Tuesday, December 13, 2005

OK, the Medium Is the Message. Now What?

Betsy's post earlier today makes some important observations, many of which are worthy of comment:

"The medium transforms and subtly shapes our reading of the message." Yes, but I don't think the influence flows only in one direction. I don't really think we are at the mercy of technology. Blaming the scanning, skimming, dipping, and scooping that Betsy observes in her students' writing on technology is simply the negative version of the sort of naive technological determinism that once suggested that "the Web means that the public will get better information than ever before." Social informatics research indicates that specific technologies are adopted when they reinforce, rather than undermining, existing structures of power and communities of discourse. In other words, students adopt technology that allows them to "research" by scanning and skimming. The inclination to conduct research this way comes from elsewhere. The good news is that this suggests that the habit of scanning and skimming can be unlearned, and is not an essential part of using online technology. Students need to be taught to use the technology differently.

"Even when they went to the books at my insistence, they skipped around and cherry-picked for citations and high points. They used the treatises the same way they skip around in an electronic journal article. They don't actually seem to read the content at all, which should be disturbing to anybody who is thinking about this. They just use it to find the cases. And then, they use the cases to do the analysis for them." Of course--that's the sort of behavior that the pressures of law school demand. Betsy seems to fear that this same behavior, when carried out in the world of practice, will lead to a decline in the quality of legal practice--"causing a sea change in the practice of law." I'm not so sure. I suspect that the market will exert some pressure here. Law school grads who don't know how to research and do legal analysis will find themselves losing cases; law school grads who do have these skills will win. Ultimately, lawyers will have to learn the skills of research and analysis one way or another.

This is nothing new. The larger law firms have always (well, for a long time, anyway) provided a de facto apprenticeship for young attorneys. This has always meant that those wealthy enough to afford legal representation by large law firms had a significant advantage over those who could not afford such representation.

That is my point--this is nothing new. Certainly, complain about the problems of online research--it is not perfect. Neither is book research, no matter what nostalgia might lead us to believe. The point is that we--law librarians and law professors--have to learn to adapt. We have to come to understand the strengths and weaknesses of online research--which, like it or not, is going to be the dominant mode in the future--and teach law students to use it effectively. As John Mayer of CALI has said, the students are natives of the online world--we are the foreigners. However, we are the natives (well, naturalized citizens) of the legal world. We need to bring the two together.

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