Modestly big data for legal education

by Paul Maharg on 04/10/2012

The Human Face of Big Data has been splashed across screens & newsprint the last few days — see The Guardian’s excellent Datablog article, and Scientific American for summaries of what it’s about.  According to Rick Smolens, one of the two founders, it will last for two months, asks respondents 60 questions via a mobile app, and as of Tuesday am had generated 1.5M responses. Could we do something similar for legal education?

I was thinking about this when we were designing our online questionnaire in LETR for legal education in England & Wales.  There’s a major lack of internationally-comparable data on legal education.  Much of it is either too jurisdiction-specific or too high-level or requires extensive disaggregation (as in OECD stats, here and here).  The voices, lives and choices of students are also hard to detect.  However with LETR’s focus jurisdictionally on England & Wales (albeit we’re comparing quite extensively on international comparators), and  the costs involved (as well as the timescale in getting the app approved by Apple — the Human Data iOS app is still grinding through) it wasn’t really appropriate to the project.

Why would legal educators want to do this?  We need information about legal education, and not just jurisdictionally but globally.  There is a place for major bodies such as OECD, and jurisdictionally there are extensive data-gathering activities, particularly by regulators, eg ABA Bar Admission information, or the UK’s SRA education pages.  Helpful stuff, but it’s information-push largely, from regulators to users.  There is still a place for large-scale, cyclical data derived from those in legal education: students, trainees, academics, administrators, supervisors, professions, regulators.  We need to hear a lot more from them on a data platform that’s international in its design and reach.  And we need to feed that information to those who make policy decisions, in government and amongst regulators.  Susskind pointed out in an essay for Publius in the Berkman Centre back in 2009 how important public data was for government and policy-makers, but that it was ‘far from clear’ that the ‘cumulative shift in policy and practice’ that was required had actually taken place.  Things have improved — see eg the Legal Services Board’s pages here — but we still have a long way to go.

So what if a number of legal educational centres in different jurisdictions were to join together to share the cost with sponsors, design the project and the apps — a longitudinal and cyclical study not just of student learning, study, curriculum choices, engagement etc but of other issues — how big is student debt?  how difficult is it to get jobs?  is credentialism on the increase? how can/do learning institutions support early professionals?  And many many other questions.

Is that a runner, do you think?  We have a number of centres who have designed educational data structures — I’m thinking of George Kuh’s work on engagement in the US, implemented in NSSE, and Carole Silver’s excellent adaptation of it in the LSSSE – so nationally in most jurisdictions there is the expertise.  Our work in the LETR project, particularly on the literature review, has certainly identified the need for it from a research point of view.  And the great advantage of the Big Data project, with its emphasis on crowdsourcing, is that it generates virtually real-time data for respondents, for at least some of their input into the app, so users will be able to see their own data profile against other respondents globally.

Anyone else out there excited by these possibilities?

 

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Joseph Saviri October 30, 2012 at 06:35
Paul Maharg October 30, 2012 at 11:04

Thanks Joe, read it, and was thinking of blogging on the issues Rebecca & Oliver raise, which are very important, and timely for us on LETR. I met them at the FutureEd conferences, Harvard & NYLS, and discussed some of it with them there. Rebecca’s doing great work on the ABA DL standards, which we commented on in one of our LETR Lit Review chapters — see http://letr.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/LR-chapter-8.pdf, paras 61-65ff, which will need to be redrafted in part to take account of what Rebecca and Oliver are saying in this piece.

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