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Q&A with John Mayer of the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction

Q&A with John Mayer of the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction

Posted by david-hand | 23 July 2020

As a follow-up to the Is fall 2020 just the beginning? Moving law schools online webinar on the 13th of July, John Mayer, Executive Director of the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI) took the time to offer answers to every question from the webinar, including those which were not addressed during the live webinar.

CALI is a non-profit consortium of law schools, libraries and related organisations, who offer a library of over 1,000 legal tutorials written by law professors and geared towards law students.

With CALI’s experience in the delivery of material online, John’s expertise in strategy, planning and policy, provides insights into the process that many law schools find themselves going through as they prepare for remote learning in the semester ahead, and potentially beyond.



Can lectures really be delivered online? Above all, what is the longest ‘talking head’ one should ever consider delivering?

Sure – people watch thousands of hours of youtube videos all the time – but they are “chunked” – 5-15 minutes long.  Punctuate video with assessment, quizzes, discussion questions, mini-essay assignments, etc. Get the students to practice “retrieval” of the information they learned by explaining back to another student or in a couple of short sentences.  


What do you think the Covid-19 pandemic will change for unaccredited law schools ( like Concord or Saint-Francis)? And will it help the ABA to give accreditations for remote law schools?

Probably not much. The law schools that are left standing after the pandemic will be motivated to protect their market. However, online law schools should be in a stronger position to prove that they can graduate practice-ready students – at least as good, if not better – than campus-based law schools. What has changed is how we measure competency and learning outcomes and online law schools have had to do a better job of this than campus-based law schools from the start.  


Does anyone think remote classes will eventually result in an ABA certified Law Degree?

Yes, it can happen. This is a time of rapid change and the underlying assumptions are being discussed. Furthermore, it’s not going away this fall – the pandemic will last until next summer of 2021 and maybe further. This gives us lots of time to negotiate this change and come up with a fair way to measure how it might be possible and even preferable given the access to justice problem. 


Are you concerned about a lack of student engagement with online learning? Is it more difficult to keep a track of student attendance online; especially when you can’t put faces to names?

I am concerned about a lack of student engagement in all educational situations – online and in the classroom. It is true, however, that perceived engagement is harder to measure online if you think that “looking at someone” is the best way to measure engagement. It’s not. The best way to measure engagement, is to actually measure it with assessments and feedback. I am not saying that “looking into the students’ eyes” is worthless, just that we overvalue it to the point of skimping on formative assessment. We should do both – lots more of the latter.  

It’s easier to do formative assessment in all online courses because everyone is already online / has a computer. Quizzing, tutorials, videos + MCQs are relatively simple things to do with extant technology. It will require faculty to learn new tools, but they should be very very curious about educational tools anyway. It’s the most important part of their profession as law professor.  


Do you think that these models will just be temporary until social distancing ends, or do you think that these models will be implemented long term as a new way of teaching?

A little of both. Some faculty will be changed by this –  I have already witnessed it. Here is how I know. People don’t change unless they are stressed by the change.  Change is hard.  During the CALI mini-course (see https://onlineteaching.classcaster.net) there was a lot of chatter and questions from clearly stressed out law faculty. I view that as a good sign that they are considering the magnitude of this change as real.  

For some, it will stick and they are changed forever. Others will retire early and still others will bare-knuckle it to the end. Change is here, it’s not evenly distributed.  


Why do the Bar not accept online Juris Doctor classes at USA universities, meanwhile in Spain and Mexico it is good for their students. And, if you begin with the modality, Puerto Rico being part of USA, can be credited?

The bar exam is a political and market solution that was negotiated in the 1960’s to protect lawyer jobs and racially discriminate against poor or non-white players. It is cloaked in protecting clients from incompetent graduating law students. It does not do this very effectively and law firms and government employers used to pick up the slack with internships and in-house training. This has dropped off over the past two decades and the bar exam is an anachronism for what it is intended to accomplish. More people are aware of this now because so many states are refusing diploma privilege – wrongly in my opinion. Now we must have an extended conversation about everything at once – legal education, access to justice, billable hours and diversity and inclusion. Maybe it’s better that we are tackling everything at once since everything is upended by the pandemic.

Puerto Rico should be a state.


Who owns setting guidelines at a school on teaching online classes?  Is it the IT Dept., Academic Success Professionals, Instructional Designers, Law  Faculty, Emerging Technologist from the Law Library?  Or is it none of the above?

Law faculty own their courses and so any change has to be a negotiation with them – individually and as a group. We should respect their expertise and intelligence. They are smart and willing to work hard, but they as captured by the system as lawyers and judges are. Demographics means there are a greater number of younger law professors than at almost any other time and this bodes well for change. Law school IT, instructional design and even law librarians serve the goals of the law school and also act as buffers and interpreters of how students are experiencing their learning.  


Is the focus to get the student to succeed, or is the focus to get the student to digest your content? I.e. if the student isn’t learning form their lectures, can online help support those who can learn better else where?

Success is setting a goal, communicating that goal to the student and then measuring whether they have reached it. We don’t have to hide the ball or play games. We want them to be able to perform in certain ways in certain situations. We can’t test every single little thing, but we can test more than we do. Look at the medical model. They too use big summative tests, but they are clinical and the use live, apprentice-style internships that provide daily correctives to performance and thinking. Law school/law practice should look more like that but come up with a way that this works in the legal profession. All great learning happens through apprenticeship. 


One of the things I worry about is the ability – or lack of it! – to “read the room”. When I teach, I will veer politically left or right as I read the students’ reactions. I view my role as being to prod the students. It’s much harder to do that online. At least that’s what I fear.

It is harder to read the room when you are online, but there are ways to compensate. Do more polls. Appoint two students to discuss what you just lectured on. Ask students to write multiple choice questions for each other and grade them on how good the questions are. There are myriad ways to find out what students are thinking and establish trust so that they feel comfortable in the conversation. As lawyers they will have to learn how to handle delicate conversation all the time – with judges, opposing counsel, adversarial business negotiations, etc. Start modelling the correct behavior in your classroom.


Watch the webinar on-demand

If you missed the live webinar on July 13th, the full recording is available to watch at your convenience. Complete the form on this page to access the recording.

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