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John Mayer, the Exec Dir of Center for computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI), is giving a Berkman Tuesday lunch talk called “Subclassing the Commons.” CALI is 25 yrs old, incorporated by Harvard and the U of Minnesota Law Schools. 204 US law schools and 23 international law schools are members. So are more than 100,000 law students. CALI makes lessons available on line. This year, there will probably be a million lessons run.

He points out that there are sites that aggregate material put into the commons via Creative Commons licenses. But there’s not a lot there for law students. The commons by itself isn’t granular enough for communities of users, he says. People post on their blogs, “I’ve posted a paper at SSRN and would appreciate any comments,” or “I’m working on a project and was wondering if anyone else had,” or “Where can I find…?” John says, “If we aggregated all answers to those question across all institutions, would that be a commons, and would it have amazing value?”

“We’re best known for our lessons,” he says. He shows a flow chart of a question. Law professors throw out a question, he says, knowing the ways the students will get it wrong. If one gets it right, the prof branches differently. It’s a “pruned tree.” CALI’s authors write questions as a tree. There are about 600 lessons. Their model is to get 5 profs to write 5 lessons (25 mins each) over 8 months; the profs are paid.

He describes another project: Classcaster , a blog network using open source software. It’s built on top of PBX software (!). “With classcaster, you can make a phone call, you can leave an hour message. Then it instantly podcasts it.” But it was expensive paying for the phone call and the recording quality is crappy. Instead, they gave authors $1000 and a free digital recorder. There are now 60 faculty members doing podcasts that way. They’re available for free as part of the commons. As a result, “students started to tell us that they have this crappy evidence teacher so instead they listen to this other evidence teacher’s podcast.” And faculty noticed in listening to themselves that they’re skipping over some things, so it’s helped them improve. Other faculty learned teaching techniques by listening to others. On the other hand, in some courses (e.g., family law) it can suppress class participation.

Lessons are tagged according to a “topic grid,” based on how faculty describe their lessons, the “elevator pitch” of what a course is. CALI took a first cut at the taxonomy by looking at syllabi and then letting faculty refine them. They’re now going back and tagging the podcasts.

Another project is Access to Justice. CALI designed an interface that asks one question at a time (audibly asks) to help people find the right legal forms. It uses avatars because otherwise you get hung up on providing avatars of every race and gender, in a wheelchair or not, etc. Instead, it provides a non-racial — “blank” — male or female avatar. [Looks pretty white to me.] It shows the avatar on a path to a jall of justice. There are people in eigh states working on the navigators for all the forms, but they reuse one another’s work because the forms are generally 90% the same in the states. One of the federal courts is interested in doing it and sharing it with the rest of the fed courts. (It’s all XML data and is written in Flash.)

ScholarshipPulse is in alpha. On the left it shows a paper. On the right is a comment system. It distinguishes comments as peers, professors or students. They’re experimenting with having the font size reflect one’s standing in the system. “I know we’re playing in ego space here.” But, John says, we not let people comment on their own blogs? Press a button and it’ll take a capture of the paper and one’s post, and post it straight into your blog. (named after Langdell Hall at HarvardLaw) pools syllabi, cases, podcasts, etc. so you can dynamically create case books and other course materials. You can print out your own materials via AALS, CLEA ande Counseling Central do something similar, he says.

Q: Are you doing anything to help people who are not in law school?
A: At CALI’s lets you pay for access to the CALI lessons.

Q: What’s your business model?
A: 200 schools pay us $5K year. For that they give everything we produce, but I’m trying to give away as much as possible. Not the lessons. If gave them away, the law schools would stop paying us. Everything else, just about, is open and free.

Q: (Charlie Nesson) MIT’s open courseware opens up syllabi. They’ve just started videoing classes — 21 of them. They’ve raised the question for us about whether there’s an opportunity for Harvard Law to step into the video YouTube space, recognizing the Law School’s mission as offering a legal education — not necessarily for credit — to the world. You’ve been at this for a long time Somehow there’s a relationship between the profit and non-profit. Suppose a company came to you…
A: We don’t need profit but we do need sustainability. The case book market is about $90M. Suppose you came in with uber casebooks that you could mix and match. We’d pay faculty to write those. That would put pressure on faculty to use the free PDF (or $18 lulu version) case book. A $90M market would become a $20M. That’s what eLangdell is.

There are hard problems doing this, he says. One is metadata. “People just drop stuff in.” They’re going to have to make the contributors do it. “Maybe we can hire students,” but for now they have to make it easy. In addition to the taxonomy, they’ll allow tags. Charlie points out that tagging might be the fastest way to get it done and usable. I mention freebase as a model for mixing a starter-set taxonomy, a mechanical Turk approach, and a wiki for metadata schema. John says that with a critical mass, it’ll get done.

Q: (Gene Koo) Charlie, you have a paper-based text book. Would you switch?
A: (Charlie) I’d love to. Unfortunately, my publisher owns the copyright.

A: It’s a Clayton Christensen innovator’s dilemma. We’ll pick off the low-hanging fruit. And, maybe retiring professors will donate their teaching materials into the commons as part of their “legacy.” [Tags: ]

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