Teaching a Law Seminar over the Internet
Internet email is a fast, efficient, and inexpensive way to exchange written communication. Given a subject of special interest to a small number of students scattered around the United States at different law schools, teaching a law seminar over the internet through email can be an effective way of reaching those students. This teaching method has its own unique advantages, which include intensive writing and substantial student/teacher interaction. The potential for this method is most promising when students or faculty are separated by substantial physical distances. In legal education such a method would be most appropriate for subjects such as international and comparative law where students and faculty from different countries would create a rich learning environment.
A cynic might describe a law seminar taught over the internet as nothing more than a fancy correspondence course--an example of cold and impersonal distance learning. This same cynic might assert that true learning can take place only when the student meets the teacher in the flesh. An internet enthusiast, however, justifiably can view such a seminar as an example of the transcendent nature of the internet where communications can take place without the communicants occupying the same time and place. In fact, once communication is unshackled from the confines of place, the world becomes a classroom occupied by a world of students and a world of teachers. For students looking for coursework, the internet may provide learning opportunities without limitation. How is this possible?
Keywords: Internet, Teaching, Email, Seminar
- 1. The Wonder of Internet Email
- 2. Can a Law Course be Taught to Remote Students Using Internet Email?
- 3. What Email Cannot Provide
- 4. Where Email is as Good or Better than Live Contact
- 5. Current Course
- 5.1 Some Background
- 5.2 The Seminar
- 5.3 Need for an Internet Course
- 5.4 Adaptability to the Internet
- 5.5 Getting things Started
- 5.6 Conducting the Course
- 5.7 Evaluation of the Results
- 6. The Future
- 7. Conclusion
Date of publication: 30 September 1996
Citation: Taylor S (1996) 'Teaching a Law Seminar over the Internet', BILETA '96 Conference Proceedings, 1996 (3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/elj/jilt/bileta/1996/3taylor/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1996_3/special/taylor/>
Through internet email two or more people can exchange written communication within a matter of seconds from anywhere in the world. For example, a law student at the University of Canberra can send an internet email message to a law student at the University of New Mexico. The student in New Mexico will receive the message in a matter of seconds or minutes and can respond in the time it takes to write a response. And if the recipient is not at a computer to receive the email message immediately, the message will be there waiting when the student in New Mexico logs on to a newtworked computer.
Some of my law teaching colleagues ask: "What is so special about email?" The answer: it is fast and so cheap that it is virtually free. Speed and cheapness make email very special. Telephones admittedly provide for immediate and live interactive conversation, which is nice, but long distance calls are VERY expensive and effectively preclude the development of a sustained intellectual conversation--one that may require pauses, reflection, refinements, and so on. In contrast, traditional letters are relatively inexpensive (the cost of stationary, envelope, and postage) and contain the identical written content as email. Unfortunately, letters mailed from one continent to another typically take five to fifteen days to be delivered. With email, several exchanges a day can occur with little disruption to the schedules of the participants. Speed and cheapness, the strengths of email, also constitute its major drawback. Without some type of self-imposed controls or software-managed filters, one can easily drown in an ocean of daily email messages. Once managed, email is just amazing and allows communication among individuals that otherwise never would or could occur.
If internet email means that students and teachers having access to networked computers or to a commercial on-line service can communicate with each other regardless of time or geography with little or no concern for cost, what prevents a group of students and a teacher from forming a course in which most or all of the necessary communication takes place through internet email? Nothing, actually, other than academic administrators who say that it not permitted. Whether email can serve as the means for communicating between and among students and teacher should depend on the negative and positive effects that email will have on student learning.
Physical presence. Obviously, students located far away from the teacher will not have face-to-face contact. The absence of the teacher's physical presence may be no big loss, however, if the only actual contact given up is the teacher's presence in a lecture hall filled with other students. If the student also has tutorial contact with the teacher, then email contact may be a less effective means of instruction. Certainly, the interactive and immediate stimulation of a one-on-one tutorial can be a rich learning experience for the student. Physical presence, at least in a one-on-one meeting, forces responsiveness from both parties. Email is easier to ignore, although teachers can force students not to ignore it.
Oral speech. Email cannot provide oral speech. For students who learn best by listening to spoken words, email might work if the student gets someone to read the email message out loud. Unless the reader is unusually skilled in and capable of dramatic and animated intonations, a read email message will probably not be a suitable substitute for the student who learns best by listening to spoken words from a good lecturer.
