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Law lectures will not survive much longer, says Oxford academic

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Make way for the internet age of legal education

The next five years or so will see the end of the law lecture as we know it, according to an Oxford academic who thinks they’re “a pain”.

Trinity College fellow Nick Barber, a constitutional lawyer, believes lectures can be fun but have serious shortcomings. Writing for the UK Constitutional Law Association, of which Barber is founder editor, he says:

[D]ragged into a lecture that can last for an hour or more, a moment’s lack of concentration can mean important points are missed — and few in the audience will only suffer a moment’s inattention.

Realising their flaws and later stating they may soon become unnecessary, Barber bets “the old-style lecture will only last [a] little while longer.”

In their place, Barber argues, will be blog and vlog posts. In his words:

There is little to say in favour of the old-style lecture now that we have the capacity to produce, reasonably cheaply, video podcasts (vlogs). At the moment, when the internet is used, when recordings are made, there is a tendency to record entire lectures and make them available to students or to the public as a whole. This makes for dull viewing. This is a process that is already beginning, but I suspect that lectures will increasingly be replaced by shorter, fifteen or twenty minute, vlogs that will be designed for the medium; that is, they will consist of lecturers talking to camera, perhaps with slides incorporated into the broadcast.

Barber — who wrote a separate blog post days after the EU referendum which apparently sparked the Article 50 Miller case — continues:

A series of these vlogs will then combine to cover the material that used to be covered in the lecture. The good news for lecturers is that the set of vlogs that replaces lectures will not need to be re-recorded each year (and, indeed, they need not be recorded in the heat of term-time). The good news for students is that these vlogs can be watched when most useful, paused, and viewed a second time if necessary.

Legal academics must start positioning themselves for these changes, likely to take hold in the next five years — but there’s one teaching medium Barber is less sure about. He says:

I have had a look at some of the Twitter feeds of some of my colleagues, and it was not an edifying experience. The very nature of Twitter (and, to a lesser extent, Facebook) encourages ill-considered and ill-tempered publishing; rapid and controversial comments are rewarded.

He concludes: “I would advise against the use of Twitter and Facebook for academic engagement.”

While Barber, an associate professor and non-practising barrister, presents the changing nature of legal education as an opportunity academics can get stuck into, the blog post’s conclusion is perhaps a little more sombre. Echoing Professor Richard Susskind — who has long argued it’s simply a matter of time before tech drastically changes the legal profession — Barber says:

[I]t is likely that there will be significantly less work for lawyers to do, as computers take over the more straightforward legal tasks, and, at some point, computers will be able to teach some legal skills to students as well as, or even better than, tutors. We will almost certainly need fewer lawyers and fewer law-teachers.

With the legal education landscape soon to have a Solicitors Qualifying Exam-style makeover, is now the time to debut these robot-esque tutors? Time will tell.

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11 Comments

Trumpenkrieg

A tendency to revere everything that is new is among the first symptoms of having a puny soul.

(4)(10)

Barista

“non-practising barrister” = failed barrister

(8)(17)

Anonymous

Says a random anon about an Oxford constitutional law professor 😉

(24)(2)

Barista

No, says a real (i.e. practising) barrister.

(1)(14)

Barista

He’s also not even a professor, despite having joined the Faculty in 1998.

(3)(12)

Anonymous

He’s a tenured fellow at Trinity and Associate Professor of Constitutional Law. I would imagine he’s not a full professor because the relevant professorship is held by someone else who has had it for years.

(5)(0)

I did once fall asleep.

A lot depends on the individual lecturer. I’ve had classes that would have been incredibly dull were it not for the personality of the lecturer, and those are the ones that stick with you.
On saying that, I think the best approach is a mixed one. Lectures, tutorials and online resources all together. I would never scrap lectures all together in general. Maybe scrap certain lecturers, but that’s a different story…

(14)(0)

Anonymous

so what exactly are students going to be paying £9k+ for then!?

(8)(0)

Anonymous

Seminars and tutorials.

Small group tuition, discussions and practical exercises are absolutely the best way to learn the law.

(7)(0)

Anonymous

Barber taught me at Oxford. He’s a very bright guy but this is essentially “how I wish it was” from his point of view. Teaching is not, shall we say, his number one priority.

(10)(1)

Damian Warburton

The photograph is clearly staged. Not even the most nonchalant of academics, and I have had a good number of those as colleagues in my twelve years as a law lecturer, would tolerate such overt disinterest. Personally, I would invite anyone showing even half that disinterest to leave.

However, it cannot be ignored that we live in a time of the most significant change yet in how studying and learning are conducted. The challenge for academics is managing that effectively as students have moved from reading books to staring at screens; a move for the which the biggest challenge is instilling in them an awareness of the need for discernment. For pretty much the whole of almost the last millennium during which higher education has existed in the UK, students didn’t really need to be discerning. Their access to study materials was dictated by their professors (at first, likely their only source of learning) and later by the editors of the books and journals that filled their library shelves, assisted by the librarian and academics that chose what would populate those shelves. The last twenty years has seen the seismic shift from students predominantly occupying libraries to sitting at home alone with Google. There is no longer an experienced eye filtering the dross from the useful sources at the point of exposure and students rarely have an innate sense of discernment. It is much more commonly an acquired skill.

With respect to the Oxford academic quoted (who, I would suggest is responding to the current universal obsession with ‘innovative pedagogical styles’ – otherwise cynically known as ‘change only for the sake of change’) it is trite to say that law lectures are on borrowed time.

If anything, as study becomes an increasingly independent activity the sign-posting through a subject that is the law lecture is of greater validity – but, it is certainly true that as a thing it must improve. Too many academics deliver a substandard product and I had a colleague at Buckingham University who shamelessly told students “I don’t care if you show up or not; I get paid no matter how many are here” and proceeded, so said the students, to consistently deliver a wholly uninspiring monologue of not particularly current law. That individual has now retired, but there are plenty more like him in most institutions; many of which, because the HE funding structure (for public universities) is largely linked to the research results of the Research Excellence Framework, go unchallenged. The forthcoming Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) may perhaps redress that balance and raise the priority level of teaching quality for departments – which can only be a good thing for students. It is no coincidence that some of the very highest ranking REF institutions are also some of the very lowest ranking in the National Student Survey (eg: the LSE: ranked 2nd for Law of 67 institutions who entered in the 2014 (most recent) REF, and but the one of the very lowest ranked in the most recent NSS).

For the individual academic, ensuring her/his lecture is worth attending and paying attention to is the key to staying relevant, and indeed, as will likely become apparent once the TEF is implemented, staying employed.

(6)(0)

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