Law On-Line:A Collaborative, Web-Based Journey in the Law and Social Sciences
Cynthia L. Cates
Wayne V. McIntosh
Preparing For The Journey: Needs And Tools: A Literature Review
A. Technology in the Classroom
Technological literacy, in the very near future, will be essential for citizens who wish to access information for scholarly exploration, academic achievement, occupational advancement, and in order to make informed decisions as responsible participants in any open political system. A July 28, 1998, report from the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA 1998b: 1) states that “Now that a considerable portion of today's business, communication, and research takes place on the Internet, access to the computers and networks may be as important as access to traditional telephone services.” Public libraries are “going digital,” university libraries are transforming themselves into “information services centers” highlighting their electronic data retrieval components, undergraduate textbook publishers are increasingly stressing learning packages that use the Internet, and the list of “distant education” programs offering courses and even full curricula entirely on-line is expanding quickly. Literacy in communications technologies, in other words, is no longer a niche project. These changing realities present a serious pedagogical challenge to all who teach university undergraduates. We must find creative ways to integrate technology into the curriculum without sacrificing substantive content and without diminishing the value of human interaction (see e.g., Noam 1995). As the 1998 Boyer Commission (at 25) noted, “If faculty give appropriate attention to teaching innovations, universities can become the technological pacesetters in teaching that they have always been in research. . . However, as innovations multiply, so do dangers: in many circumstances, casual over-use of technological aids already increases the real and psychological distance between living faculty members and living students. Technological devices cannot substitute for direct contact.”
Our institutions produce tomorrow’s leaders and educated citizens. They must be able to access information in a discriminating fashion, to understand and translate that information into knowledge, and to communicate interactively with others in an increasingly electronic world. Thus, we have both a special opportunity and a serious obligation to strengthen the substantive knowledge, research and writing abilities, and the technological literacy of our students
B. Cooperative Learning
The standard lecture, exam, term-paper curriculum format neither promotes interaction across groupings (it doesn’t encourage students to take advantage of the diversity among them), nor does it really advance research and writing (a paper due at or near the end of the term only has value to the student for the grade it has earned). In some of our respective course offerings we have altered protocol to require, for example, that research projects be completed in stages and that consideration of some course materials be a cooperative effort of three- to five-member groups. In many cases such changes produce positive results, with clearly better written final research papers and at least a minimal level of meaningful exchange across the diversity divides.
Our experience is supported by a wealth of academic research on instructional techniques in higher education. A 1993 review of numerous studies, for example, reports that cooperative efforts were far more effective in producing individual achievement among undergraduate students than either competitive or individualistic classroom approaches (Johnson and Johnson 1996). Indeed, Johnson and Johnson conclude that “[t]he research on achievement . . . found cooperation to promote greater intrinsic motivation to learn, more frequent use of cognitive processes such as reconceptualization, higher-level reasoning, . . ., and greater long-term maintenance of the skills learned” (p.1). Moreover, collective activities also seem to have a beneficial result in helping to bridge diversity gaps. “When students worked cooperatively, positive and supportive relationships tended to develop, even among students from different ethnic, cultural, language, social class, ability, and gender groups” (Johnson and Johnson 1996, p.2). Although working collectively cuts against the grain of American tradition and culture (we are a most individualistic society), and although it is not a magic bullet that will transform the learning curve into an exponential function, it does seem to yield tangible pedagogical benefits as a complement to individualized effort (see e.g., Gudeman 2000; Marin 2000; Maruyama and Moreno 2000).
Advances in communications technology offer substantial potential benefits to this type of enterprise. Indeed, collaboration is greatly facilitated by our enhanced ability to exchange ideas, information sources, draft manuscripts, and accompanying criticism and comments. The challenge to faculty, then, is to find ways to exploit technology in order to facilitate cooperative research and writing among our students.