Behavioral speech and body language. Email, because it is written speech, cannot duplicate the many nuances that come with behavioral speech--smile, frown, folded arms, tapping foot of boredom, grimace, gestures, empty gaze, laughter. So, to the extent that these forms of non-verbal communication are important, email students lose this perspective.
Immediate interactivity. When students and teacher are present in one room at one time, a group discussion can develop where each participant, assuming a small group, can react to statements of others. The ensuing discussion can be stimulating and educational. Email permits group interactivity, but it is not immediate.
Written speech. Email, because it is written speech, requires the participant to make statements or ask questions in writing. Written speech, as we know, is fundamentally different from oral speech. Oral speech comes with all sorts of non-verbal cues that help convey meaning. Oral speech is more nuanced because of intonation. Irony, for example, is easier to detect in oral speech because the speaker will use an ironic tone. Oral speech is also quite contingent. The listener provides both verbal and non-verbal cues that the speaker's meaning is or is not getting through. This allows the speaker to go back and rephrase.
Written speech, in contrast, evokes no immediate response from the reader. Usually, the writer must assemble and complete all parts of the message and make sure that each part, especially where the message is cumulative, is clear. Written speech tends to be more concise. Email, because it uses only written speech, forces the participant to write the message. The writing process, because it requires more care than oral speech, often causes the writer to pause and think more about the content of the messages. Most of us have experienced the frustration of making an oral statement or argument that sounds quite good but ends up not sounding very impressive once reduced to writing. Writing forces reflection and often induces a better understanding of the content of the message. The process of writing, then, often forces the writer to understand his or her own thoughts. And because writers will usually reread what they have written and make necessary revisions, especially when using a computer with a word processing program, the content becomes even more thoughtful. Most law teachers believe that their students' writing skills need refinement. Email provides practice in writing. And if the subject matter is legal, the student will benefit from the practice of stating legal concepts in writing.
Access. Email actually provides more communicative access among students and between student and teacher. Communication among students in the same locale is actually easier because the message will get through, assuming the recipient reads it (we email users know that there are many out there who do not read their email or pretend not to). Students do not have to make appointments to see each other or wait until a free time just before or just after class. Also, through software, a student can send a message to all students in a class. Such a message may be impractical if the teacher does not want to give up class time for the message. If students are geographically remote from one another, then email is the only practical and affordable way for relatively speedy communication. Students also have more access to the teacher if the teacher is willing to respond. I have found that email messages containing student questions or comments take less time than a face-to-face meeting in my office because the question is concise and the answer often straight forward. Also, social pleasantries are not necessary. There is no: "Hello, how are you, nice weather we've been having, did you have a good weekend, what's new?" Students can also ask their questions when they want to and do not have to wait until the next scheduled office hours. For students out in cyberspace, email is the only effective means of communicating with a geographically remote teacher.
Reflection. Because an email participant usually can respond to an email message when he or she is ready, reflection is natural. In a classroom or tutorial setting, a student is expected to respond to questions within a very short period of time, usually less than five or ten seconds. If a student would learn more if given time to reflect on and think about the question, then email provides a better learning experience in such a case. Reflection is an essential ingredient in the learning process and is especially useful when learning new concepts or refining complex or sophisticated ones.
Afterthoughts. Email permits the writer to send afterthoughts relating to the initial communication. It is quite common for an email sender to transmit a message starting out: "Oh, I forgot to mention that...." In a face-to-face context, adding afterthoughts may be difficult if the afterthought comes after the teacher and student end their class or conference.
Individualized instruction and discussion. Assuming the teacher has time or is willing to take the time, email can provide a good setting for individualized instruction. But for the lack of immediate interactivity found in a one-on-one meeting, email is just as individualized.
Recordation. If important, any or all parties to an email discussion can keep an archive of all of the email messages. This could be most useful where two or more people are working together on a writing project. A record is also quite helpful when the discussion involves a deliberation or an effort to reach a consensus. The messages provide a reliable record of the course of discussion. Matters discussed a few days or weeks ago can be revisited where necessary.
Personal autonomy. In the United States at least, virtually all new computers have high speed modems. Most law school computer networks allow phone dialups. Also, most law students now have home computers. Some law schools now require students to purchase computers. And in cases where internet access is not available through dialups, commercial on-line services provide internet email services at a very affordable price ($10 to $20 per month). This means that a student or a teacher can, if he or she chooses, do email related work at home. Home may provide an excellent learning environment. Time of work becomes less of a concern. The student can work at the times of day that are best for the student. Also, students can save the time and expense of commuting to physical classes that are wholly replaced by email instruction.
