Ira Steven Nathenson (St. Thomas), Teaching Law Online: Yesterday and Today, But Tomorrow Never Know, 65 St. Louis U. L.J. ___ (2021):
If The Beatles were to write an album about COVID-19, they might sing, “Yesterday, all our troubles seemed so far away, but now it looks as though Zoom’s here to stay.” The Beatles were creatures of the 1960s, and to all our benefit, they chose to sing rather than go to law school. But legal educators in 2020 and beyond need to grapple with the mysteries of online teaching, something that many of us ignored “yesterday,” and which all of us will have to grapple with today and tomorrow.
So what is online legal education? Is it the use of online casebooks? CALI lessons? Websites with handouts? Online books? Zoom lectures? Is it “Live” (synchronous) or is it “Memorex” (asynchronous)? Is online legal education merely a set of technological tools or does it involve a set of dedicated pedagogies? Is it really worse than in-person teaching or is it just different? Once the pandemic ends, should online teaching continue in some form?
Such questions are starting points for a "Magical Mystery Tour" that some legal educators have taken and others have avoided, but which none can ignore any longer.
Although the role of “online” in legal education has grown over the past several decades, online teaching became a necessity in Spring 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered brick-and-mortar classrooms nationwide. Because online teaching is now necessary, it is also problematic, and law schools and legal educators need to carefully consider when, where, and how to effectively use online tools and techniques in legal education. With a Beatles lyric or two, this essay reflects on the author’s experiences with the yesterday, today, and tomorrow of online legal education. It closes with that most scholarly of prescriptions, a listing of Top Ten hits that legal educators should consider when teaching online.
As the Beatles sang in Got to Get you Into My Life: “I was alone, I took a ride, I didn’t know what I would find there.” That has been my career. My road as a legal educator and as a scholar has indeed been “long and winding.” Unlike most professors, I have chosen the path of developing online teaching tools and techniques. Now the rest of us are taking that “ride” as well as unwitting passengers as we navigate the pandemic. COVID-19 is the crisis of our lifetimes and has already led to incredible innovation in teaching. The pandemic has given license to us all to engage in the kind of experimentation and innovation that I did yesterday, but without the career risks I willingly took on yesterday, for years. Today, during COVID-19, such innovation is a moral imperative. Tomorrow, once COVID-19 ends, such innovation will likely be a professional inevitability. I am hopeful that as a profession, “we can work it out.”