Berkman Center cofounder Jonathan Zittrain is the ringleader for our lunch session at Berkman today, a presentation of H2O, the oft-evolving tool he and crew have been developing to bring syllabi and the casebook into the digital age. Z begins his talk remembering a question asked and answered by Charlie Nesson in the early days of the Berkman Center: “What is teaching, and what is the university’s mission?” The answer (or, at least, Charlie’s answer): the mission is to make information available to anyone who wants it.
Zittrain and Nesson began teaching two courses, one on privacy and one on privacy in cyberspace, to a global audience. Because this was 1997-8, streaming video wasn’t a particularly good idea. Instead, the system was optimized around “low bandwidth, text intensive ways to build a community around an idea.” It’s unclear how many people “took” these classes – and Harvard didn’t let them call them classes for fear that it would damage the university brand. However, more than 1000 people signed up to participate in each of the “online lecture and discussion series”.
MIT’s Open Courseware pushed forward the notion of online teaching by giving MIT professors a fairly irresistable offer: give us your course materials, we’ll ship the uncopyrighted stuff off to India, digitize it and “put your couse online.” This has been extremely successful, both in terms of uptake and in terms of mindshare. And for some courses – i.e., ones where the value comes primarily from the lectures – the tools can provide a very good experience.
Zittrain wondered whether another model for online courses could encourage collaborative efforts between teachers. This led to an early project called Syllabus Maker, which was designed to allow professors to post syllabi and share them with other professors. The idea of having community discussions around syllabi has a parallel in a project now emerging from Harvard’s Law Library Lab, called Shelf Life, which allows the portal page for any book become a community for discussion, and invites a reshelving of library shelves based on what books are being talked about by faculty or students.
Working with Larry Lessig, Zitrain identified law school casebooks as an area for innovation. The casebooks used to teach first year law courses, Zittrain tells us, are as conservative as it gets. Cases often hail from the 19th century. Fortunately, in the US, “we the people own the law”, which means we could use more recent cases as part of these casebooks, and our source material is in the public domain. Rather than paying $200 for a casebook in the bookstore, students could have much better online casebooks – ones where you could click and move from the case edited by the professor to the full text, one you can annotate and share annotations from. For those who wanted a printed casebook, online services exist to print and bind the text on demand.
In conjunction with the next generation of a syllabus sustem – now called “playlist” – professors could share syllabi and casebooks, and we could watch courses evolve, influenced by different professors. “We can preserve geneology to track the influences on a course over time.” Eventually, he hopes, we might “change the nature of casebooks themselves” and move away from the old chestnuts, allowing “new chestnuts to arise.”
- The question tool, designed to facilitate discussions during classes by allowing people to ask and answer questions, and vote on what questions they’d like the professor to address
- A casebook creation tool, which relies on a database of tagged cases, allowing professors to “fish in the ocean of cases”.
- A tool called Collage lets professors edit and annotate cases, and lets students annotate and share their annotations
- A playlist maker, which allows professors to create and share syllabi. This includes tools that make it easy for a professor to calculate how much reading she’s assigning, and to trim texts to a “required” passage.
- A “rotisserie” discussion tool, which enables a structured discussion. Users respond to a question, then are assigned discussion partners, who critique their responses.
The tool promises to have benefits for students as well as professors. Students can outline and mark up cases they’re assigned to study and share them with a study group. And Zittrain believes a system like this could change how courses are structured: “I like contracts, I like torts, I’m not going to teach contorts because there’s no book for it. but if I can easily do my own bespoke syllabus drawing on the work of others, I could.”
The system is currently being used in Zittrain’s torts class, and the code will be released under an open source license in the near future.
Asked about making the tool easier for professors to use, Zittrain suggests that some might bootstrap using Mechanical Turk to add cases to the system… then notes that he’s recently been giving talks warning about the potentially exploitative nature of MT. Asked about privacy issues – is it possible for professors to track what students have read? Zittrain admits that, yes, is would be, though the software doesn’t support that functionality. And he points out that it would be a dreadful teaching technique to monitor students and call them based on their failure to do the readings.