Should law schools go MOOC? UPDATED

Influenced by Stephen Bainbridge at UCLA, I now largely lecture in my core business law courses, including Business Organizations, Securities Regulation and Corporate Finance. It has taken a couple of years to tweak the power points and lecture notes to be both entertaining and substantive so that students don’t feel like drifting off but if my evaluations are any indication, it is beginning to work.

But a recent blog post by Bainbridge on class size in law school points to another interesting idea. Why not allow large elements of the law school curriculum to go MOOC? In other words, if I think lecturing makes more sense than the Socratic method for much of what I teach why not just record those lectures and allow students to view them online at their leisure, more or less? After all, I think the move by Netflix to stream all 13 episodes of House of Cards is an important and welcome move to break down the intrusion into our lives that static TV schedules represent. Why not allow law students the same freedom?

But the House of Cards streaming model opens up yet another possibility as Bainbridge points out. No matter how hard I work at my securities regulation lectures I likely will never be the best possible lecturer on the efficient markets hypothesis. So the natural next step would be NOT for me to record my lectures, but for whomever out there is the best at these courses to record his or her lectures and then allow my students to watch those lectures for a reasonable fee.

Then, I could shift my teaching time to lead a seminar or workshop or clinic on specialized aspects of the substantive material in those courses. This might mean moving in depth on particular topics or creating hands on modules that cannot be replicated by lectures. A good example would be to set up mock negotiations of business transactions that by their nature require hands-on/in the room teaching. Another possibility would be to set up a tutorial framework with small groups of students. That seems to be the model that Harvard is working towards as the comment to the Bainbridge blog post suggests. One of the challenges in a big course like Business Organizations is that it is nearly impossible to judge how well the students are absorbing the material. Students are often unwilling to ask questions in classes that size and yet it is not possible in most law schools to set up any kind of small group format to supplement the course.

A final important potential for this approach, of course, would be the possibility of improved learning outcomes at a lower cost. There is a great deal of discussion about alternative lower cost models for law schools these days. Much of it is driven by the impact of the black swan event that the financial crisis represented and will likely pass as the economy recovers. Even now the BLS projects that we will need approximately 24,000 new lawyers every year (to replace retiring lawyers and meet new job growth) over the next decade and that represents a fair percentage of the number of students who will both graduate and pass the bar given today’s application rates.

But in every crisis there is an opportunity, as an Obama aide once put it. A MOOC/workshop-seminar-clinic-tutorial model could allow law schools to limit expansive hiring in different directions while replicating the hands on apprenticeship culture that some have suggested should be encouraged today to produce effective new lawyers.

UPDATE: A Caveat – Our neighbor to the south, San Jose State, has suspended a pilot program using MOOC that it was conducting with Udacity, one of the private sector providers of MOOCs. Apparently, the failure rate was abnormally high and there were numerous other problems. It may be the case that the transition to online education will prove far more complicated than it first appeared. My hopes that MOOC could help with cost reduction and introduction of more creative classroom methods may be on hold.