C. Research and Writing
Unfortunately, it has become a common professorial complaint that undergraduates are woefully lacking in writing ability. Some have solid background preparation to enter the post-college workforce, while others simply do not. These differences are not the result of intellectual capability but primarily due to a combination of lack of experience and generalized low expectations. Many of our undergraduates do not get intensive research and writing assignments that allow them to develop relevant competency in these important academic endeavors.
The answer to the problem, of course, is to make students write. Writing assignments should be attended by the highest expectations, should involve joint student-teacher planning, and should proceed in regular, instructor-guided stages toward the final product. While mere experience in writing will not produce a coterie of Toni Morrisons, Phillip Roths, or Salman Rushdies, it will produce technically sound writers able to convey complex ideas in an understandable form. The Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) movement has won an increasing number of administrative and instructor converts with the notion that good writing technique can and should be taught in all university classes, regardless of subject matter and that doing so promotes active learning. See e.g., Jablonski (1999); Knoblauch and Brannon (1983); Maimon, Belcher, Hearn, Nodine, and O’Connor (1981); Bazerman and Russell (1994). Moreover, there are now a plethora of sites on the WWW that describe, in great detail, programs in operation at particular universities and linked to sister projects across the United States. (See, e.g., Writing Across the University Home Page, http://www.sas.upenn.edu/writing/; The National Writing Centers Association Page, http://departments.colgate.edu/diw/NWCA.html; The Writing Center at Harvard University, http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~wricntr/.
Similar weaknesses and faculty complaints are evident with regard to student competency to pose sound research questions, devise research strategies, identify appropriate sources of information, and follow through to generate final research products. Again, this requires combined student-instructor effort and should move in careful, closely-guided steps. These skills are particularly important in the realm of law, as well as other professional environments — indeed, they are essential!
Telecommunications technology presents an additional set of challenges. Like diversity, it holds great promise; however, university faculty have struggled with how to exploit its potential for curricular purposes. Moreover, it is fair to assume that universities have expended considerable resources on information technology with the expectation that faculty will make productive use of it in our course offerings. There are, indeed, some shining examples across the university community of individuals who have done just that, who have designed elaborate, sophisticated web-based courses. For a much larger number of colleagues, however, the start-up costs associated with such incorporation are substantial and daunting.
In fact, the intimidating challenge to faculty at both comprehensive universities and public research universities — for different reasons — are well documented in the Education and Human Resources (EHR) Advisory Committee report to the National Science Foundation, Shaping the Future: New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology, III. The Situation Today: Findings of the Review (NSF 96-139). Professors at comprehensive universities face heavy course loads, in addition to a presumption of campus and community service activities, and the expectation that they engage in research and publication. Faculty at the large public research-oriented schools confront a high demand to maintain an active publication agenda and very large classes.
In addition, as we have observed in our own classes, although an increasing proportion of students have some IT skill and experience, most are thoroughly undisciplined about it, and there are clear differences surfacing between the technological haves and have nots (see, e.g., NTIA 1998b; Novak and Hoffman 1997; 1998). A few spend literally scores of hours per week “surfing the Net” and are quite skilled practitioners in the art of on-line research. Many more, however, waste scores of hours in aimless, undirected meandering around the Web, with little or nothing of real value to show for their efforts. A large number have email and chat room experience but have yet to even try going on-line as a method of inquiry. A surprising percentage, even among juniors and seniors, use their email accounts less than once per week and rarely go online for any academic purpose. Even the most adept “surfers” have difficulty distinguishing a reliable from an unreliable source (the notion seems not to have occurred to them before). Although we do not have any systematic data to support such a conclusion, the most skilled among our students seem to be fully connected at home; while those with weaker skills rely more upon university computer labs. As a result, advantages and disadvantages tend to multiply. And, in what has increasingly become a necessary means of scholarly exploration and academic advancement, many otherwise very bright students are placed at a considerable disadvantage. Moreover, too many of our graduates will enter a world of accelerating communications technology, handicapped without the necessary tools to access information and to continue to accumulate knowledge as adult citizens.
