Law School Instructional Design for Online Programs

Law School Instructional Design

Lawyers use specific verbiage and nomenclature (legalese)—not to be confused with what legal scholars use in their writings, which may or may not overlap. Potentially adding to the complexity are lawyers who also happen to be legal scholars. 

Much like the legal field, Instructional Design (ID) has field-specific verbiage as well. Instructional designers certainly have their own vocabulary and way of talking with schools. For example, one aspect of designing curricula for law schools is the ability—or lack thereof—to “chunk” content. “Chunking” content means breaking large pieces of content down into small chunks, making content more easily consumed by the students. 

Part of the problem is that everything is a potential “issue” in law. Law is generally broken down conceptually into the law and its elements. It would be absurd to have lectures for each element since a single class can cover many elements—or many components of one. The difficulty becomes organizational, and, at times, opting for shorter chunks could be detrimental since it breaks up ideas that are inherently linked. 

Challenges of Moving Legal Classes Online

Moving face-to-face legal classes into an online environment takes intentionality and planning. Most legal professors believe, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And since most law professors are used to lecturing face-to-face, they sometimes have difficulty understanding why they cannot do the exact same thing with a virtual lecture by just posting the whole thing online. This scenario is where instructional designers shine. 

Additionally, most of our law professors are camera-shy. Instead of speaking on screen, they prefer the content to be front and center. For law school courses, the content presentation tends to be very specific in and of itself. For instance, law school students study by literally outlining the course: you can Google outlines, and companies sell them to go with casebooks. Therefore, many law professors structure their written material to aid students in creating these “outlines,” which is why so much focus is specifically on the material itself.

The Role of Instructional Designers in Online Law Education

Law schools need to partner with instructional designers to convert these face-to-face delivery styles into effective, engaging online delivery. If you enter a courtroom, you want the best lawyer by your side. If you go into an online classroom, you want the best instructional designer by your side. 

Like most programs, due dates are set and fluid at the same time. Life happens. We run into unforeseen and foreseen challenges along the way and must readjust our timelines. Law schools often tend to focus on the end goal but may overlook smaller goals that get students to the final destination. 

Law changes often and is impacted by everything from elections to new policies. In a face-to-face setting, you can set your readings one week out (adding new things that come up) and set your lecture topics a week or even less before the class. When you know changes are coming down the pipe on major parts of the course, it is difficult not to wait until the last minute since, essentially, you’d have to redo work or revise previous modules. Obviously, the first option is terrible. The latter option is fine, but revisions require breaking apart information in a very specific way at the outset. If you are guesstimating the changes, this can be difficult to do.

Multiple Assignments v. One Big Exam

Law school professors and legal professionals who teach as adjuncts take time to adapt to a structure beyond just one final exam that offers hypothetical scenarios to be analyzed by the students. Instructional designers can be particularly helpful by showing professors and instructors how to use the tools available in an online setting to boost engagement and offer low-stakes graded assignments for practice.

Online law professors who have worked at their teaching craft have a lasting impact on future lawyers. As more students take online courses, it is increasingly essential to create content that is easily consumed and understood, helping students to accomplish their goals. Working with an instructional designer can make the online teaching experience valuable to both the professor and the student.