Massive, Free Online Classes Catch on With Law Schools
The University of North Carolina’s Introduction to Environmental Law and Policy MOOC is not being offered through the law school; it is a more general version of an existing undergraduate course, said professor Don Hornstein. But the content may appeal to lawyers or anyone interested in the environment, he said.
"I really want to introduce people to environmental law and give them a sense of what the body of environmental law looks like," Hornstein said.
The course will begin on September 16 and will last for six weeks. Each week, students will have access to four 15-minute-long video lecture segments. They will have weekly readings available for free—typically, a legal opinion that has been condensed and edited to make it more accessible to nonlawyers. (For students who lack even the time for that, Hornstein will post a minute-long segment that covers the gist of the readings.)
Students will take a weekly quiz on the material and may opt to complete a short essay or research assignment. (The assignments are graded through a peer review system, with students evaluating each other’s work.)
Even with interactive components, Hornstein understands that the vast majority of the 20,000 people who have registered for the class will not complete it.
"In general, with MOOCs, you get a huge number of people up front, but the dropout rate is staggering," he said. "It’s even more shocking when you break it down. Half the people who sign up never even take the first class. I’d be happy if 15 to 20 percent of my students stayed."
The fact that students aren’t paying for the course and won’t receive credits makes the decision to drop out much easier, Hornstein added.
Few legal educators understand how difficult it is to engage MOOC students as well as Karl Okamoto, a professor at Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law. He was one of the first law professors to design and offer a MOOC, as part of his LawMeets initiative, which teaches transaction skills to law students via online courses and interactive competitions.
Last fall, LawMeets hosted a two-week MOOC called the Basics of Acquisition Agreements, which combined online lectures with four interactive simulations allowing students to submit videos of themselves counseling hypothetical business clients. The simulations were intended to engage students, but few actually participated. Of the 800 people who signed up, 500 watched at least one of the video lectures, 120 submitted a video exercise and 30 completed all four of the simulations, Okamoto said.
"The usual complaint about MOOCs is that it’s just taping people’s lectures, which is not a particularly effective teaching method," he said. "We found that people were vaguely interested in watching the lectures, but the drop-off in the number of people who actually did the exercises was significant. We think the exercises are the most important part."