Technology Has Enhanced Legal Education Significantly, But Its Essential Components Remain the Same

[Editor’s Note: This month, we asked a few veteran faculty members to share their reflections on what has changed the most in legal education since they became law professors.  This is the fifth in the series.]

As I finish my twenty-second year as a law professor, I marvel at how technological advances and the proliferation of specialty courses have changed (and, in most instances, improved) legal education since I began my academic career in 1990.  Yet I am mindful that the essential components of a high-quality legal education remain unchanged (e.g., an interactive and engaging academic environment that stimulates critical thinking, reasoned legal analysis, creative problem solving, an understanding of legal doctrine and policy, and the development of effective verbal and written communication skills).

There were no laptops in the classroom when I begin teaching twenty-two years ago, and handwritten exam answers were the norm. Now it’s rare to see any student without his or her PC during class.  

Most students in my classes choose to use Securexam to type their answers to essay questions — to my delight because it’s usually much easier to read (and decipher) typed words rather than handwritten ones!  It’s also much easier and more efficient for today’s students to use a computer to take, organize, and centralize their case briefs and class notes rather than compiling and trying to make sense of handwritten notes scattered throughout multiple pages of paper (which was my experience as law student).  The development of course outlines, which I strongly believe is an essential and largely individualized part of the law school learning process, is greatly facilitated by a computer’s word processing capabilities. However, new technology enhances the quality of legal education only if is it used appropriately. For example, a laptop provides a readily available source of distraction that may inhibit a student’s learning (as well as that of neighboring classmates) by shifting his or her focus away from the topic of class discussion to unrelated internet sites or email correspondence.  Although I was occasionally bored as a law student, there was no alternative (other than daydreaming) to paying close attention to the classroom discussion in my courses.

The “smart classrooms” in Eckstein Hall provide a means of using PowerPoint, videos,  graphics, and other forms of technology to enhance classroom learning.  These technological advances certainly offer significant benefits and the potential for a more interesting, multi-media educational environment.  However, I use PowerPoint sparingly in the classroom because of my concern that its regular usage will create a passive learning environment. Studies show that an interactive and engaging classroom environment best promotes students’ learning and understanding.  Although I frequently use PowerPoint while making presentations at legal and medical conferences because it provides an effective means of transmitting a substantial amount of information to a large group in a short period of time, I haven’t found an effective way to regularly use it in the classroom without limiting the dynamics and spontaneity of classroom discussion, or inhibiting interactive learning through Socratic dialogue.  As long as my handwriting is legible (which requires some effort on my part because good penmanship is a difficult art to master), the classroom’s white boards provide an effective means of defining and synthesizing legal concepts as well as developing a legal framework for analyzing and solving problems — which usually is the product of a collective effort involving students rather than my solo performance.

Specialized legal databases such as Westlaw and Lexis (which were in their infancy when I attended law school in the early 1980s), on-line general and specialized legal updates (e.g., U.S. Law Week, BNA, etc.), and the Internet have exponentially increased the amount of readily available sources of law and legal commentary as well as the speed in which it can be accessed.  Given our dynamic twenty-first-century legal regime consisting of local, state, national, transnational, and international sources of law established by courts, legislative bodies, administrative agencies, and private arbitration systems, the electronic compilation and accessing of legal materials is an enormously beneficial change.  As the co-author of a widely used sports law textbook, I very much appreciate having rapid computer access to new cases, statutes, secondary authorities, and legal documents, which can be easily and quickly incorporated into teaching materials, particularly electronic supplements.  On the other hand, undue reliance on computerized legal research may provide a false sense of security that one has found the “right answer” to a legal problem, or at least all of the relevant law.  Of course, on-line research doesn’t always unearth everything that may be relevant or applicable; it’s optimally a part of (not a substitute for) the traditional legal research method of checking multiple sources for legal authority, including treatises.  In addition, the sheer volume of legal materials now available on-line (which continues to significantly increase over time) and easy access thereto threatens to cause us to lose sight of the forest for the trees.  Now, it is more important than ever to sift through and focus on what’s really important (e.g., the current state of the law in a particular area, developing legal trends, and changed laws reflecting changing conditions and policy shifts) rather than trying to consume everything simply because it exists and is accessible.

Technology has had a significant positive impact on the production of legal scholarship, which is an integral part of legal education.  As a beginning law professor in 1990, I used two legal pads (one for the text, and another for the footnotes) to draft my first law review article by hand (the same process used to author my student law review note in 1982). Needless to say, it was a very burdensome task to reorganize the text of these articles  and their accompanying footnotes (which gave my administrative assistant nightmares!). Word processing and remote on-line access to legal databases now make the process of producing legal scholarship relatively easy compared to the way it used to be.

Advances in computer technology have given rise to blogging, a popular and efficient means of engaging in legal discourse and exchanging ideas among a diverse group of geographically dispersed people, including law students, which has become a form of on-line learning outside of the law school classroom. However, it is important to always be mindful of the source of the information (anyone can say anything they want regardless of their knowledge base!) and that too many blog posts are the product of a quick knee-jerk, personal reaction rather than careful, reasoned consideration.  In other words, it is essential to separate the wheat from the chaff and to always remember that thoughtful consideration of others’ views, incisive legal analysis, thoroughness, and creative problem solving — the characteristics of a high quality legal education as well as good lawyering — require considerable time regardless of the method of technology used to express one’s views.

The first four posts in the series are here (Kossow), here (Bradford), here (Edwards), and here (Idleman).

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