Variable Remote Access. Students and teacher can communicate with each other no matter where they are in the world so long as they have access to a computer that can be linked to the internet. In essence, an email from one floor away is identical to one that comes from someone 12,000 miles away. Remote access is the most exciting characteristic of email. This remote access facilitates the building of interesting teaching teams, it permits students from different schools to participate in the same class, and it makes scheduling relatively unimportant so long as participants are responding within a workable period of time.
Efficiency. Email can be an especially efficient means of communication because the participants do not have to simultaneously share the same time and location. Telephones, for a century now, have freed us of the location requirement, but they still require the participants to use the device at the same time unless they are willing to pursue the discussion through voice mail. With email, the participants need not synchronize the time and place of their communications.
Transmission of documents. Email, because it transmits written language in a digital format, easily transfers documents between and among participants. This facilitates copying, editing, and distribution. An email distribution list can send a document to all the seminar participants in a few seconds. There is no need for photocopying and physical delivery of the text. And readers usually have the option of printing the email text.
Collaboration. Email, because it can easily accommodate communication within a group of participants, facilitates collaborative learning. Traditional classes, lectures, and tutorials meet at a fixed and regular time. Teachers use this approach for good reason: scheduling a time for 10-20 people to meet on a meeting-by-meeting basis is a time-consuming and difficult task. Chairs of faculty committees know this to be true. One often spends more time scheduling and rescheduling meetings than having them. With email, all the effort goes into group communication, which, although not as immediate as a live meeting, furthers the collaborative effort of learning.
At the University of New Mexico, I have taught a seminar dealing with taxation in Indian Country. In the United States, our legal system refers to indigenous peoples as "Indians." Use of the term "Indian" is somewhat ironic because it describes groups of peoples who Columbus mistook as inhabitants of India. Nonetheless, treaties, statutes, regulations, cases, and other legal authority uniformly refer to the indigenous peoples within the United States as "Indians."
"Indian Country," a term initially used to describe the land areas that were beyond the boundaries of the first states and that were occupied and controlled by the various Indian nations, tribes, and bands, now refers to certain lands that the federal government recognizes as owned by members of tribes and/or subject to the governmental power of tribes. In the federal/state system of the United States, a dominant theme in federal Indian law has been the limitation of state control over activities within Indian Country. Naturally, states have often attempted and continue to try to tax anything and everything within their borders, including activity within Indian Country. In addition, the reach of federal taxation statutes is often unclear. And finally, it is now commonplace for tribes to impose their own taxes on activities that take place within Indian Country.
Since the late 1960s, the University of New Mexico has been a leader in training Indian law students. Usually, 8-10% of our students are Indians, who we now more commonly refer to as Native Americans. Many of these Native American students, along with a substantial number of non-Native American students, leave law school and practice law in the legal departments of tribes, serve as tribal judges, work in law firms with an Indian law practice, or work for legal aid offices serving Native American clients. Much of the work of these graduates involves taxation issues. Accordingly, the law school and I have offered this seminar on taxation in Indian Country for the last six years in an effort to meet the professional needs of a substantial segment of our student population.
The seminar usually has a small enrollment ranging from 8-16 students. During the first third of the semester, the students read the leading cases in Indian law and the leading Indian tax cases. Each student is assigned his or her share of these cases and writes a case note for each assigned case. The students distribute these case notes to one another using email and then discuss their cases in class meetings.
When we are done reviewing the cases, the students begin working on problems taken from pending cases or proposed transactions. These cases and transactions come from contacts I have with various tribes and lawyers who work for tribes. Each problem is assigned to two to four students. I encourage these students to work together on research, but each student is responsible for writing an individual memo. The problems are real and the research is completely open. The students rely heavily on Westlaw and Lexis, along with specialized tax materials. Many of the problems have no definite answers based on the law we currently have. During this period, each student writes five memos. These average four to ten pages in length depending on the complexity of the problem and the amount of legal authority to be found. The students send their memos to one another via email. During class meetings, the students present and discuss their memos. We usually discuss one problem per class.
At the end of the class, the students will have a complete set of casenotes and memos. Students have found this set of student-produced materials to be valuable in their later work in the Indian tax area.
