Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Hold a Socratic Chat: A Law Professor Teaches Students at a Distance

As students enter Mark Kaufman's constitutional-law class on a
recent Tuesday evening, they are greeted with the Pat Benatar song "Hit
Me With Your Best Shot."

The music does more than entertain the students and induce some
early-1980's nostalgia. It is also testing the audio connection on the
students' computers. The class is being conducted online, using a
Web-based multimedia chat forum, and the students and professor log on
from all over the country.

Mr. Kaufman's course is run through the Concord University School of
Law, the only accredited law school in the country that is completely
online. Here, the Socratic method translates to Web chats and e-mail

"A lot of communication relies on body language and intonation," Mr.
Kaufman says. "And that's not available because we don't see each
other. And that means we have to substitute language for that."

But that's OK, he says, because law, more than just about any other
subject, is about precision of language. And in the class, Mr. Kaufman
can speak to his students through the audio system, but they must type
their responses. The students can hear him, but he can't hear them. So
while the students don't get to practice standing up and speaking, they
are forced to hone their language skills when writing their responses
during class discussion. Mr. Kaufman doesn't call on specific students
to answer, as is often done in face-to-face law classes. Instead, he
presents questions to the entire class and waits for several responses
before moving forward with the discussion, allowing more people to be

As class begins, Mr. Kaufman talks to his class through a microphone
attached to a headset as he stares at his computer screen. Today's
lecture is about a legal concept called substantive due process, which
was devised by the Supreme Court in the 20th century in reaction to an
earlier ruling that weakened part of the 14th Amendment. "You remember
what the court did to the 14th Amendment?" Mr. Kaufman asks his class
in a deep, melodic voice that sounds like it belongs on National Public
Radio. "They essentially dismissed it."

Mr. Kaufman has his students describe the issues surrounding the Griswold v. Connecticut
case. Most answer correctly that it was about states' prohibitions on
contraception. Another student answers, incorrectly, that the case was
about states' banning interracial marriage.

The students' answers appear on one side of Mr. Kaufman's computer
screen, allowing him to choose, with the click of a mouse, which
responses the rest of the class will see. In this case he chooses a
couple of the correct answers, then types a private message to the
student who got the wrong answer, explaining that the interracial
marriage case was Loving v. Virginia.

He continues to speak almost nonstop for the next hour,
incorporating students' answers and comments as he goes along. The
conversation flows to other cases, such as Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, and more contemporary cases, such as Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down legislation outlawing sodomy.

Mr. Kaufman says that he lets the students' comments drive the
discussion. His job as an online instructor, he says, is to provide the
voice behind the typed responses and make sure the students are heading
in the right direction. He tries to get his students to discuss not
only the facts of the court cases, but the court's thinking that led to
the decision, letting the students learn from each other's observations.

"I kind of make life difficult by asking what's going on behind it,"
Mr. Kaufman says. "There's no better way to learn something than to try
to teach it."

The chats are only part of the online course. The students spend
much of their time reading textbooks and case law, and then send e-mail
messages to the professor asking questions. Mr. Kaufman says he likes
this setup because he can think about the questions before answering,
unlike being caught on the campus during office hours, when an answer
is expected on the spot.

Another large chunk of his teaching time is spent grading essays.
Many law schools determine students' grades for each class with one big
test at the end of the semester. But Concord gives the students three
essay tests per semester.

Mr. Kaufman says he usually teaches six courses per year, split
between two six-month terms, and that he spends about 40 hours a week
working. Students tend to e-mail questions at all hours of the day and
night, and he tries to respond as soon as he can.

Donna Skibbe, vice president of development at Concord, says the
university's policy is for instructors to answer e-mailed questions
within 48 hours, and preferably within 24 hours. "The immediacy of
their responses is important," she says.

The students put in the hours as well. In addition to reading the
material, answering essay questions, and attending chats, they can
participate in informal online discussions with fellow students.
Concord has Web chat rooms available for students who want to talk
about what they are learning.

Students also watch several videos of lectures online during the
semester. Notable professors, such as Arthur R. Miller, of Harvard
University Law School, have recorded lectures for Concord.

Marek J. Wybraniec, a 40-year-old computer programmer for the law
firm White Case, in New York, is in his second year at Concord
and is taking Mr. Kaufman's constitutional-law course. With a full-time
job and a family, he decided that he could not get his degree from a
traditional institution. But he says he initially had reservations
about the quality of online teaching. The idea of listening to an
instructor's speech through live audio and typing responses seemed a
little strange, he says.

"I felt, hmmm, that's going to be weird," Mr. Wybraniec says. "But
once you get used to it, you don't have a second thought about it."

As Mr. Wybraniec continued taking courses at the online law school,
he found other technological innovations to help his studies. For
example, Concord allows students to download the lectures and listen to
them on an iPod.

"Some of these lectures are amazing," Mr. Wybraniec says. "I walk
around and listen to them. People think I'm listening to music, but I'm
not. I'm listening to lectures."

Mr. Kaufman, who was a practicing attorney for 18 years before he
decided to teach full time, has taught both face to face and online. He
says students who graduate from an online law school are no less
prepared to become lawyers than students from traditional schools. In
fact, he says, neither type of school teaches how to be a good
litigator -- can come only through experience.

"No law student walks out of law school competent to practice law,"
Mr. Kaufman says. "That's not something that law schools deal with, by
and large."

Learning a subject -- subject -- does take some getting
used to, he says, and some people take to the online environment more
quickly than others. And that goes for both the instructors and the

"That's an adjustment, I think, for both sides," Mr. Kaufman says.
"I don't know that I'd describe it as a disadvantage or an advantage.
It's simply different."

Section: The Chronicle Review

Volume 51, Issue 42, Page B16

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