Wikis and law school

The excellent Eric Goldman had a good post Tuesday about giving students grades for wikipedia content. This reminded me that ages ago I’d written that two of my classes were going to use wikis, but never followed up on it.

picture: UC Berkeley Law School Quote, by ingridtaylar, used under CC-BY

The classes I used wikis for were different than Eric’s- he actually assigned students to create Wikipedia articles, whereas the four classes I ended up taking with wikis all used school-hosted wikis for a wide variety of purposes:

  • Three designated note-takers taking notes into the wiki, allowing the banning of laptops for other students.
  • Note-taking rotating among all students, with wiki gnoming being (if I recall correctly) an ill-defined grade component, but no non-note-taking articles assigned.
  • Creation of articles in a class wiki being the primary grade for the class, and with some interaction with other student’s work expected, but with no significant intent that the articles written would become a permanent resource for the public. Essays were capped at 1,000 words- which drove many students nuts but led to some fine writing.
  • Creation of articles in a class wiki being the primary grade, with the intent that the class website would build up over the course of repeated class offerings to become an authoritative web asset for the scholarly community working in that area.1

(All of these classes except the last were in technology-related courses.)

Despite these widely different set of approaches, several pieces of Eric’s commentary rang very true for me.

First, basic wiki concepts were tough. Partially, this reflects poor technology- the average wiki is needlessly hard to use.2 Eric saw this in his students (“it took students a substantial amount of time to format their entries into Wikipedia’s format”) and I think it was true in my classmates as well.

But it isn’t just about the technology. Eric says “[m]ost students did not intuitively understand how to approach writing an encyclopedic treatment of a topic.” That does not ring perfectly true for me- lots of my classmates read enough of wikipedia that the format was relatively familiar- but it isn’t insane, especially given the very wide variability in the treatment of legal topics in wikipedia. It would almost certainly help to provide a sort of ‘model’ article, much like the model memos used in writing classes. Since most of the cases will be about specific statutes or cases writing two model/template articles should suffice for many classes.

Other wiki concepts, like extensive linking, or publishing drafts to the world in wiki-style, were apparently even more strange to most of my classmates. None of the four class wikis were deeply interlinked or cross-referenced, outside of what was necessary to create a table of contents and occasional outlinks to wikipedia. Similarly, few students were willing to post works-in-progress to the wiki and refine them there- most students preferred to work privately and then put a final text into the wiki. I’m not sure that law school is the right place to teach wiki nature, and indeed Prof. Goldman seems nervous about publishing student work while it is still a work-in-progress3, but still- I was surprised so few of my classmates appeared to be into the wiki way of creating iteratively edited, interlinked content.4

Collaboration was another angle that was difficult. Prof. Goldman says “I gave students the option of working together on a topic, but none ended up pursuing that.” This is not surprising- law schools are essentially designed to teach anti-collaboration- but it is a shame, since collaboration is a (the?) crucial skill in legal practice. Some mandatory wiki collaboration (every student required to substantively edit and fact-check another student’s work, as well as their own writing?) might be a small step in the right direction- and might also help alleviate Eric’s concern about the amount of time he spent editing and fact-checking. As a bonus, the wiki nature of the project should make it easy to grade this student editing- the edits will all be right there5.

All these issues make it hard to write good informative wiki-articles in a class context, but surprisingly, they also made the class-notes-in-wiki strategy fall far short of its potential. I would have thought that the lower barrier to entry (no need for perfection) and the stronger incentive for students to delve into them (so that they’d be prepared for exams) would have encouraged these wikis to become ongoing demonstrations in improvement. But instead people just had other things to do, so they tended to languish, untended, until right before exams. I think some ‘live’ wiki technologies like Wave, Etherpad, etc., will help improve that in the future (by allowing more than one editor while the class is actually happening) but until them I’m afraid wiki class notes might not get very far.

In the one class I had that was truly article-oriented, the professor provided a set of suggested questions to research and address. Prof. Goldman seems to regret not doing this from the start, but unfortunately this seems like an inevitable requirement. At the time you want students to start researching and writing they just can’t know the subject area well enough to know what is ‘missing’ from the wiki, so you almost certainly have to provide pointers for all but the most driven students. Note here that this class was in a purely scholarly area (no one was going to treat our work on English property law of the 1300s as legal advice) so we did not have some of the constraints that he felt he had with regards to making sure it was right before it was published. It would be interesting to delve into this question more- given that articles do not identify their authors as lawyers, and given that people come to wikipedia with an expectation that it is imperfect, I wonder if students can be encouraged to publish more work in earlier forms than they might otherwise.

Prof. Goldman concludes that “[i]t is unrealistic to expect that most law students can produce useful entries without supervision.” I’m not sure I’d be so harsh; I think most of my classmates were capable of doing this if prodded to, and it seems like most of Eric’s were too (after more supervision than he expected, admittedly.) But if he is right, this is a pretty sad statement to make. We’re a profession which is necessarily grounded in our ability to communicate, and we should be a profession grounded in our ability to communicate clearly and concisely to a legally unsophisticated public- that is to say, to our clients. If our students can’t write a simple encyclopedia entry, we’re in trouble.

Despite this pessimism, I think the piece gets the most important part exactly right:

I think a wiki entry might be a useful alternative to the traditional seminar paper. I have never been a huge fan of requiring students to write law review-style seminar paper in a semester-long course. Ultimately I think it’s nearly impossible for a novice to come up with a good topic and write a coherent and well-researched paper in a 4 month semester from a cold start. (I expand on that point a little here). As a result, in practice, many student seminar papers devolve into quasi-encyclopedic treatments of a topic with a paragraph of student commentary tacked onto the end. Instead of going through that charade, the professor could channel the student’s research and writing effort into an expressly encyclopedic treatment. This would reduce the pressure students feel to come up with a novel topic, and it would allow the world at large to benefit from the student’s work rather than the effort going into a desk drawer (or worse, the circular file) at the semester’s end.

In my experience, wiki writing- whether the goal is inclusion in Wikipedia or not- really should be part of the law school curriculum. It is better than traditional papers for teaching basic research and scholarship, and if done well, can also teach collaboration, editing, and other writing skills. There is still a lot to learn about the ‘done well’ part, but I hope Prof. Goldman and others continue to experiment with it. They’re doing the right thing even if their students don’t realize it yet :)

  1. This separate class wiki had a lot of benefits, most notably being that student articles are never targeted for deletion as irrelevant, but obviously the segregation from the main wiki community has drawbacks too. Maybe the equivalent of the class prize for best essay should be that the best article is ‘promoted’ to main wikipedia… []
  2. I think real-time wiki/wysiwyg tools like Wave and Etherpad will help fix this once they mature. []
  3. It might make sense to ‘incubate’ student posts in a separate wiki, so that their classmates can see and participate in each other’s work, before publishing it to Wikipedia. []
  4. Tangentially, focusing on linking may also provide the solution to Prof. Goldman’s problem that the school requires seminar papers to be 20 pages long- one article is unlikely to be of equivalent length, but an interlinked network of articles on related cases, statutes, and topics could easily grow to that size. []
  5. One could imagine giving 40% credit for the article and 10% credit for the quantity and quality of edits made to other students articles, if you had an incubator wiki []