently in an article in the London Review of Books by Stefan Collini), which Ormrod didn’t match.  How could it, caught as Ormrod was between a constraining, tentative remit and the double-bind of academy & profession.

My chapter in Oliver & Marc’s book is entitled ‘Simulation: a pedagogy emerging from the shadows’.  It sits, appropriately enough, between Ron Staudt’s excellent ‘Cyberclinics: law schools, technology and justice’ and Stephanie Kimbro’s fascinating ‘What should be in a digital curriculum: a practitioner’s must have list’ (check out her list of Publications — and all that on top of a busy practice…).  The chapter describes some aspects of the work we (Martin, Barton, McKellar, Hennessy, the Learning Technology Development Unit and others) developed at the Glasgow Graduate School of Law in simulation and technology, and the educational theory that we put into practice.  But the chapter also outlines how the Law Society of Scotland, in their recent review of legal education in Scotland, considered seriously the relationship between educational theory and practice in order to attempt profound change in their professional legal education curriculum.  As I point out in the chapter,

The Society’s adaptation of and focus upon professionalism is one way of beginning to shift the paradigmatic signature pedagogy, both at undergraduate and postgraduate vocational levels of legal education. Digital simulation such as SIMPLE, while it can be of value to most stages of legal education, is a critical heuristic for the development of [the Society’s] innovations. It can be used to present alternatives to the signature pedagogies of the case method in the US, and liberal law school approaches in the UK.

Will it succeed?  I had lunch recently with Karen Barton, co-Director of the PEAT 1 curriculum at Strathclyde, which is running its first full curriculum.  She says the new design is a considerable improvement on the Diploma structures; and of course the constellation of concepts around situated learning that was at heart of our innovations is still the beating engine of the new curriculum: a conjunction of the academy and the profession.

The conjunction is long overdue, because technology is presenting both sides with new challenges.  There’s another reference on the web to the book.  It’s embedded in the resources that Marc Lauritsen uses in his contribution to a course called Topics in Digital Law Practice, organized by John Mayer and the ever-creative CALI.  What so interesting about this?  The content, no doubt; but also the infrastructure.  The course is a MOOC — a massively open online course, where not only participants (in fairly huge numbers) but the course resources also are distributed across the web.  For an excellent and in-depth introduction, see Stephen Downes’ epic presentation (nearly two hours), Facilitating a Massive Open Online Course, which summarises his knowledge of delivering six MOOCs to almost 10,000 students since 2008.

Why should this matter to either the legal profession or the academy?  Just one brief example, this for academics (but it’s crucial to the profession too).  Take a look at a currently modish example — Norvig & Thrun’s MOOC, based on their Stanford module on AI.  Just look at the methods, the outreach, the ways of helping students get involved who would otherwise never have the experience of learning about some of the most exciting technological developments in our society.  Should not both the legal profession and the academy be paying close attention to these methods?  If Richard Susskind’s concept of the latent legal market is to apply to the legal educational market (as it surely must), is there not a place for MOOCs in bringing legal education to folk who wouldn’t otherwise think of doing a law course?  Particularly in an age when the doors of higher education are shutting in their faces, scrawled with a demand for a fee of £27,000 for a three-year LLB? If diversity and social mobility are to mean anything to academics, shouldn’t we be collaborating on OERs, OEPs, and MOOCs?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kristoffer Greaves February 27, 2012 at 22:10

Thank you for this blog post, Paul, and the link to the e-book too. I agree with your comments regarding the long-standing mutual suspicion between the academe and the profession, something I’ve had to navigate as a practical legal training educator where PLT is a bridge between the two. In the context of ‘digital lawyers’, I believe there is a long-standing suspicion of online learning in PLT by some regulators and members of the profession too.
My own position is that you can use just about any medium to teach anything really, provided that it is well adapted to the learning task. The medium is not the message. By ‘well adapted’ I mean that the incorporation of the technology into the learning event is planned with care and in consideration of evidence-based methods, and is sufficiently robust to do the job it is meant to do.
Another point you indicate in your post is the issue of equity and access, and the opportunities that technology can provide for this. The capacity of technologies to facilitate distance learners and learners with disabilities should not be underestimated. I speak from personal experience – I completed my arts/law degree by distance education at a time when online technologies were just emerging. I was a sole parent with a 2 year old child when I started my degree, living in the Blue Mountains in Australia; I also have a severe hearing impairment in both ears. Online and distance learning opened up avenues that I might not ordinarily have had.
I believe these kinds of factors are relevant when thinking about encouraging diversity in the legal profession.
The availability of learning opportunities for time-poor professionals is also important in the continuing legal education context.


2 Paul Maharg February 28, 2012 at 17:54

Interesting to hear of your own background, Kristoffer, and the part that early online technologies played in that. Funnily enough, I was in a postgrad seminar today where a member of staff was discussing the idea of teaching a module on medieval outlaws and the law, which conversation extended to bandits generally. There was discussion about how to introduce students to the wholly new world of medieval law, theology, economics, everyday life, pretty much everything really. It reminded of one of the key moments in my own early introduction to computers, in 1989, at Glasgow University, where my Eng Lit tutor from way back in the 1970s, Des O’Brien, created a hypertext version of a extract of a medieval poem called Piers Plowman, using (since this was pre-internet) software called Guide Hypertext. It was a revelation to me. I could click on a node such as the words ‘Palm Sunday’ in the poem, and get an description of what the event might mean to a medieval listener. What was startling was the instant movement between medieval text and commentary: technology bridging 600 or so years, in a click. That bridging quality of digital technology (as well as its everpresent opposite, the erasing quality), is characteristic of the digital revolution that seems to have been important in your life, too.


3 Kristoffer Greaves February 28, 2012 at 19:30

That was wonderfully innovative of Des O’Brien, particularly for the time.
That example reminded me of my own undergraduate studies of Laurence Sterne’s ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’, which I thought had an idea of hypertextuality underlying it. Of course, I’m not the only one to have responded to the text in that way, see for example, That blog post picks up on Sterne’s use of distraction, which some have said was a play on John Locke’s Association of Ideas. It is a running joke in my household that my epitaph shall read ‘Everything is Interconnected’. My partner, a medical practitioner, wryly observes the expression of this belief is strongly associated with madness; a proposition for which this comment might be evidence 🙂


4 Paul Maharg February 29, 2012 at 10:22

Ah yes, Sterne belongs to the category of pre-digital digerati — I’d suggest Erasmus, who was fascinated by printing and new comms technologies; and obsessive redrafters, eg Burton (Anatomy of Melancholy), and Proust, whose galley proofs for A La Recherche were the despair of his publisher — no corrections made, and the margins filled with new text. There ought to be a new media course on that. There probably is.


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