A while ago, Jean d’Aspremont engaged in a detailed defence of the ‘hazardous legal tool of blogging’ on this site. (He has since blogged quite prolifically – ie put theory into practice…). 3 ½ years on, I would like to raise a similar point and ask whether “international law MOOCs” (or “international law MOOC-ing”) could be something worth exploring – and find out whether readers have explored MOOC-ing already and would share their views.
MOOC stands for “massive open online course”; the relevant Wikipedia entry describes it as an “online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as videos, readings, and problem sets, MOOCs provide interactive user forums that help build a community for students, professors, and teaching assistants. MOOCs are a recent development in distance education which began to emerge in 2012.”
My sense is that – while courses on cross-cutting themes flourish (Michael Sandel’s course on justice perhaps being the most prominent example) – Law MOOCs have had a relatively slow start. In a recent blogpost, Loren Turner notes that “Initially, law schools were hesitant to offer MOOC courses in legal studies”, but that “within the last year [ie 2013/14], law schools have begun to embrace the idea as a way of exporting their brands, programs, and faculty to a global audience.” The initial hesitation may be due to a range of factors: perhaps legal topics are (or are perceived to be) technical; perhaps law schools are afraid that free online courses would ‘eat into’ or undermine proper (paid) course provision; or finally, to embrace the cliché, legal academia may just be a tiny bit more averse to experimenting than other disciplines. (With respect to the latter point, I thought it was interesting that a recent report on the Völkerrechtsblog, summarising a joint ILA-ASIL meeting on ‘The Teaching of International Law’, suggests that the meeting remained focused on core university teaching. I did not attend so do not know what was said; but was struck by the fact that the use of videos in classroom teaching was considered ‘sensationalist’.)
But the times are probably a-changing. And so Law MOOCs seem to be on the rise, and there are the first online courses on aspects of international law: among them one by Michael Scharf on International Criminal Law, and human rights courses by Olivier de Schutter and by Laurence Helfer. And – to ‘come out’ – my interest in the underlying questions is not entirely academic either; it has been prompted by a summer spent working on an online course on a much more niche topic, the Paris Peace Conference: Paris 1919 – A New World Order? (Due to launch on 13 October – the course site features a trailer video. Please have a look and/or forward the link.)
In some ways, MOOCs face concerns similar to blogging. They reach out but, aimed at a general audience, can be dismissed as lightweight & superficial. They tend to focus on the big topics, not necessarily on the relevant issues. What is more, there is a real didactic (and technological) challenge: while blogging found its format relatively quickly, MOOCs at present come in various forms and sizes: some are in fact little more than the webcast of a lecture, others a sequence of slides with voiceover; still others go ‘all out’ on interactivity, with group hangouts, quizzes, discussion fora and the like. There is as yet no gold standard, and the didactic potential is not fully realised.
And yet, just as Jean felt with respect to blogging, it seems to me that MOOCs are a real opportunity. Outreach and interaction are the obvious arguments, and the figures are just staggering – most MOOCs, even without professional marketing, attract thousands of participants, and many reach five-digit figures. What is true for MOOCs generally, should be particularly true for international law courses: the audience (unlike with respect to, say, Scots law) is universal after all, and some of our big debates have proven news potential.
Paris 1919 is, as I said, a niche course, so the latter point does not fully apply. But otherwise, in producing it, I have probably grappled with the same challenges facing most ‘MOOC-ers’, at least those doing more than having their lectures filmed and put online. How to strike a balance between clear message and balanced treatment? How to grapple with novel formats such as 4-minute videos? How to resist the (silly, I would say) demand, by course platform providers, to have a quiz for each and every step? All things considered, I have found this a challenge, but also an exciting experience – one that, once more, made me realise how small the range of didactic methods is I tend to use in my regular teaching.
As I said at the start, the purpose of this blog is to gauge views and ask readers to share their experience: Are international law MOOCs worth a try – and have you tried them out yourself? Do they undermine solid teaching, or complement and enrich it? I believe these matters are worth discussing, especially as methods & formats of teaching international law are so rarely discussed. So I’d be curious to hear whether you agree with me that we should embrace this new format – if with a good, lawyerly, note of restraint.