Technological literacy should not be restricted to students in sciences, mathematics, engineering and technology (SME&T). Nor should technological literacy supplant an emphasis on content-based knowledge. As noted in the EHR Advisory Committee’s Executive Summary to their report,
Although not tailor-made for research purposes, the WWW is undergoing rapid development as an archival resource with which students, particularly those with an interest in law, should have some working familiarity. Speaking to a January, 1998, meeting of the San Francisco Bar Association, Gerry H. Goldsholle, an Internet legal expert, warned "Attorneys who ignore the Internet are doing so at their peril.... The Internet provides free and immediate access to court decisions, statutes and proposed legislation and rule making, agency filings, corporate reports and numerous other public records. An increasing amount of important information is available only on the Internet" (TechMall, 1998). Indeed, an extensive universe of primary source documents (such as court opinions, statutes, and constitutions), as well as secondary ones (such as law review and electronic journal commentaries), is already available on-line, and it is growing. There is a burgeoning literature, for example, on the influences of current communications technologies on our legal system. See, e.g., Boyle (1996), Katsh (1989), Tribe (1991), Sunstein (1995). Moreover, there is a proliferating number of sites on the WWW devoted exclusively to law from a scholarly perspective and to the practicalities of legal practice. The same is true with regard to information on public policy issues and government operations. To make use of it requires some basic instruction and training, so that students can learn how to access, search, and retrieve appropriate information.
The Journey: Law On-Line, The First Year
And so, in January of 1998, we began our foray into web-based, classroom-centered, cross-institutional, writing-intensive, research-directed, discussion-oriented teaching. Our goals: to enhance cooperative learning, to teach technology, and to improve student research and writing abilities.
A. On line and Off Campus: The Cross-Institutional Component.
As a starting point – one which we hoped would enhance both the technological learning and the research and writing capacity of our students – we decided to offer the course jointly. The University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) and Towson University (TU) are both part of the University System of Maryland, a very loose confederation of thirteen public institutions of higher education. Of the 13, UMCP and TU are by far the largest; UMCP is the system’s flagship research institution and TU, its largest comprehensive university.
Aside from a common system bond, the two schools share a significant student body interest in law and legal careers. This interest, not surprisingly, is particularly keen among political science majors. And, unfortunately, while both universities attract very bright and eager undergraduates, over the years, both have seen a noticeable decline in the ability of these bright, eager young people to write and do basic research. At the same time, the two schools are quite different, and, while the Maryland System touts considerable student diversity, there is a tendency toward campus isolation. UMCP draws heavily from suburban sources, especially near Washington, DC, and it reflects the demographics and culture of the national capital area. TU, about 35 miles to the north, is a creature of the social and economic demography of urban Baltimore. UMCP is a public research institution whose roughly 21,000 full-time undergraduates compete for resources with about 4,000 full-time graduate students. Towson, on the other hand, is a comprehensive university, largely devoted to teaching its 10,000 undergraduates with minimal (about 500) graduate enrollment. Students at College Park perceive themselves to be the beneficiaries of a major research institution with a number of nationally ranked graduate departments (and also big-time sports programs); students at Towson perceive that others view them as holding a lower status. These perceptions are reinforced by the fact that UMCP has relatively difficult admission standards, and its entering freshman class has a higher average score on standardized college entrance exams. TU, on the other hand, maintains a more inclusive admissions policy. The two climates are entirely different and students virtually never mix. This isolation inhibits the exchange of new ideas and learning, and, in an era of instant communications, is entirely unnecessary. In short, we felt that the combination of shared and unshared characteristics offered an ideal opportunity for cooperative learning. And, although the particular Baltimore-Washington commonalities and disjunctions may be uniquely Maryland phenomena, we believe they are characteristic of both shared student experiences and the lack of student interaction nationwide. In general, university students tend to have much in common and to be very cloistered.
Our project exploited the potential in the diversity of our student bodies and attempted to diminish undergraduate spatial and social isolation in several ways. First, students worked in groups, with members drawn from each campus. This approach allowed us to construct work-groups that were diverse. Moreover, making every student an equal partner in completing group assignments we hoped would promote active learning and mutual exchange. (See e.g., NSF 96-139, II. A Look Back: Recent History of Education Reform, at 11, for a discussion of the effectiveness of peer learning techniques). Toward those ends, we first gave students a list of research questions and asked them to select two or three that they would like to pursue for the major research paper. Based upon their responses, we then paired students from each class and provided them with email addresses so that they could begin to communicate and devise a common strategy for completing the project. Without monitoring their interactions, we did request regular updates to ensure that they were, in fact, working together. Although we experienced inevitable glitches and they experienced some initial difficulty in working “blindly” with a remote partner, most of the teams did function very well. Some developed a real friendship. There were a few problem cases, however, and, based upon their suggestions, we created teams consisting of at least two students from each of the participating classes when we taught the course again. Our class rosters included a reasonable mix of students: College Park had 14 women and 16 men, with 9 minorities (4 Black, 2 Hispanic, and 3 Asian); Towson had 14 women, 13 men, with 7 minority students (5 Black, 2 Asian), and subsequent classes have been equally diverse demographically.
Throughout the semester, students were required to communicate with their partners through e-mail on a regular basis. Moreover, they were required to submit paper components jointly for our review and comment at regularly scheduled intervals. Finally, they were expected to submit a final, joint research paper at the end of the semester. We will discuss the paper more fully below. In addition to the paired research endeavor, the two classes engaged in weekly chat room discussions. We employed WebChat, a chat room developed by Teaching Technologies, aITs, University of Maryland, College Park (We would like to acknowledge the help of WebChat administrator, Ellen Yu Borkowski). Students from both classes were required to visit and contribute to the course chat room. The room itself was subdivided by week and each week we posted a question designed to illuminate and enhance the substantive topic being discussed in class. This allowed students to approach the subject from a different angle and to debate it with their colleagues from the other university. For the complete set of chat room questions as well as student responses from Spring 2000, please click “WebChat Link For Weekly Class Discussion” at http://www.bsos.umd.edu/gvpt/lawonline.
B. On Line, But In Class: The Intramural Component
Although the students were expected to produce the semester’s major research effortwith a spatially removed partner and although they regularly debated on line with their cross-campus colleagues, a significant portion of the course involved real in-class teaching, learning, and communication. Classes met physically on a regular basis (MWF at Towson; Tu/Th at College Park) for discussions and lectures on the course substance and for lab work on the course technology. In addition to this traditional classroom instruction, students were required during the final month of research to meet with their own instructors for lengthy, individualized conferences.
C. Course Structure
General Format. The goal of both inter- and intra-campus formats was an exploration of the substantive field of law and society along with the acquisition or enhancement of technology-based communications and research skills. We attempted to integrate the two by means of the term “Web.”
Substantively, we began with the premise that the human life cycle and the law are inextricably intertwined from beginning to end, both in the broadest societal sense and in the six to eight decades that most of us are individually afforded here on earth. The law reaches us, and we it, from our genesis in the embryonic fluid to our final resting place six feet under. Law and life, in other (metaphorical) words, form a continuous and exquisitely complex web, woven around and about all that we do and all that we are. That metaphor – of law and society in a webbed relationship – was the one that informed the substantive content of the course. We felt it was a particularly useful analogy in two respects. First, from the perspective of one deep within the interior of a web, the web itself, composed of all its many tangled threads, seems all-encompassing – it is ubiquitous. And so do we social creatures find ourselves embedded in a social/legal structure whose extensive threads reach back through the millennia, forward through generations yet to come; back through our conceptions, forward through our deaths. Second, webs are meandering, mysterious objects – they are inherently ambiguous. But to the entomologist and the spider herself, they seemingly have no beginning nor any end. Too, the relationship between law and society, though ubiquitous, is riddled with ambiguity, as law tries to accomplish seeming cross-purposes in society and society, in turn, demands contradictory deeds from the law.
