Free Cyberlaw Syllabi

The estimable Jessica Litman, one of my personal heroes, has compiled this set of links to freely accessible online syllabi for computer and internet law courses at more than thirty law schools. For newbie cyberprofs such as myself, this is truly a gold mine. In the coming months, I’ll have to begin working on the syllabus for my own Computer Law course to be taught here at Cincinnati in the fall of 2007. I’ll likely borrow quite a bit of the format, and some of the substantive materials, from the cyberlaw course Derek and I co-taught last spring (based on a Berkman-derived curriculum that has been taught at Harvard for several years now); but I’ll certainly be perusing the materials linked from Professor Litman’s list for good ideas (of which, I can already see, there are many).

Professor Litman’s posting laments the fact that more and more schools are hiding their syllabi and course materials behind proprietary software walls. I agree that there’s no particularly compelling reason to do this, and that it’s particularly out-of-place when teaching internet law. Open standards are ultimately what give the net its “generative” capacity, and fidelity to the university’s public service mission commands us to embrace, rather than retreat from, that openness.

(To blow my own school’s horn just for a moment, Cincinnati seems to be doing a better job than most at making course syllabi and materials freely accessible online. Syllabi and supplemental course materials for many of the classes scheduled to be taught this fall are available here, including my Intro to Intellectual Property course. They are mostly in PDF format, which perhaps isn’t ideal, but they are all freely available to browse and download. I will take it as a sign of true progress when I am able to teach an entire course using only materials freely available online, perhaps via Wikipedia. The current state of the Wikiversity School of Law page suggests that that future is a long time off, but I’m quite confident it will ultimately arrive.)

5 Responses to “Free Cyberlaw Syllabi”

  1. Tim:

    In the Digital Learning paper (shameless plug once again!) we found that a lot of universities encourage the use of integrated course management systems (CMS). As a result, there are pressures and intertia that lead to firewalls surrounding everything within the CMS.

    It is deemed undesirable to make certain kinds of content public. Often this makes sense.  Many CMS include personal data about students (the system here at Minnesota has student pictures, addresses, e-mail); discussion forums where the desired student openness requires keeping it within the confines of the class; and, of course, copyrighted material (whether used illicitly or under a license).

    Once you have an integrated system with any of those kinds of presumptively private items, then the path of least resistance is to plop it all behind the wall rather than picking and choosing among different types of content.

  2. Yes, I’ve heard variations on those same themes from some of my colleagues. Certainly the point about preserving the confidentiality of student information is a good one, and I wouldn’t suggest the contrary. But there are plenty of ways to achieve that. At last spring’s bloggership conference, Michael Froomkin suggested maintaining a password-protected class blog where students could participate without fear that something they said might come back to bite them down the road. You can achieve the same thing with H2O, I believe, by marking the rotisserie boards and discussion forums as visible only to members of the group, then restricting group membership to students who are registered for your class. Maintaining this sort of confidentiality isn’t just a good idea (because it fosters freer discussion), it’s the law, and clearly worthwhile.

    Using an integrated CMS suite yields advantages in ease of use (undeniably important, particularly for less tech-savvy faculty), but as you suggest, seems to impose costs in the form of reduced granularity of control. When deployed in the fashion that seems most common, CMS overprotects; it makes hiding information that doesn’t need to be confidential part of the price of hiding information that does. Litman thinks that’s an unfortunate and unnecessary result, and I’m inclined to agree. Which is not to deny the institutional pressures that foster the use of closed systems, only to suggest that we remain mindful of their limitations and keep the university’s broader missions in mind when determining whether and how to use them.

  3. Hear, hear, Tim!

    Hopefully as professors get more comfortable with the technology they will be more inclined to alter the default option of locked-up content.

  4. [...] I think it is great how they used a wiki to publish their syllabus online. It is sad to notice a trend where syllabi increasingly are hidden and not made public, and there is really very little reason to hide them, right? So this class syllabus is a great exception. In addition, Tim Armstrong of Info/Law found this great collection by Jessica Litman of online syllabi on the topics of internet law. Whereas these are bottom-up examples of what I see as attempts to free up education, Wikiversity is a more top-down driven example that just started and which I hope will be an aggregator of these online syllabi. [...]

  5. [...] This is unfortunate. One of the things I liked about the class Derek and I co-taught last spring is that we were able to dispense entirely with a textbook and rely entirely on online readings, some of which were updated mere days before the class in which they would be taught. It lent an air of immediacy to the course content that I think was particularly appropriate in view of the au courant subject matter. The day of doing that routinely and easily in a law school setting may still be a ways off (although some bold cyberprofs have taken the plunge), but it’s still an ambition of mine. [...]