When I wrote Law School 2.0: Legal Education for a Digital Age, now five years ago, I made a fairly audacious claim about the future of law school textbooks. I suggested that if we were going to teach in a different way than the “socratic” case-based norm, then we would need different teaching materials. I suggested that we needed “textbooks that are more practice oriented in their design and approach.” And further, that such textbooks would “lend themselves most effectively to the hybrid textbook model, where the portions of the text that need to be in print will be in print, and the portions that can be more effective online will be online.”
Two fairly bold claims - that we needed a different kind of textbook, and that it needed to be “hybrid” in design. Since I wrote that, I have had occasion to expand on the point in several presentations. In one of those, the golden unicorn of academic life occurred - a talk I gave as part of the FutureEd 3 Conference in New York was interrupted by applause. The one and only time that has happened to me by the way or likely ever will! Since it was such a rare occurrence, I remember, verbatim, what I said that prompted the interruption: “The fact that we are still sending our students to the bookstore to purchase books for $170 each, which are mostly a collection of cases that have been available free online for a decade, is a dinosaur waiting to die.”
These are pretty big claims. I felt that if I was going to make them I should probably back up what I was saying about law school teaching materials. It became pretty clear to me soon after finishing Law School 2.0 that I needed to create such a textbook to back up my claims, and illustrate what I meant by them.
Fortunately, my publisher LexisNexis was game and interested in investing in such an effort. The core of the idea was that these books would have less in print, and be supplemented by a robust online companion website. Further, a complete teachers’ manual would be online as well, with easily reusable components like Prezis, PowerPoints, syllabi, etc. that could be downloaded by the adopting professor and modified as they saw fit. With these modifications to the typical model, these books would be cheaper, and more interactive too, since the online platform allowed for quizzes, case and statute links into the Lexis database, downloadable documents that could be modified, etc. Being hybrid, they would also take advantage of what I refer to as “lean back” and “lean forward” reading. That is, what was provided in print would be the material that we wanted students to read with their feet up on the desk, with a highlighter in hand, leaning back. And when they had finished that, we wanted them to go online to review the supplemental material online, leaning forward in a less passive learning mode and interacting with the material online. We named this book design the Skills & Values Series of hybrid law school textbooks (a deliberate reference to the MacCrate Report), and I share Series editing duties with Professor Scott Burnham (Gonzaga). There are now 16 books in the series written by well-known law professors around the country, and they cover many of the main law school course topics, such as Contracts, Property, Civil Procedure, and Administrative Law.
Early on, in addition to my series editing duties, I signed on to write the Skills & Values book for Lawyering Process, the first year introduction to the law and lawyering course that I teach. I soon realized, however, that it would be better for me to write a simpler book first - one for the Discovery Practice course that I teach. The latter course covers one semester, while the LP book would need to cover the entire year. And Discovery would be an easier course to convert to this form than LP for other reasons as well.
It turns out that it is easy to shoot your mouth off about the limitations of law school textbooks, and quite another to actually create a real alternative. But, four years later I have done that, twice. Skills & Values: Discovery Practice came out in 2010, and the Lawyering Process book came out in 2013. I have now used both - Discovery several times, and I have just finished the first year with the LP book. I thought it might be a good time to report on the effort so far.
The first thing I learned about writing these smaller books is that - to work optimally - they need to be constructed sort of like a Swiss watch - with precision and fine detail. In both subjects, the available texts - including the particular texts that I previously used in both courses - were about 600 pages long. To cover the same subject in 150 printed pages, with other material online, requires that each chapter be sparely constructed, and focus on just what is needed to be read in “lean back” mode for that topic. And then the right things need to be chosen for the online site, and the linkages between them carefully constructed. Many times over the last several years while writing these books I was reminded of the quote (usually attributed to Mark Twain): “I’m sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have enough time to make it shorter.” That extra work - and refinement and distillation - is what is required to make these books successful. I feel that both books are very much of a “1.0” effort in this regard, and in fact am working this summer on revising the Discovery Practice book for a second edition.
But I can now report that I believe I’ve done what I set out to do: to back up my claim that we need different teaching materials and providing two working examples of what I meant. And I am pleased to report that both books have worked well, and have been received well by students.
Before I go further, I should note that both books have together garnered over a dozen adoptions at other schools, but I obviously am not able to report on the success of working with the books in a way other than having been the author of them. I am sure it is considerably different to use them as someone who didn’t write them. I hope they work just as well, but I don’t know that. Perhaps adopting professors will comment to this post.
It should be noted, however, that one of the great advantages of this book design is not obvious, but is highly advantageous to the adopting professor, in two fundamental ways. First, adopting one of these texts brings with it a copy of a fully populated courseware site as a companion to the book for the professor and students to use. It is full-featured too - if you are familiar with Blackboard, you will know your way around Webcourses (which is where these sites are constructed). The latter is Blackboard, just with a Lexis “wrapper” on it. So, to probably overemphasize the point, if you adopt a Skills & Values text, it comes with your courseware site for the semester, and it is already set up with supplemental material keyed to each chapter of the book. Second, we all teach our courses - however similar the titles and objectives might be - in somewhat different ways. The second non-obvious advantage of this design is that if the adopting professor does not like a certain handout or example online - it is not in the print book (where it might confuse students), but rather online, and thus can be easily replaced with your own preferred approach. Delete the example provided. Upload your own.
In tomorrow’s post, I will provide some detail on why I think this book format has been working well in my two courses, including some detailed feedback from students.