Most law schools in the United States do not have sufficient student interest to justify the offering of a seminar on Taxation in Indian Country. In addition, most law schools do not have faculty with expertise in the area. Nonetheless, many law schools have one or two students who would very much like to take such a course because they know that taxation represents a substantial practice area in American Indian law. In many cases, these interested law students have worked for tribes or firms and have done some research on taxation issues. Because Native American students are spread out over the entire country at numerous law schools, the internet is a convenient way to reach these students and to help them learn the material.
A seminar of this type is especially conducive to an email/internet format because the bulk of the student work involves assigned readings, extensive research, and ample writing. Although the class meetings facilitate student understanding of the assigned readings or the memos, the bulk of the learning comes through self-study, research, and analytical writing. Because I have already made the use of email a critical part of the course, reaching other students through the internet requires very little structural change.
Getting an internet course started is a daunting task. Those of us in law teaching usually do not have to recruit students into our classes. Instead, students register, show up, attend class, do readings, and take an exam. The infrastructure is already there.
My first hurdle was convincing my dean that my school should underwrite this effort. He was very supportive of the proposal. He and I talked about financial matters, and he agreed that initially it would be easiest if the University of New Mexico Law School did not try to charge tuition for those students attending through the internet. He made this concession in the spirit of experimentation and innovation.
The next step was to recruit students. I telephoned law professors teaching Indian law at other law schools and asked them if they knew of any students who might want to take the course. Professor Raymond Cross at the University of Montana and Professor Richard Monette at the University of Wisconsin were enthusiastic about the proposal and said that they were sure that there would be several students interested in taking such a course. They both agreed to supervise any students under an independent study arrangement. This would allow the students to receive academic credit for their work.
I also sent out an announcement on the Native-L listserv. Much to my surprise, the response was substantial, although most of the individuals who responded were not law students. Instead, those responding were a variety of people interested in tribal taxation. Most of them had some tribal connection. This experience showed me that courses for non-lawyers might be devised or that non-lawyers might be invited to participate in the law seminar if their interest and background would enhance the learning of the students.
For the 1995 fall semester, I ended up with five internet law students: two from the University of Montana, one from the University of Ottawa, one from Washburn University in Kansas, and one from the University of Wisconsin. Each of these five students signed up for independent study coursework under the supervision of a law professor at his or her home school. Each supervising professor and I agreed to do a joint assessment of the work of the student being supervised.
In the end, the class was composed of ten local and five internet students. Of these fifteen students, eleven were Native American and four were not.
To help the internet students know what was going on in the live class, a University of New Mexico law student took class notes and sent them to the internet students. During the first third of the semester, each student had to write five to six casenotes on assigned cases. The students circulated these casenotes via email. The internet students received these casenotes and in turn sent their casenotes to all the members of the class. During the class meetings, we discussed four to five of the assigned cases. Each student was in charge of leading the discussion on the case in which he or she had written the casenote. I presented the cases assigned to the internet students. To encourage the sense of community, I required each student to write a short biography. I compiled these and distributed them to the class. This made the students have a stronger sense of one another.
Following the case study portion of the class, the students researched the law on various topics taken from actual clients. The first involved an employee of a tribe in northern Minnesota. The second involved consultation work with the tax administrator of a northern New Mexico pueblo (a type of American Indian tribe located in the American Southwest). I encouraged the internet students to look for projects taken from their geographical areas. The two Montana students worked on a project for a Montana tribe. I worked closely with the students and their professor to frame and narrow the questions. The University of Ottawa student developed two of her own projects dealing with the law of indigenous peoples in Canada. The other internet students opted to work on the problems involving the Minnesota and New Mexico projects.
The students sent their memos to each other via email. I encouraged, but did not require, the students to collaborate with each other. The two Montana students worked closely with each other and divided the parts of their projects. The other internet students worked mostly on their own under my close supervision. The exchanges between the internet students and me were quite productive and extensive. These exchanges involved narrow, technical issues and also broad policy questions.
I provided all of the students with written comments on their individual memos. For the local students, I printed their memos and provided hand-written comments. For the internet students, I provided email comments that I wrote to them by interlineating within the memo. At the conclusion of the course, I conferred with the professors involved, one by phone and the others by email. Through a series of exchanges, we agreed on the appropriate assessment of the work.
