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Classroom assignments 2.0: Bringing the legal web into the classroom

The web has given law professors in key courses such as Legal Research and Writing and Civil Procedure a golden opportunity to enhance access to justice while fostering tech-minded lawyers. Crowd-sourced databases and wikis such as the Canadian Legal Information Institute and wikiHow have made it possible to turn class assignments into public resources for the profession and self-representing litigants. I think it’s high time we start talking about how to tap into this potential.

How it could work

Writing a case comment is already a standard assignment in legal research and writing, as well as many other classes. Why not ask those law students who have written material of sufficient quality to post their assignments to CanLII? This will build their portfolio and help build a database free for all to use. All law students should know they can create their own account and start contributing to crowd-sourced case comments today.

A more difficult but more rewarding assignment would be turning a civil procedure into a wikiHow article. The plain-language, practical style of wikiHow makes it a wonderful model to help students translate dry rules into a step-by-step guide for at least themselves. If the supervising professor deems an assignment sufficiently accurate, posting it to wikiHow would help build its already considerable legal collection. The number of laymen posting jurisdictionally vague legal information to wikiHow cries out for remedy on a scale that would likely only be financially feasible through the free labour of law students working in concert across North America year after year.

These are just two examples of potentially countless formats that creative law professors could assign to leverage existing technologies. Indeed, I hope this reminds us that legal innovation is not necessarily about developing brand new tools, but about using existing tools in new and better ways.

This sounds like it might raise some tricky questions . . . Is it really worth the effort?

You won’t be surprised to hear I think the answer is a resounding yes. Furthermore, the tricky legal questions around legal information being published on these platforms are worth clarifying if only to open the door to more lawyers contributing.

But I want to make clear that the value of these assignments would not just come from the fact that the lawyers of the future will be expected to be both tech literate and effective communicators. The value of these assignments would not even come from the hundreds of thousands of self-representing litigants who might use a single accurate and well-written wikiHow article. No, the value of these assignments would come from the simple fact that people learn better when they are doing something that is intrinsically motivating.

That is, at our best, we come to law school because we want to help people and the faster we can do that, the more eager we become. If our professors can find a way to make an A mean “this will really help that beleaguered litigant who just wants to know what the next step is,” they will be tapping into our deepest and best motivations. I’m sure educators appreciate that it is from this delicate place, often lost in the shuffle of abstract readings and crushing exams, that the most profound learning comes.

Can you imagine civil procedure becoming students’ favourite course? I can. #daretodream

Benjamin Miller is a JD student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and previously completed his master’s thesis on Theorizing Legal Needs at the University of Ottawa. He has written for Slaw, University Affairs and elsewhere on best practices in writing and curating online legal information, and innovative teaching practices through campus clubs. 

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