In yesterday's post, I explained some of the background and thinking that went into the Skills & Values Series of hybrid law school textbooks. Today, I provide more information about how they have worked in my classes.
So - why do I think these books are working in my courses? Primarily for three reasons. First, and perhaps most importantly, I saw no diminution of performance on the part of my students from the time before I substituted my own textbook for the one I had been using previously in each course. My rubrics in each course, and grading at the end of each semester, are statistically the same before and after the switch. The quality of the work product they produce is the same. Their achievement of the learning goals for each course are functionally indistinguishable. So I believe students are still learning the requisite material and meeting my learning goals for each course, even with the new textbook.
Second, one of the reasons I created these books is that I have long worried that our students are not doing the reading we assign. Or not regularly anyway. In the first year “socratic” classes, the threat of being called on in class seems to get students to read the material, at least most of the time. I generally do not like teaching with sticks, but prefer to offer carrots instead. In a skills class it is even more awkward. You can certainly start each class with a quiz on the assigned reading, and I have known colleagues who do that. But again, I would rather not. To me, it sets up a power dynamic of “I’m the teacher, you’re the student” when I would rather create a more collaborative learning environment, one in which we are both working together toward a shared goal.
So, instead of assigning 30 pages of reading for each class, I assign the 5-6 pages that constitutes each chapter in these new textbooks. I thought that was about what a student would do before class (in “lean back” mode), without requiring a quiz to keep them honest. But I didn’t know. I did have a student say something very interesting to me, though. She said: “I can tell you that when I look at my reading for the night, I am much more likely to do the 6 page reading assignment first, and then tackle the 30 page assignments.” Aah. I hadn’t thought of that. But it makes sense.
Third, the written feedback I have received from students about these books has been strongly positive. Each semester, I have prepared a short questionnaire about the book and asked students to give me some feedback about it, during the semester. And, at the end of the semester, our standard student evaluation form asks students to make comments about the teaching materials that were assigned by the professor. Both of the evaluation instruments have provided strongly positive responses.
Here are some examples from the Discovery Practice book, mid-semester evaluations: In answer to the question: “Was the length of the printed material (the book) about right, or did you feel like you needed more content?” In 2011, the survey responses were all favorable on that question. Of the 12 survey responses I received in the 2012 administration of the course, I was struck by how many used the same word - “Perfect” - in response to that question: six (so, half of the respondents said that). And four others said: “about right,” “great,” or “fine.” Only one student wanted more in the book.
On the LP Book, the mid-semester evaluation used the same question, and answers included: “Loved the length,” “Just right,” “The length is perfect,” and “Yes, it felt like a good amount of reading.” There were two comments (out of 14) that sought more content in the book. For example, one student wrote “I think a little more content would be helpful.”
On the end of year evaluations this year - the official versions the school administers, there were many similar comments. In the Discovery course, comments included: “The ebook thing is a good call - why waste money on cases we can look up for free.” Another student commented: “The course materials were great. We did not have to buy some huge, ridiculously expensive book. We had one small book with very short chapters that helped us complete our assignments and then there were relevant cases and examples on the course website.” Another comment was: “I really enjoyed the book for this course. The reading was very short and directly related to the class. Since the reading was lighter, I was able to spend much more time completing assignments each week.” A different student said: “I really appreciated the format, because it cut down on costs and made it easy to access the course materials from pretty much anywhere.” There was one complaint however: “The course material was okay, although some of the chapters spoke in very general terms and did not offer much extra guidance.”
In the LP course a student commented on the official evaluations: “I really appreciated that the course materials were succinct,” and another simply wrote: “Loved the book! Short and to the point.” One student wrote this longer comment: “Overall, I thought that the materials were important to the subjects we were learning, not superfluous extra reading, and that the hybrid [nature] of the textbook and online interactive material was extremely effective.” Several students did note, however, that the book and website could work better together, and that is something I need to work on in the future.
I think these comments - on the informal as well as the formal evaluation instrument - can be summarized as follows: students have overwhelmingly responded in favor of the hybrid textbook format, with one or two exceptions in each class. I need to think through how I can make the online site work better - and to better integrate with the book - especially for those few students who wanted more guidance on a few of the chapters.
In conclusion, it seems to me that the trick to the future of law school publishing will be in striking the right balance between what students need in print, and then selecting the right things to make available online to go with it. To provide just enough in print to lay the proper groundwork, and no more. Eventually, perhaps it will all come together in the iPad (or similar device). But for some time I believe there will still be value in the print/online hybrid format. And even the online site will need to be judicious about what it includes. Just enough, and no more. The sweet spot lives somewhere in that balance. Many legal book publishers in the last five or six years have tried all manner of combinations searching for the answer to the future of book publishing. A traditional print text with an exact copy of it in some form of online reader software - many have tried that. (They have even - comically - called them “Interactive” textbooks). The online version of their books may have links into their online research database, but other than that, the two are the same, and no effort was made to select what is best in print and what is best online. Another publisher tried an entirely online book that struggled, and then panicked and all the content of the website was printed in a 550 page book. We have several efforts underway to create “crowdsourced” books that live fully online, but these mostly follow the standard format of the traditional casebook. And students like print - it’s a 500+ year technology and it works well for certain kinds of reading and retention. But what is most lacking about these various attempts to find the magic bullet: no effort is being made to create new forms of teaching materials, much less to do the hard work of selecting what is best for print, and what is best for online.
The co-founder of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs, was insistent that Apple’s products be “edited products,” and he repeatedly forced his engineers to consciously leave things out. He wanted Apple products to be simple and elegant. The great jazz musician Charlie Mingus said: “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” The law is certainly complicated, but there is much more we could do to make it “simple” and easier for students to learn.
I am not there yet, by any means, but this is my interim “1.0” report on the design, purpose, and student response to two different hybrid law school textbooks in the Skills & Values Series.