The Future of the Legal Course Book

Seattle University School of Law is hosting a workshop on the “Future of the Legal Course Book.”  It’s a very nicely organized, timely session, brought together by Prof. David Skover, Ron Collins, and deans Ed Rubin of Vanderbilt and Kellye Testy of Seattle University.  On the table: how should we rethink the legal case book in the name of improving pedagogy in law schools?

It occurs to me is that the key conceptual shift is that virtually all information – whether or not related to the law – is now created, stored, and shared in digital format for starters.  Our students, too, are “born digital.”  Our students have a very different relationship to information today than they did a generation ago.  They were small children when the DVD replaced the VCR. Research, for our students, is more likely to mean a Google or Lexis search from a web browser than a trip to the library.  They rarely, if ever, buy the newspaper in hard copy, but they graze through copious amounts of news and other information online.  (Even some law professors are now more comfortable in the use of online tools for legal research and analysis than in the system of Reporters and Pocket Parts.) Law school community members are learning, accessing information, and expressing themselves in new, digitally-inspired ways – sometimes good, sometimes not so good.  Others outside our community are increasingly learning about us and what we do from our web presence.

Five to ten years from now, I think it’s likely that legal case books, too, will be born digital — and then rendered in a variety of formats, whether a good old-fashioned book or a Kindle/eReader file or a series of web pages and interactive exercises.  Updates could happen online, wiki-style (or not, if authors want to lock things down into a single format or series of files).  Faculty and teachers could click and unclick cases and lessons and questions that they’d like to use in class.  One could imagine that some students would click “buy in paper” and would get a print-on-demand version of the book sent overnight to them in the mail (say, for $49.95).  Others would click “buy it for my Tablet/Reader/Kindle/Whatever” (for $49.95 minus some discount).  Still others, perhaps hearing-impaired students, would click on “read it to me,” and so forth. 

There are surely reasons why such a future may not come to pass.  Some have raised concerns about legacy IP rights, strong interests by publishers in the current regime, and so forth, as barriers to such a future.  I think that the primary question to ask is about new investments: the bulk of our new investment in teaching materials and platforms be placed in materials that are cleared in a way that facilitates this future.  The barriers we should focus on are those that stand in the way of our shifting (at least some of) of new investments (of time, money, etc.) from one primarily oriented toward the analog to one that has a substantial digital emphasis in the first instance.

To be clear: Books remain important.  Books are not going away anytime soon; nor should they.  Hard-copies of books are important on many levels.  Many people prefer to read hard-copies of books to digital forms of books, despite massive ongoing investments in technologies like the Sony Reader, the Amazon Kindle, and new technologies at the MIT Media Lab; we like to curl up with them in bed, collect them on bookshelves as signals of our knowledge (or for easy access), take them to the beach, and so forth.  Books represent a stable format, unlikely the constantly-changing digital formats that imperil digital record-keeping processes over the long-term.  Books are the cornerstone, for now at least, of the large and important publishing industry, whose leaders play an important role in democracies and cultures around the world.  Books have the advantage, under United States law at least, of being covered by the first sale doctrine (you can give them away, or lend them, or sell them in a secondary market).  But books have downsides, too – the “slow fire” phenomenon, the high cost of production (compared to their digital counterparts), and the high cost of storage and distribution.  And, as many have pointed out here in Seattle, the presumption of *only* the traditional form of the book for case-based law teaching is inhibiting experimentation with new pedagogies.

As law schools, I think our work in the area of academic computing should be to facilitate this bright future of course materials born digital and rendered in various formats.  We need to make it easy for faculty to experiment with new technologies in support of their teaching, research, and scholarship — especially in an era of large-scale curricular reform at places like Vanderbilt, Harvard, and others. 

And there’s a need for leadership across schools, too, to develop the platform that makes this future possible.  There are building blocks coming together: CALI’s eLangdell, Rice’s Connexions, and so forth.  Publishers have a role to play here, too, both through their own experimentation and participation with broader, open efforts.  It will be fun to be part of such an effort.

2 thoughts on “The Future of the Legal Course Book

  1. Pingback: John Palfrey » Blog Archive » Pushing Forward on the Legal Casebook Idea

  2. Pingback: JUST IN CASE

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