Here a MOOC, There a MOOC

MOOCPop quiz – do you know what a MOOC is?  When I asked my friends over the weekend, about half of them had heard of MOOC; the other half looked at me as if I were speaking gibberish.

MOOC, for those of you who don’t know, stands for Massive Open Online Course.  It’s exactly what it says – a web-based course open to anyone anywhere in the world with internet access.  The courses often feature video lectures, presentations, quizzes, discussion boards, and continuous involvement from professors and teaching assistants.

MOOCs have been around in one form or another since 2003, but only in the last year have they really come into their own.  In fact, the New York Times declared 2012, “The Year of the MOOC.”  Coursera, one of the largest MOOC providers, claims over 4 million users since April 2012.  edX, started by MIT and Harvard, claims 1.2 million users, with courses in architecture, electronics and Shakespeare.

Now, MOOCs have moved on from free online courses to online degree-granting for-profit universities.  A recent Wall Street Journal article discussed the current project de jure, the Minerva Project.  Minerva was founded by Wharton grad and former Snapfish CEO, Ben Nelson.  The article compares Minerva to Amazon and Walmart, trying to take down the traditional bookstores and mom-and-pop stores that colleges and universities have become.

Minerva may be the future for undergraduate education.  But what about graduate education?  More specifically, law school education?  Now that’s where it gets interesting.

Law schools have been offering individual MOOC classes for the past year.  Last September, the law school at Drexel University offered an introductory course on acquisition agreements.  Earlier this year, Harvard Law offered an edX course on copyright.  And just last week, John Marshall Law School became the first Illinois law school to offer a MOOC course titled  “Military Service and Civilian Law.”

What’s the push-back?  Predictably, it’s the establishment, specifically the faculty establishment.  For example, Harvard Law Professor I. Glenn Cohen identifies three faculty concerns (1) fewer jobs for professors, (2) lower tuition, meaning less funding for professors, and (3) the quick realization that students would prefer to watch (and pay for) one excellent recorded lecturer rather than dozens of not as excellent live ones.  “I can appreciate the difference between seeing Henry V live versus those wonderful 1970s-80s BBC Shakespeare versions,” the professor noted.  “However, whatever “performance” value live lectures have of that sort strike me as a fairly light benefit if costs could be dramatically cut.”

That last point is similar to one Stephen Diamond, Associate Professor at Santa Clara Law, raises here, but in a more positive light.  Instead of lecturing, he says professors will focus more on small group seminars and training workshops.  Doing so would achieve the dual goal of today’s law schools – better training at lower costs.  As Professor Diamond writes: “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.”

But that just leaves the most important question of all – do MOOCs work?

I, ever adventurous, thought I should do my own personal experimenting.  A quick look here will list all of the law-type courses offered by MOOC providers, i.e., ones not through a traditional law school.  For 2013, courses covered English common law, U.S and international criminal law, and business law and ethics.  The U.S. criminal course, offered by Canvas Network,  started on August 19, 2013.  I decided to enroll.  It’s free after all.

Was I successful?  Come back on Thursday and find out how my first MOOC experience went.  Meanwhile, sound off in our comments with your thoughts on MOOCs and whether the law school world will become a MOOC world, after all.

“MOOC” Picture © Mathieu Plourde

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *