Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have spread across the
landscape of higher education like an invasive plant species.
I disagree. I think that a few experiments are getting a lot of media
coverage at the moment, but this is all going to die down very fast as soon as
everyone starts focusing on the dropout rate for MOOCS which is 90% or
more of the people who sign up for them. As Schrag concedes in the paper,
lot of the breathless media coverage emphasizes the starting numbers and fails
to disclose the completion numbers. This is all going to look like the
furor over Second Life (a virtual reality game) or Segways (which didn’t
replace cars or bikes after all) in a few years.
all students learn best when there is another human being participating in
their learning. Full stop, end of discussion. This is why “flipping the
classroom” works so well—it focuses class time on engaged faculty-student
interaction, leaving MOOC-like content to the out-of-class time.
Although few people had heard of MOOCs before 2012, these
internet-based courses, taught by university professors, are now routinely
offered simultaneously to tens of thousands or in some cases, hundreds of
thousands of people.
learning has been slowly growing in popularity over the last 30-40 years
(delivered by cable TV and public broadcasting and videocassette before the
Internet), Schrag concedes in the paper that this is nothing new. I
didn’t notice any evidence from Schrag’s paper that he has either taught or
studied in a distance education course. I
taught internet-only online courses in the 1990s but gave it up when it became
obvious that either you spend just as much time teaching as you would with a
live class, or you spend 10-100 times as much time preparing really helpful
online materials to replace human interaction, which I didn’t want to do (but
that is what CALI www.CALI.org does). I recently took an internet-only
course from my local community college on a topic related to the Sales Law course
I teach (supply chain management). The teacher spent a lot of time giving
feedback, there was a lot of homework, it was like a traditional course. Schrag
is clearly correct that improvements in machine scoring of student work may be
a major technological advance that can help improve the quality of distance
education, but MOOCs generally are much more similar to their predecessors than
a lot of the media hype recognizes.
Most MOOCs are still provided free of charge, but the two
companies and one non-profit entity that promote MOOCs and provide the software
have recently created partnerships with institutions of higher education in
order to realize substantial revenues by offering MOOCs for academic credit to
tuition-paying students at colleges and universities.
out five new businesses fail in the bricks and mortar world, the failure rate
is higher for online enterprises. If these 3 organizations are all still around
in 10 years, the odds are overwhelming that they will have radically changed
their business model because I am pretty sure the MOOC delivery business model
is going to be a loser. Remember the dot.com companies that all went bust
after it became obvious that they couldn’t undercut traditional merchants’
prices, pay shipping costs, pay for TV ads to drive traffic to their sites, and
stay in business after the venture capital funds ran out?
contrast, Khan Academy content is being used to help teachers improve the quality of time they spend with
students, not replacing or downgrading teachers, so I’d be prepared to bet
money that it will thrive and prosper.
Schrag notes in his paper, the faculty at San Jose State University Philosophy
Department did a good job of explaining why purchased content like MOOCs is probably
much less relevant than it might appear in their open letter to Michael Sandel
explaining why they would not be using his video lectures that their university
administration had recently purchased:
"Despite resistance from professors at some institutions,
MOOCs for credit are proliferating rapidly. This development has great
significance for the future of legal education, because most law schools are
experiencing an economic crisis and are searching for ways to cut costs and
lower tuition so that they can fill their classes and remain viable. Already,
some law schools are offering academic credit for distance learning, within
limits permitted by the Section of Legal Education of the American Bar
Association — limits that may soon be relaxed."
schools have been offering Internet only LLMs for more than a decade, and US
business schools offer business law courses internet-only. The US legal accreditation
bodies should study those models and update their accreditation rules to permit
pedagogically valid distance learning. MBA accreditation rules were
relaxed in the 1990s to permit distance education, and as far as I know the
main delivery model that emerged is hybrid online/offline offerings with real
faculty, not poorly paid lecturers supporting MOOC-like content. For UK
LLM programs, I bet the students in bricks and mortar UK LLM programs outnumber
the internet only students by more than 100 to 1.
Within ten years, MOOCs could replace traditional law
school classes altogether, except at a few elite law schools that produce
lawyers to serve large corporations and wealthy individuals.
We do not all order groceries on the Internet and the traditional grocery
stores have not all gone out of business like everyone predicted during the
However, most law schools might survive by embracing rather
than resisting internet-based learning. They could cut costs by reducing
faculty and staff positions, using MOOCs for the delivery of most of the legal
information that students need, hiring part-time lawyers to help students with
exercises to supplement the MOOCs, and concentrating the remaining full-time
faculty on first-semester offerings, writing seminars, and clinics. Sadly, the
result will be a watered-down form of legal education compared to the three
years of interactive experiences that law schools have offered students for the
last century. But it may be the only way in which most law schools can
This conclusion assumes that current law faculty are only smart enough to deliver
curriculum in its current form, and too dumb to adapt to changing conditions. If we accept the challenge of learning to do more with less, then we can improve student learning outcomes, lower our costs and preserve our jobs in something quite similar to their current form, although overall staffing might be leaner in the future.
