Using the Internet to Teach Law
Socio-Legal Research Fellow
School of Law
University of Warwick
Can the Internet serve any useful purpose whatsoever in the teaching of law let alone in any other discipline?
Whilst the conference clearly demonstrated that there are possibilities, it is right, I believe, to be sceptical as to the claims advanced for the Internet. Any seeming irrationality in my bias 'against' what are, after all, merely a bunch of cables, switches, computers, etc., should be seen in the context of what I would regard as the far more irrational (indeed at its worst positively dangerous) bias in favour of a 'technology' as manifested by politicians, journalists, pundits, and, yes, academics. Technology (the aforementioned cables, switches and wires) takes on a seemingly self-propelled, socially un-rooted almost mystical life of its own -paradoxically posited as both our saviour and master. It becomes equated with all that is modern indeed with knowledge itself.
We are now said to live in an 'information society', technology is seen as one of its key defining features, and for better or worse we had better jump on the bandwagon. In his piece, for example, Paliwala suggests that: 'In a rapidly changing world, the continual need to update one's knowledge and skills becomes a new imperative.' I genuinely doubt that updating really is the name of the game (rather than integrating and structuring existing knowledge), or, that the supposed need to do so is so new (rather than the product of the same old market driven imperatives (amongst others)). To suggest, furthermore, that this 'imperative has been increasingly acknowledged for law …by the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee' skirts around the issue of highly problematic nature of this imperative for education, educators and educated. Ironically, the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee has itself become a victim of this rapidly changing world (I prefer to think in terms of good old fashioned politics and policy decisions) since its abolition has been announced. On a more serious note, though, there is a tendency in wider circles to take an uncritical view of technology. Before one knows it, politicians are saying there must be a computer in every school without properly addressing the question as to whether there will be anyone there to operate it, what it will do there, who will be trained, how many children will have access, what the educational benefits will be, who will maintain the service, and so on. These sorts of questions seem to drop in as an afterthought in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of the 'green revolution' which, whatever its merits, certainly failed to live up to social expectations like the eradication of world hunger. In short, technological fixes rarely deliver social solutions.
It was refreshing, therefore, to see that so many of the contributors to the conference on law and technology (including, I should emphasise, Paliwala himself) concentrated on the apparently subsidiary (but in actual fact vitally important) questions of what the Internet really means when it is embedded in the teaching, learning and administrative context. They took the hype out of the superhighway and brought it down to earth where it should belong. I can only touch upon a few examples.
In his overview of the Internet, John Dale rightly began with the essential question: 'why use the Internet?' and proceeded to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses as a medium for delivering different kinds of material (from simple text, pictures, and audio right through to video). In effect he provided a simple evaluative framework for beginning to decide whether a technology of this kind might prove useful and what some of the key determinant factors (and pitfalls) were. Thus, for example, it is evident that far from a quick educational fix, the preparation of Internet or CDROM materials may well (indeed almost certainly will) require a much greater investment of time and resources than a standard course.
It was from the contribution of the other participants, who provided practical examples of how the technology had in actual fact been put into practice in their learning environments, that one was able to get a better sense of the potential rewards. At Lancaster University, for example, they had developed a teaching framework for tort and contract using an online notice board, question and answer sessions, together with electronic debates and seminars. Many of these events were able to take place at times of both the students and tutors convenience (which as we know is rarely the case) and without the need for a single fixed geographical location. Unfortunately, they have given it the cumbersome and confusing title of 'asynchronous computer mediated communications'. On this basis one might reasonably describe antique letters or books as asynchronous intergenerational paper mediated communication. The possibilities are endless. What was clear from the Lancaster experience, however, and that of other contributors, who had developed and used materials for delivery by Internet, intranet and CDROM (e.g Strathclyde's Delict Game), is that these forms have also provided for the possibility of reassessing key aspects of the learning experience. Thus, to give one example, there was an emphasis not, as one might expect, upon the lone individual before a computer screen, but upon small learning groups. Indeed, those participants who had gone into electronic media had quickly found themselves having to revisit educational theory. As one contributor from Strathclyde said, 'our educational basis was explicit from the outset of the project.' Indeed, Professor McConnell's piece specifically focused upon the need to question educational aims in designing Internet courses.
At this late stage, I should explain my own motives for attending the course. I teach public law to undergraduates and wanted to see what use computers might be in the curriculum in general; how they might be applied to my specific circumstances; and what the practicalities and pitfalls of so doing might be for both myself and my students. In this sense the course far exceeded my expectations. I feel that I can now make a reasonably well informed decision not only on whether but also how to proceed. If this sounds like the stage you are at and the course is repeated then (with some of the reservations I have outlined above) I would thoroughly recommend it.
Using the Internet to Teach Law seminar papers/slides.
This is a Conference Report published on 6 August 1998.
Citation: Meszaros G, 'Using the Internet to Teach Law', Conference Report, 1998 (3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/98-3/meszaros.html>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1998_3/meszaros/>