International Law MOOCs: A Hazardous Legal Tool?

Written by

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


No tags available

Leave a Comment

Comments for this post are closed


Dan Joyner says

October 8, 2014

Hi Christian,
Thanks for raising this very interesting issue.
I have never participated in a MOOC myself. I have travelled to other universities to teach short courses, and my law school offers a couple of different online degrees, delivered through fee-based interactive online courses. But the idea of offering an international law class as a MOOC is a new idea to me.

Let me ask this general question. What is the incentive for a teacher to offer an international law class through a MOOC format? As I understand it, by far most MOOC's do not charge fees, and the teacher is not financially remunerated. So is a teacher's incentive essentially altruistic, and in furtherance of the ideals of sharing knowledge? Or is there something else I'm missing?

Christian J Tams says

October 8, 2014

Hi Dan
I think your question goes to the heart of the matter: whoever feels MOOCs should have a place will need to make sure there is an incentive for academics to engage in 'MOOC-ing'. In the UK, there now seems to be quite a push towards them . I cannot of course speak for academia generally, but my own University, the University of Glasgow, has been keen to try out MOOCs as part of a broader teaching & learning innovation strategy. And so it has made available certain incentives - a lighter teaching load, some small budget to fund projects etc. Still, my sense so far is that - for ambitiously produced MOOCs which are not just recorded lectures or slideshows - the input required is far higher than the actual 'compensation' offered. So it's not lightly done on the side.
The reasons for doing it nevertheless may vary, but probably include the following (and different people may be inclined to tick different boxes):
- a genuine belief in public education: MOOCs reach thousands of people after all
- vanity
- boredom with normal teaching
- interest in experimenting
- learning & practicing to coomunicate with a non-specialist audience
- excitement at filming 'on site' .
I won't say which arguments convinced me to put together the 'Paris 1919 MOOC' - other than to say I enjoyed the filming in Paris and Versailles, which I hope comes across in the videos that go live from next Monday at


And I would add that so far, I think it's been a good experience, well worth trying out.

Best wishes

Larry Helfer says

October 8, 2014

Dear Christian,
As one of the few law faculty who has offered an international law-related MOOC (on international human rights law), I can share a few thoughts. I decided to teach an online course through Coursera to reach a global audience of university students, lawyers, NGOs, and academics, providing them with an overview of the international human rights system and offering my own views on the positive and negative aspects of that system. Overall, the experience was better than I had anticipated and the feedback from students was very positive. I can provide more detailed information offline to anyone who is interested. Coursera was quite amenable to my tailoring the course content, including video formats, interviews, discussion forums, and the final exam, to my pedagogical objectives. I understand, however, that the company may be moving to a different platform that may not provide this kind of course-specific tailoring in the future.

In response to Dan's question, the altruistic desire to share knowledge was my primary motivating factor. Duke University made my decision to teach the course easier by providing a modest top-up to my faculty research account (but no additional compensation or course relief) and, more importantly, by offering excellent technical assistance to help me prepare the MOOC for its first run-through. I also retain all intellectual property rights in the MOOC and can decide whether or not to offer the course again, and if so with what revisions.