Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Aspen introduces e-case-book/course pack/management system

In an article in Legal Times, dated 9/4/07, "Skilled E-Scholars Click Their Way Up," Prof. Diana R. Donahoe (Legal Research & Writing at Georgetown Law Center) writes, largely advertising her new interactive electronic casebook, "Teaching Law," link, from Aspen. But she has interesting things to say about the changes we have all noted in student behavior and concentration styles. She notes that students in the digital age think and learn in different ways than previous generations. Prof. Donahoe compares the older "linear" forms of thinking and learning with the multi-level, "three dimensional" learning styles of students who flip between screens and programs constantly. She asserts that such students are bored by lecture and socratic method teaching. Prof. Donahoe goes ot to say that the newer generation of students also expects frequent feedback and interactive programming. They thrive, she says, on what seems distracting and chaotic to old coots like me.

Of course, a great deal of her article is taken up with the ways in which her new e-book meets the different demands of modern law students. But she has interesting things to say, though not completely unprecedented. Some parts of what Prof. Dohahoe is saying mesh with what I observe and have read about student learning. Students do learn and retain better with frequent quizzes and feedback. On the other hand, one stunning piece of the Thomson-West presentation on the future of print at AALL was that students feel they retain better when they read in print. It was a widespread response from the students they interviewed.

I also have doubts about how deeply engaged students really are when they are "multi-tasking." My colleague who shared the article with us, Prof. Beckerman-Rodau, is a notable technology user himself, but also doubts the "depth of learning" students can achieve while multi-tasking. This is often the upshot of conversations my faculty have about laptops in the classroom. Even the most techno-philes feel that they want the students to engage with them, not hide behind laptop lids. On the other hand, Prof. Donohoe is teaching research and writing, and comments on her teaching methods. She "facilitates" the students discussions in collaborative small groups, uses multi-media, and multiple screens through which she flips on a display screen.

A good deal of what Prof. Donohoe is using in class can be added with the classroom technology we have in our classrooms now. We actually use video clips, powerpoints, online screenshots and live explorations of web resources now in advance legal research class here -- I'll bet many of you do, too. We also use (as we have for decades), overhead projectors or their newer incarnations, document cameras, to project print materials. As I said in my recent post about my class, the students are learning from each other. The class session is spent discussing their adventures exploring various resources, and comparing their experiences, discussing why they prefer or detest certain tools.

I agree that students learn better, especially in skills classes, from actually doing and practicing with feedback. I am not sure these changes will benefit equally students in substantive law classes. Electronic casebooks were tried out a decade ago, with many of the same interesting features. The e-casebooks then allowed notes in the margins and highlighting of the text. And still, they were not successful. It was the STUDENTS who voted with their dollars for print versions of the casebooks. It will be interesting to see if a new generation of law students will be more enthusiastic about e-books.

I was dismayed a bit at what amounts to a lengthy advertisement for a product. But I do find it interesting both to hear what other legal educators see in new generations of "digital students." It is worth considering whether her comments apply equally to all types of law classes, and whether studies of adult learners bear out all of Prof. Donahoe's claims.

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