April 12 (Bloomberg) -- Elite universities recognize online courses as a way to educate the masses. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology teamed up to introduce the nonprofit edX in May 2012, and Stanford, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania and University of Michigan were quick to sign on to Coursera Inc., a for-profit platform, which now offers more than 300 free courses.
We think these top institutions are missing a chance to use the Web to reinvigorate stagnated teaching methods within their own graduate and professional schools, most notably their law schools.
Case study: Harvard Law School, where we are both students.
Many of our classes feature accomplished and articulate professors lecturing for 80 minutes, three times a week. Professors spend much of this time reviewing cases, seminal court decisions that establish prevailing legal principles. Although students participate by answering a series of questions that characterize the Socratic method, classes remain anchored to the professor. And students’ online engagement remains anchored to Gmail and Facebook.
Why not shift these lectures online, and enable students to watch, rewind and rewatch them? Doing so would allow educators to supplement recordings with interactive content, reserving class for more effective engagement with professors and other students.
With the lecture on the humdrum of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy code delivered on the Web, we could devote our class time to simulating a real bankruptcy negotiation. In our criminal-law courses, the basic review of case facts and legal principles could be completed online, and plaintiff-students and defendant-students could perform mock trials in the classroom. Courses focusing on mergers and acquisitions could require drafting contracts in a workshop setting with doctrine delivered at home.
Harvard Law School already has proof that this more interactive method can work on the scale of a lecture course. Our leading negotiation workshop uses lectures sparingly; each spring, it enrolls 120 students, with a waiting list of more than 150. Despite such popularity, the course is rare in its simulation-based pedagogy, treated as a “nice to have” example of applied education. This interactive style has yet to penetrate the “must have” theoretical courses on subjects such as contracts, securities and evidence.
Harvard Business School requires students to take preparatory courses in finance and accounting online before matriculating. Armed with this foundational knowledge, students enter classrooms ready to engage. Class is dedicated to analyzing, discussing and debating real-life business decisions, with minimal time allotted for lectures on theory.
Some consider Web-based learning an inferior educational experience, to be tolerated in the interest of cutting costs. We aren’t proposing to substitute online learning for classroom learning. Our proposal may even increase teaching costs, given the additional human and technological resources required to develop, deliver and integrate online content.
Instead, we want to augment classroom learning by recognizing where we are not making the best use of our resources. We could learn more if class time was used to do what can only be done at Harvard: interact with world-class faculty and bright students. That’s our competitive advantage. We jeopardize it by relying on a passive learning environment.
Of course, it’s easier to lecture and be lectured than to constantly engage. For our model to work, incentives need to change for both the faculty and the students.
Harvard law students currently earn 100 percent of their grade, in most classes, from a final exam, thereby discounting semester-long learning and elevating end-of-semester cramming. Modifying the equation to include whole-hearted participation in a classroom-based learning experience would encourage students to watch lectures at home and come to class prepared to engage.
Similarly, publications and awards dominate the Harvard Law School tenure process. If teaching competency formed a material component of earning tenure, faculty would be more likely to take advantage of the opportunities for innovation provided by an online platform, instead of giving largely the same lecture every year.
Web-based learning can do more than open up space for more classroom interaction by putting lectures online. It can also allow law schools to teach a new set of skills in a different way.
Harvard Law School has already made significant strides in this regard: The Berkman Center for Internet & Society’s H20 initiative has reinvented the legal textbook by creating an open-source platform that allows students and professors to read collaboratively, sharing questions, edits and annotations. We think this effort should expand to become the norm.
This isn’t just about Harvard. With applications to U.S. law schools on track to reach a 30-year low and a worsening job market, even top law schools must provide students with a clearer path to achievement after graduation. As lawyers increasingly collaborate, negotiate and communicate online, our education should prepare us accordingly. We can imagine students building leadership skills by virtually climbing Mount Everest (a simulation jointly developed by Harvard Business School Publishing and Forio, based on technology that came from Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Or students could improve communication skills by designing and teaching their own curriculum through an online platform (as offered by the startup Skillshare).
Innovation in teaching is a piece of Harvard Law School’s history. As professor and dean at the school, Christopher Columbus Langdell introduced the case method of teaching, using opinions of judges to illustrate legal theory, more than 140 years ago. He brought those cases to life in the classroom through the Socratic method. Langdell’s creation has dominated the legal academy ever since. Today, U.S. law schools are poised for another teaching revolution. We hope Harvard will lead the way again.
(Raja Bobbili is a third-year law and MBA student at Harvard. He also serves as a member of the MIT Corporation, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology board of trustees. Daniel Doktori is a third-year student at Harvard Law School and was previously director of higher education for the New York governor’s office. The opinions expressed are their own.)
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