Our syllabus structure attempted to capture these themes by beginning with several weeks of general consideration of the web-based ubiquity and ambiguity themes, followed by specific contextual discussions. Thus, class readings and discussions centered on: Getting Started: Law and the First Stages of Life; Law and Personal Relationships: Family and Friends; Law and Personal Relationships: Strangers; and Law and the Final Stages of Life.
Technology Component. Of course, we employed the term “web” for another purpose in the course. The World Wide Web has clearly become – and is becoming more so day-by-day -- an integral part of the larger and more ancient web of law and society. As we discussed the metaphorical law and society web, we did so in conjunction with teaching and learning on technology’s web.
Thus, in addition to each week’s substantive content, students were asked to master a complimentary skill. This began with simple e-mail mastery and built through directed and independent Internet search techniques, source discrimination, downloading and sending pages, and the like. Technical skill development and substantive course materials were directly linked by requiring students to submit weekly assignments in progressively more sophisticated forms and by having students engage in increasingly independent searches for weekly source materials. For example, initial exercises directed students to specific web-based readings and required only relatively short responses directly submitted through e-mail. By the end of the course, students were independently searching for relevant materials, justifying the significance and appropriateness of the materials and submitting their work in regular term paper form as attachments, often in conjunction with web pages.
Research and Writing. As the above suggests, students did a tremendous amount of research and writing throughout the semester. This took several forms. First, students were asked to post, for all to see and comment on, a reply to a weekly WebChat question. Second, during seven consecutive weeks on the front-end of the semester, students were required to submit electronically a short paper researching a question or series of questions posed on the syllabus. In turn, we critiqued, both for soundness of research and for basic readability, each of the weekly papers. Finally, students were required to research and write the collaborative major project. This project proceeded through guided steps. Thus, in stages, students were expected to submit paper topics and theses for our comment and approval; statements indicating their agreed upon research strategy and division of responsibility, well-constructed first drafts for our review and criticism (these counted toward 15% of their final grade); and a final draft, worth 10% of the course grade, that demonstrated real improvement over the first.
Journey’s End: Lessons Learned
Overall, we were very happy with the course outcome and, apparently, so were our students. Students rated the course highly on independently-generated surveys in both classes. Moreover, students who responded to the institutional evaluation ranked the course as excellent to good, with most students ranking it excellent across all criteria. At the same time, throughout the semester, we found areas of the course that were wanting and which have warranted improvement. And, despite their general enthusiasm, students shared a number of legitimate concerns to which we have responded in our subsequent versions of the course in Spring 1999 and Spring 2000.
A. On line and Off Campus: The Cross-Institutional Component.
For our students, the single most stressful part of the course was the cross-institutional shared research and writing component.In part, this angst was entirely understandable and unavoidable. After all, it is difficult enough to undertake a major research and writing project without having to depend on another’s input. And this kind of anxiety, especially among students geared toward individual achievements, is prevalent even when instructors pair students for group projects within classes.Unable to see or meet with the partner could only add to the stress. We attempted to avoid problems by requesting regular updates to ensure that partners were, in fact, working together. However, we did not monitor their interactions. And, frankly, we found it remarkable, after the first few weeks of getting acquainted electronically, how many students came to enjoy their partnerships, even becoming good friends. Demographic and cultural diversity added significantly to the course. In class and electronic discussion of issues benefited considerably from a wide range of perspectives offered by our combined student body. The electronic forum was especially important in allowing students who normally remain quiet to engage in our collective consideration of the material. Our students consistently have remarked favorably on the discussion and participation aspects of our course. The status gap between the two institutions, however, has infected the smaller group interactions and has, in some cases, hindered the course collaborative components.
Nevertheless, a significant number of students experienced difficulties with their partners and in a few cases, these difficulties resulted in ongoing problems. In all cases where difficulties persisted over the first few weeks, the problems could be subsumed under the general heading of communication, or, more to the point, lack of communication. In short, one partner would complain that the other was not responding in a timely manner. This lack of communication could further be divided into two categories.
