During her 26 years as a Legal Writing Professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Karin Mika has seen stark changes in legal education. She remembers a time when communication with students was limited to class sessions, online research databases were nearly non-existent, and word processing was considered technologically advanced.
Through the technological changes of the past three decades, Mika has stayed current with ways to make technology work for her teaching style. She created course management webpages and listservs to foster communication with her classes long before these were considered commonplace. Mika’s advanced use of technology to engage students has led to her writing articles and presenting nationally on integrating technology and multimedia into classroom teaching.
In her C|M|LAW classroom, Mika makes extensive use of visual elements, including video, to enhance the learning experience. She does this in order to make subjects that might otherwise be dry in lecture form – citation format, book research, analytical structure, among others – more engaging while also breaking up the class time in more managed intervals.
As the basis for breaking up class time, Mika references studies that determined that the ordinary attention span of everyone has diminished in these past 30 years, brought on by the information overload experienced because of the internet and immediate access to information. One can see evidence of this in how television producers create sitcoms and other shows. This translates into the classroom by necessitating changing gears every 20 minutes or thereabout to retain focus.
“If there is more than about seven minutes before a commercial break, people are picking up smartphones to check text messages or otherwise browse,” noted Mika.
Video is being used not only as a supplementary educational tool, but also as first-hand educational content in law schools around the country, including Cleveland-Marshall. Professor Mika explained that smart courtroom settings, where video is recorded from multiple vantage points, have been a major boon in enhancing oral advocacy skills and Moot Court programs. The cutting edge next step is easily integrating professor feedback directly into the video recordings concurrently to create a multi-dimensional learning opportunity previously unavailable.
“It’s like in the Olympics, where athletes spend lots of time watching tapes of their performances and analyzing their technique,” explained Mika.
In Professor Mika’s Legal Writing and Legal Drafting courses, the core concept remains unaltered, and as she puts it, the “regular blood, sweat and tears invested in practicing (writing) over and over again” are at the heart of learning the craft. But in an age where the legal basics are available to non-lawyers more than ever, students need to have the context of how a legal education makes their skills uniquely valuable. In her drafting course, Mika exposes students to various free contract software, including the-drafting app Shake, which enables parties to create an immediate contract “virtually” without there ever being paper. Professor Mika hopes to use the exposure to the contract drafting programs to show the students that their value as attorneys will be to take what is now easily available and use it as the starting point to ensure that they are drafting contracts that are individualized to the personal needs of their clients.
“Forms have always been the easy part, but in the past, forms were only easily available to attorneys. Now those forms are computerized, user friendly, and available to everyone. What a legal education provides is an education about how those forms should be used to provide a professional end product,” commented Mika.
Technological advances have made several professions a 24-7 undertaking and the legal world in general is no exception. The expectation of availability allows professors to enhance the classroom learning experience through additional communications. Mika does this by emailing her students articles about current events to connect what they are working on in class to current news. Likewise, students are able to communicate questions or the need for clarification with her, often instantaneously, thus creating the possibility for more real-time learning opportunities than what would be available during classroom hours.
The potential for teaching outside the physical classroom reached its maximum iteration for Mika this Spring when she taught Legal Drafting as an online course for the first time. She found the experience positive and believes online learning has its place, as the future of legal education is examined by the ABA and as individual law schools look for opportunities to provide the best value.
Mika does not envision this leading to accredited law degrees being obtained entirely online in place of the traditional classroom model. Instead, she sees the opportunity for innovation, such as practically offering online courses in specialized focuses to a greater pool of students in multiple law schools, and the possibility of hybrid-courses to capture the best aspects of classroom and online learning in a single course.