I also had extensive email discussions with one of the local students. This occurred because she was shy in person but not the least bit shy on email. For her, email facilitated our discussion and interchange. The other local students tended not to use email for interchanges. Perhaps they felt that class discussion provided a sufficient outlet.
To help all of the students master the material, I provided a brief digest of all of the assigned readings. I also provided a study outline of the course material. This helped all of the students to synthesize the material after initial reading and after working on each memo assignment.
Technical difficulties. The technical difficulties were not major. The Montana students had first-rate support from the computing staff at that school. The University of Ottawa student used the computing facilities at another university and initially had problems uploading her written work for email transmission. The Wisconsin student initially had problems because his work was coming through in an encoded version. The Washburn student had no difficulties. Two of the local students had problems because they were unfamiliar with the uploading process. Some students had some virus problems. Email transmissions were sometimes difficult. I received the internet email and then retransmitted. Sometimes the email would have irregular margins and would be difficult to read. To counter this problem, I reconverted the files. I set up an email distribution list for use by all of the local students. Changing this list was sometimes difficult. I had to go through our computing staff to change the list because I did not have sufficient privilege to change the list.
Strengths of the Course. The underlying strength of the course remains its clinical approach. The students work on real problems of real clients and are required to do real research. Students find this method challenging and engaging. They see the value of learning the material because it has immediate application in the memos. This foundational strength of the course remains the same whether it is taught live or by email over the internet. The students receive the same written comments. The internet students actually took advantage of the opportunity to communicate freely and often with me. Most of them commented that they had more access and discussion with me than they had ever had with other professors at their home schools. Ironically, I felt that I knew my internet students better than my local students. Perhaps email facilitates an intellectual immediacy not found in the classroom. My collaboration with other colleagues at other schools was also an important benefit. Our assessment discussions illustrated that we were all looking for the same things: clear writing, logical analysis, complete research, and creative thinking.
Weaknesses of the Course. The internet students, although they interacted actively with me, did not interact actively with one another. By circulating the biographies with email addresses, I had hoped that some students might start writing one another about course related matters, but that did not occur. In retrospect, I am sure that most students were already writing so much in the class that they were not interested in writing much more. I am teaching the course again this semester and plan on requiring some internet collaboration. At this point, I plan on requiring shared research and editing of written work. The course also is a fair amount of work for the teacher. For myself, I found the email exchanges stimulating because the internet students had questions and comments that challenged me.
My school is treating the experiment as a success and will continue to permit me to offer the class to about four or five internet students each time I teach the seminar. Filling those slots will not be a problem based on the inquiries that I continue to receive. I am teaching the seminar currently and have five internet students. Three are from the University of Wisconsin, one from the University of Detroit (Michigan), and one from the University of Washington. The five students are under the supervision of four different professors.
If possible, I would like to extend the use of internet technology. In the near future, I plan on putting up a home page for the students to use. In addition, I would like to use internet video conferencing to have some real time meetings among the students. Unfortunately, when the technology gets more sophisticated, some students will be excluded from participation. To participate, a student would have to have access to the latest software and technology. With an email only approach, only access to internet email is necessary. This is now available at virtually all American law schools.
The University of Montana and the University of Ottawa, because of their participation in this project, are interested in offering their own internet courses. The University of Montana is looking into the possibility of offering a certificate program in American Indian Law where some of the coursework would be done over the internet.
If internet seminars become widespread, law schools will have to agree on a method of enrollment, credit, tuition, and assessment. If enough schools start offering internet seminars, then cooperatives make a lot of sense. Under a cooperative system, students would pay tuition to their home school but have the right to take courses from other participating schools. Private law schools would probably restrict student access to such courses if it meant the loss of tuition money. Cooperatives, however, would permit students from participating schools to enroll without a school losing any tuition revenue. Some accounting mechanism might be necessary to insure that participating schools offer their share of courses.
The American Bar Association (ABA), the authority that accredits American law schools, currently has no guidelines on internet classes. The ABA's current regulations are quite archaic and reflect an obsession with counting minutes, hours, weeks, months, and years of classroom attendance. It is virtually certain that any new regulations dealing with internet seminars will have to await the arrival of the next century.
An internet law seminar can offer students a unique learning experience. Of necessity, the experience will involve ample amounts of legal writing, much of it interactive. In addition, a specialized seminar can meet the subject matter interests of unique student populations who otherwise would be unable to take such a seminar. Such a seminar also offers the opportunity for student and faculty from different schools to collaborate with one another.