Faculty-student ratios apparently do not play a major role in US News rankings, and law school staffing could be considerably leaner if the 2L/3L curriculum were rationalized.
I suspect the real innovations are going to start coming in expensive 3rd & 4th quartile law schools when the faculty members there realize that their law
school may close. Bill Henderson did a good job of explaining the challenges they face in in his op-ed piece styled as advice to a university president with a money-losing law school:
It is usually pretty hard to find the motivation to make profound institutional changes without a genuine sense of crisis.
After I shared some of the above comments with colleagues at my law school, I got the following follow-up questions:
you think law schools have the ability to achieve the goal of more for less?
I study the impact of globalization on business. In the last 30 years, pretty
much all American businesses that haven’t gone bankrupt and don’t provide
“truly local” services (lawn mowing, hair cutting, home health aide) have been
forced to learn to do more with less. If law professors can’t do it, then we
aren’t as smart as business managers. I assume we are.
How would you…provide a superior legal education for $20,000/year in student
Faculty will have to be more accountable about how their time and effort translate into improved student learning outcomes. Lawyers record their work by hours
and have to justify their productivity to their clients. If law
professors can’t do that, then we aren’t as smart as attorneys in
practice. I assume we are.
would go a lot faster if faculty committed to rethinking what they do from the
bottom up. Without the tenure system, anyone who didn’t want to
participate could either find another line of work or retire. Tenure
complicates the analysis. I have always assumed tenure would be abolished
during my working life because it creates so many perverse incentives.
Extremely strong for-cause dismissal rules and longer term contracts would
deliver 99% of the benefits of tenure and remove most of the abuses. I
have always tried to act as a faculty member as though I didn’t have
Does [legal education reform] include subsidies from other
revenue generating enterprises, or is it truly self-sustaining?
assume it would be self-sustaining. I’m not aware of a lot of unmet
market opportunities for legal instruction that we could capture without taking
our focus off the main challenge--reorganizing to become more efficient at our
What would the smart faculty do to adapt that does not
cannibalize students/revenue from other law schools?
Develop a legal education model to train lawyers to serve the 70% of Americans in
between the poor and the rich who are largely priced out of the current market
for legal services? There’s huge unmet demand for legal services in the
US, but the current organization of the legal profession encourages competing
by adding more features, not by lowering the price.
Will scholarship continue to be relevant? Does it
contribute to educational outcomes substantially enough to have remain work
paying faculty for?
The amount of time faculty spend on “scholarship” has increased enormously in
recent decades as part of the chasing rankings/cartel behavior. One way
to remedy this would be to recognize the reorganization of existing law school
courses to make them pedagogically more effective as a valid alternative to
publishing articles that are mostly unread anyway. I’m sure the faculty as a
collegial body could come up with other ideas for encouraging faculty to
justify more rigorously the time they spend on teaching and scholarship related
If tenure is abolished, does lack of scholarship remain part of the assessment framework? Poor teaching? No service? In other words, by removing tenure, you force the question of whether it is reasonable to have a faculty with some heavy scholars, some heavy teachers, etc., but not requiring everyone to be a jack-of-all-trades?
I’m not claiming to have any answers at this level of detail. I’m saying I am
completely confident that law school faculties as collegial bodies can come up
with good solutions to these problems if we first committed ourselves to
looking for them. I personally am going
to be trying “team-based learning” teambasedlearning.org in my classes in
2013-2014, that seems to me to be a very promising new direction for improving
learning outcomes. I think that’s a good
example of the kind of faculty-led innovation that can help us move beyond
cartel thinking and reduce the cost of quality education.
More fundamentally, if the salaries of lawyers drop to serve the unmet needs,
will that have an effect on who is attracted to law and to law schools?
Notably, if lawyers graduating from UWLS make an average of $60K leaving
school, what would the advantage be of the premium $20K/year product over the
$5k/year MOOC Law? Would we add enough value over a MOOC to warrant the
someone tried to offer a MOOC law school and set the tuition at $5K, it would
cost millions of dollars to develop or it would fail. Most students will
not pay $5K a year for machine-mediated MOOC education if bricks and mortar law
schools reorganize to deliver better learning outcomes. NB Concord Law
School (now owned by Kaplan) tuition is $10,000 a year, not $5,000, and the JD
takes 4 years.
online instruction, you either pay for humans to work with basic content or you
pay a ton of money up front to develop quality content, it is a tradeoff. Improvements in machine-scoring of student
performance is an important technological advance on the big up-front
development cost side that may significantly lower delivery costs on the back
end, but I don’t believe it really addresses the fundamental need for human
engagement in learning. That’s why the
most obvious application for these technological innovations is improving the
quality of human-mediated instruction in existing institutions, not lowering
the quality of instruction in existing institutions, or the creation of competing
for-profit machine-mediated instructional institutions.