Teaching law with computers.

Author:Warner, Richard


Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics.

Universities won't survive. [The computer revolution is] as

large a change as when we first got the printed book.(1)

Bold predictions about the impact of the computer revolution on education--including legal education--are increasingly common, sometimes expressed with hope and excitement, sometimes with fear and loathing. Major changes may indeed loom just over the horizon, but the specific form they will take remains quite unclear. Although the long-range impact of computer technology on legal education is crucially important, no less significant is the question of how, or even whether, existing technologies can be integrated usefully and appropriately into traditional legal education. More precisely, our question is: Do computers currently provide an effective tool for achieving significant pedagogical goals? We believe they do.

In support of this claim, we examine a variety of ways to integrate computers into law teaching. Our aim is not merely to marshal support for a controversial claim; we also offer our discussion as a practical pedagogical guide to computerized instruction. We draw, in part, on our experience over the last three years with Chicago-Kent's experimental E-LEARN section.(2) The section consists of 100 volunteer first-year students; all of the students are required to have laptop computers and are provided with electronic versions of their class materials. Our experience with this section lends significant support to the claim that a judicious use of computers can improve legal instruction.


    [P]roducing sophisticated learning is a function of the sophistication

    of the discussion that surrounds the use of the technology--not

    the sophistication of the technology.(3)

    The claim that computers can be effective tools for achieving important pedagogical goals naturally raises the question: What goals? We will focus on three widely accepted aims:(4) (1) Imparting a basic knowledge of black letter rules. An adequate knowledge of an area of law requires knowledge of the relevant legal rules. Of course, knowing the black letter rules is a far cry from understanding the law. Part of understanding the law is knowing the underlying rationales--the various purposes--behind the black letter rules. Hence, the second goal: (2) Developing an understanding of the rationales underlying the rules. The purpose of a rule guides its application to fact patterns and is the key to identifying and justifying exceptions and to resolving conflicts with other rules. Of course, you can, in three years of law school, teach only a small fraction of black letter rules and associated rationales, no matter how intensively you try to educate students. This is one reason it is essential for students to learn how to master new areas of the law on their own. This implicates the third goal: (3) Developing the ability to analyze legal issues independently.

    For convenience, we will refer to these three goals as "the basic goals," even though there are a variety of other goals with good claims to being "basic."(5) There is a small but growing literature evaluating the effectiveness of computer-assisted instruction ("CAI") in legal education and suggesting that CAI can help achieve these goals.(6) The much larger body of literature focusing on nonlegal instruction also supports this conclusion. One survey of the literature describes "a substantial body of research indicating that CAI, when employed in college classroom teaching, may improve learning while significantly and consistently reducing the time needed for instruction."(7) More specifically, available evidence clearly indicates that computers can help achieve the first goal, the rote memorization of black letter rules. Many researchers

    have conducted meta-analysis research studies on CAI effectiveness

    and found that students receiving CAI scored better on

    standardized achievement tests than their peers who received no

    CAI. They also found that CAI students had better retention and

    that CAI improved the speed at which students learned a given

    amount of material.(8)

    One may have doubts about whether computers can help significantly with the remaining two goals--understanding the rationales underlying rules and learning to think independently. Law school instruction typically uses the Socratic method, or some variation of it, to achieve these goals. The Socratic instructor does not present an analysis of a legal issue to students who passively record that analysis in their notes; rather, the students themselves construct the analysis in response to questions the instructor poses. Actively constructing the analysis leads students to see the relevant underlying rationales behind the rules while teaching them how to think their own way through a legal issue. We think computers can help here as well. However, we wish to emphasize the point with which we began: "producing sophisticated learning is a function of the sophistication of the discussion that surrounds the use of the technology--not the sophistication of the technology."(9) In what follows, we will discuss a variety of ways in which you can use technology--sometimes sophisticated, sometimes simple--to enhance the quality of interactions between teacher and student, and between student and student.

    In considering how to enhance the quality of teacher-student and student-student interactions, we will not address the fact that students learn in different ways. The issue of "learning styles" and their relation to computerized instruction, while of considerable importance, lies outside the scope of this essay.(10)


    Law students--especially first-year students--need to learn how to orient themselves in the vast field of legal information presented to them, a terrain in which they often find themselves lost, at least to some degree. One way to help orient students during class is to link a laptop computer to a projector. The result is an electronic blackboard that allows you to project on a screen in front of the class anything the computer is currently displaying. You can, in this way, very effectively display how to organize, analyze, and present the large amount of information the computer puts (literally) at your fingertips.

    1. Displaying Cases, Statutes, and Other Authoritative Materials

      One way to help orient students is by displaying crucial passages from cases, statutes, and other authoritative materials. If you have such materials in electronic form, you can project the text in front of the class. Displaying appropriate passages at crucial points helps students do what they often have difficulty doing on their own' focusing on the relevant language in the materials they read.(11) Here is an example from the "hairy hand" case, Hawkins v. McGee (displayed in Folio Views):(12)


      The words in the larger font are the Hawkins court's statement of the expectation measure of damages; using a large font (18-to-24 1point) sets the relevant language off from the rest and makes the type visible from the back row of a 100-seat classroom.

      Displaying key passages using a projector furthers the first two basic goals: imparting a basic knowledge of black letter rules, and developing an understanding of the underlying rationales behind the rules. To learn the rules, students have to find them in what they read, but many students have difficulty identifying the relevant rules in the ocean of information presented to them. Students can, of course, find some statement of the rules in a study guide or hornbook, but if they fail to spot the rules as they occur in cases, they fail to focus on what they crucially need to understand: the role of rules "in action"--specifically, the role rules play in deciding cases. Arriving at such an understanding is an essential part of learning the black letter law and is a necessary first step toward grasping the underlying rationale for the rule.

      Survey results confirm that displaying important passages helps students in precisely this way. Professor Peter Martin, the Co-Director of Cornell's Legal Information Institute, surveyed students in the E-LEARN section about a variety of issues during the 1995-96 academic year.(13) One factor surveyed was the students' attitude toward using a projector "to draw attention to key passages of the materials under discussion, in 'real time,' that is as they became the subject of discussion, not just as [the instructor] introduced them."(14) Martin notes that sixty-six of the sixty-eight students responding rated the use of the projector to display relevant passages as "particularly effective."(15) Anecdotal reports from instructors at other schools confirm this result.(16) We suggest that the explanation for this overwhelmingly affirmative reception is that displaying passages helps orient students in the vast field of information in which they are learning to operate. It does so by helping them identify and understand the role of legal rules.

    2. Displaying Hypotheticals and Recording Responses

      You need not, of course, confine yourself to projecting cases and other authoritative materials. Another use of the projector is to display hypotheticals.(17) As Professor Ralph Brill points out:

      When I present a hypothetical, it is written out and up on the

      screen. In the past, when I presented one in oral form, I often

      got student responses that overlooked a key fact in the hypo.

      With the full hypo there before them, this doesn't happen.

      When it was in oral form, they had to do two things at once...

      remember the hypo and reason from what they knew to the application.

      Now they don't have to worry about trying to remember

      all the facts... they are there before them.(18)

      When displaying a hypothetical, you can also record student responses. For example, if you want students to practice identifying legal issues and applying relevant...

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