One source of communication difficulty was driven by unequal distribution of resources and time. A few students in both classes were fully equipped to communicate and research at home. These students had state-of-the-art computers, modems, and Internet access and thus were able to communicate at virtually any time. Others were confined to the time and equipment vagaries of school labs. When partnered, these disparate types experienced some difficulties, with the former expecting immediate midnight responses and the latter feeling unfairly pushed and prodded. A second source of difficulty was one more familiar to instructors who have paired students within classes. Sometimes a very diligent, ambitious student will be partnered with, well, a real dud. This is difficult enough to negotiate on-site, much less electronically miles away.
Although neither of the two problems affected the majority of partnerships beyond the first few weeks, complaints revolving around one or the other of the two sources did affect a significant enough proportion of partnerships (in the end, working relations remained a persistent problem for five partnerships) that we felt adjustments needed to be made. Thus, based upon our first students’ suggestions, in the Spring 1999 version of the course, which included a third class from Kansas State University, we created teams consisting of at least two students from each of the participating classes. The new team model seems to have reduced tensions, alleviated some of the resource inequities, and given each student a real shoulder to lean and cry on. But, as we noted above, this also seems to have led to a new, unanticipated problem. What we have called a status gap did hinder some group interactions. Where it was a problem, the UMCP students seemed to feel superior, had low expectations of their TU team members, and were quick to criticize. In addition, in those cases, the TU students expected their team members to the south to be snobbish and responded accordingly. In this atmosphere, a spirit of cooperation is difficult to achieve. We must devise some way to address this issue.
One final observation on partnerships is worth noting. Disembodied electronic communication can be very alienating. It was for that reason that, despite the current “distance education” craze we determined to conduct much of this course in a traditional, direct contact, classroom manner. Even so, a significant number of our students demonstrated the real human need to have real contact with their cross-campus partners. While partnerships were supposed to be negotiated entirely over the Internet – and most did an admirable job of this most of the time – many “snuck” in telephone calls and some arranged to meet each other at mutually convenient watering holes along the Baltimore-Washington corridor. This rather touching phenomenon only reinforces our belief that a purely distance education approach may not even begin to meet student needs.
Overall, we were very pleased with WebChat. Most students took their weekly “chat” assignments very seriously and often the result was a lively, but always civil, debate across campuses. Students so enjoyed this component of the course that, not infrequently, they would log-in beyond the required one time to monitor the debate and offer additional commentary. We, and they, felt that the chat added tremendously to the learning and sharing of course knowledge. For the Spring 99 course, in order to accommodate students from three classes (College Park, Towson, and Kansas State), we added a webboard for additional discussion beyond the required sessions and for synchronous chatroom exchanges that are useful in the collaborative project. This combination of venues worked very well, and we retained it in our last venture with the course in Spring 2000.
B. On Line, But In Class: The Intramural Component and Course Structure
General Format. In general, we have been very pleased with the substantive component of the course. Students seem to genuinely enjoy and benefit from the web metaphor approach, with its law from cradle-to-grave structure. Student interest in the material has been very high, and in-class and electronic discussion has been quite good, with widespread participation. Once again, cultural and demographic diversity has been a real plus, adding considerably to the general consideration of the issues.
Technology Component. On-site lab instruction and work, however, has presented some difficulties. Inevitably, lab facilities, even at the best-equipped institutions, are subject to numerous breakdowns and overcrowding, particularly at certain times. And, lab assistants (generally other students) vary widely in terms of knowledge and helpfulness. Indeed, at least at Towson, equipment difficulties and poor lab assistance were major complaints. We have been able to respond to most such complaints satisfactorily and on a case-by-case basis. Still, such problems add tremendously to the instructor’s workload and the students’ anxieties. And, frankly, they affect some students more than others. The resource “haves” – those students with their own equipment – are much less likely to experience or be adversely affected by these difficulties than the resource “have-nots,” who are forced to rely heavily upon the lab. Although we continued to work around these problems in the Spring 2000 semester, they will persist as a burden and continue to require considerable understanding for the challenges faced by our “have nots.”
