Reimagining the Stodgy Law School Casebook for the Digital Age

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The venerable law school casebook has held sway in American law schools since Christopher Langdell created and popularized them at Harvard Law School in the decades around the turn of the century. At first fiercely resisted, they became the dominant way of presenting legal information to students by World War II -- and now, after a hundred or so years, a team at Harvard wants to revamp the casebook, giving it the most significant formal makeover since those early years.

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The Berkman Center is a leading institution for important research into the uses and impacts of digital technologies. We'll be previewing their regular brownbag lunches here on The Atlantic Technology Channel.

Casebooks contain condensed and annotated legal cases. They are generally put together by a few professors and published in hardback books. Over the last year, Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain has put together a team to create a casebook for the digital age.

Zittrain, developer Dan Collis-Puro, and project manager Laura Miyakawa, will show off the project at Tuesday's Berkman Center lunch at Harvard. You can watch them live at noon eastern.

"Existing casebooks are pretty big. They are pretty expensive. And they stagnate," Miyakawa told me. "What we've been trying to do is create an online casebook that's free, remixable and that can be used not just for a specific class, but for instructors anywhere."

They created a new tool called Collage that lets professor cut down and annotate cases. It's getting at tryout in Zittrain's torts class. If other professors pick up the casebook, they can add their own annotations and see the annotations made by their colleagues. The system could speed information diffusion as professors can see precisely what others are highlighting in important cases.

Collage pairs with Playlist, a way of packaging groups of links together. It's a coursepack, tool, one might say.

No matter how well the whole suite of tools -- collectively known as H20 -- work, they could face a long battle for acceptance. Langdell created his first coursepack in 1870, but it wasn't until the 1890s that his innovation became broadly accepted.

"The vast majority of students, alumni, and law professors initially derided [the casebook] as an 'abomination,' and for two decades case method and the associated reforms were largely confined to Harvard," Ohio State historian of education Bruce Kimball noted in a paper on the rise of the case method.

Zittrain and Miyakawa do have one thing going for them: their casebooks would be free, a decided advantage over their expensive hardbound competitors.

Update 9/21: An Atlantic reader wrote in to note that there is another digital casebook project from The Center for Computer Assisted Learning, eLangdell.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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