Despite these difficulties, most students indicated that they acquired a great deal of Internet know-how. Indeed, in many cases, the difficulties actually enhanced the capabilities. Learning technology requires a hands-on approach and often the working through of glitches, frustrating as that may be, develops expertise. Our students indicated such. Because we were involved in most of this “working through,” we learned much as well!
Research and Writing. One of our goals was to improve student writing skills. And we believe that we largely succeeded on this front by making them write (a lot!), and by providing extensive commentary on that writing. Coming into the course, some students (approximately one-fourth of our total participants) are well prepared to construct and implement a research project, and they tend to be the same ones who had acquired well-above average writing skills. About one-half of them fall into a middle range on both counts, and the remaining quarter are under-prepared. Virtually all (there will be notable and inevitable exceptions) show considerable improvement over the course of the semester, and many have expressed appreciation for the rigorous writing and research expectations in the course evaluations at the end of the term.
We have been pleased, as well, with the development of electronic research skills. Coming into the course, virtually none of our students discriminated adequately among Web sources. As most instructors who have assigned any sort of Internet research know, students “surf,” and they take the path of least resistance. Whichever page (or pages, if they feel the need to “pad”) comes up first on the basis of a general search becomes grist for the project, and it matters not if the source is the Justice Department, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Harvard University, or the American Nazi Party.
By the end of the semester, most of our students learn to conduct well-constructed searches, to assess sites for validity, and to fully and appropriately cite their sources. The result, in most cases (of course, there were a couple of exceptions), were very well-done research papers (see ).
All of us in higher education have occasionally given lip-service to some variation of the phrase, “We learned as much as our students.” Speaking from our own experience, both as veterans of the classroom and as veterans of the lip-service, in most cases, this is simply not true. Over the long haul of our teaching experience, the students (hopefully) learn more from each class than do we. In the case of Law On-Line, however, the phrase is not mere lip-service – indeed, we believe we learned more than our students! That learning was often frustrating and just as often exhilarating.
We would end with a very general warning to those of our colleagues who would attempt some variation on this model. As the structure and assignment load of our syllabus indicates, this course required students to do more work, under more stressful conditions than they are normally used to doing. But, for the instructor, it requires much more work and under much more stressful conditions. For both of us, this course, with its constant writing and technological demands, ate up every available bit of time during the semester when we first offered it. In large part, this had a very gratifying end. Most of our students performed beautifully and most expressed a very heartwarming appreciation for our efforts, many using phrases like, “we can’t believe how quickly you respond,” or “how do you get through all this stuff every week?” or “do you guys ever sleep?” Well, the truth is, we got very little sleep. The felt need to respond in timely fashion to written projects submitted electronically and continually, to technological difficulties, and to just plain angst was, at times, overwhelming. Having said that, three years of experience and our fine-tuning of the process has alleviated some this burden (to view our most current course, go to http://www.bsos.umd.edu/lawonline).
In terms of the outcomes we have achieved, research and writing ability seems to be largely a function of instructor expectations. Our experience with this class is that when students see that we are serious in expecting quality product, they do perform better. Paper quality has consistently risen over the course of the semester. Research requires guidance, experience, and feedback. Many of our students had little experience. Our guidance, as well as the team approach, seems to have worked very well on that front. Most of the research projects have been quite good, and some are truly outstanding. On the IT skill dimension, we have found that, although an increasing proportion of students have greater facility with computers and the Internet, an overwhelming majority need considerable instruction about how to use those tools productively. Moreover, the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” is a problem that will need to be addressed by higher education. Finally, for the most part, the collaborative model has worked very well. We see considerable value added in terms of diversity of perspectives and tolerance of alternate viewpoints among our students. However, prestige or status differences (real or perceived is irrelevant) that can produce some problems for this type of teaching-learning model. We invite comments on these issues, and we also invite colleagues interested in linking courses in a collaborative framework to contact us.