Electronic Casebooks: Where Words Go to Thrive?

by Jason Wilson on June 23, 2009

“Law students are burdened by the cost, weight, excess and contents of print casebooks.” Quote from memo on future of casebook conference.

Back in 2006, Jeff Jarvis wrote a post in BuzzMachine titled “The book is dead. Long live the book.” If you get a chance, you should read it and scroll through the 100+ comments as well. In the post, he described what he saw as limitations with books, many of which have particular relevance to casebooks and other law books:

“The problems with books are many: They are frozen in time without the means of being updated and corrected. They have no link to related knowledge, debates, and sources. They create, at best, a one-way relationship with a reader. They try to teach readers but don’t teach authors. They tend to be too damned long because they have to be long enough to be books. As David Weinberger taught me, they limit how knowledge can be found because they have to sit on a shelf under one address; there’s only way way to get to it. They are expensive to produce. They depend on scarce shelf space. They depend on blockbuster economics. They can’t afford to serve the real mass of niches. They are subject to gatekeepers’ whims. They aren’t searchable. They aren’t linkable. They have no metadata. They carry no conversation. They are thrown out when there’s no space for them anymore. Print is where words go to die.”

I thought of this quote back when Amazon announced the Kindle DX and stated that several universities had agreed to supply textbooks as a test program. What I didn’t realize though was that John Mayer at Caliopolis had written a post breaking down Jarvis’s comment specifically as it relates to casebooks, arguing that the time for the electronic casebook has come. That too was in 2006. So three years later, where are we with electronic casebooks?

Let’s rewind

With all the discussion going on and off the Tubes now about electronic casebooks, you should take some time to read a recent article in Chicago Lawyer about Ronald Staudt. He’s a very interesting person, and someone worth following. Of particular relevance to the current discussion on electronic casebooks, Professor Staudt was one of the first (if not the first) to experiment with the concept back in the early ’90s with HyperPad and a product he called Computer Law on Disk.  Simply put, Professor Staudt argued that an electronic casebook could be used in lieu of paper as the source for course material.

As part of this experiment, Professor Staudt distributed his course book on “notebook” computers that were loaned to the students for purposes of the test. Some highlights of the experiment included the following:

  • The main screen had buttons for each chapter. When a chapter button was clicked, a second screen listed the subsections.
  • Each chapter contained full (not partial) text of the cases, but were designed in a way that students could skip over parts not important to the lesson plan.
  • The assigned reading material could be annotated with notes and highlighted. Free form notes could be added at any level, case, section, or chapter. The notes could then be combined later in a structure like the table of contents.
  • Additional material could be downloaded from Lexis, and inserted into notes.
  • “Buttons” could be added to any page so the student could link to that page to any other page or to other functions.
  • Students could use search to navigate through the casebook.
  • New material could be added to the course book or assigned to the students by electronically mailing it to the students before or during class.
  • Students were assigned a case note or other research project that was to be prepared as an electronic booklet linked to the course materials. Each student had access to every other student’s booklet, which were distributed over the law school network before and during class.

For a more thorough discussion of the history of the project, read his article, which you can thankfully download at the Berkeley Electronic Press here. In the end, Professor Staudt declared the experiment a success. But as the Chicago Lawyer article points out, Professor Staudt still wonders to this day why the concept didn’t take off.

Future of the casebook.

Last September, Seattle University School of Law held a conference on the future of the the casebook. A thorough summary, including links to the audio recordings of the workshop sessions, is available here. My two biggest takeaways from the conference were (1) the idea that casebooks in their current form are too inflexible to give the modern law student context for doctrine, and (2) casebooks aren’t social, meaning collaborative.

As for (1), I thought Professor Dennis Patterson, from Rutgers, captured it best with the idea that embedded supplemental information (text, images, video) in electronic casebooks could foster a student’s “imaginative intelligence,” that is, allow them to learn doctrine and how to apply it in a real world context.

As for (2), Professor Gene Koo, from Harvard, stated this: “[i]magine if a study group could outline a case together, share notes, and answer each others’ questions within the text itself. Imagine if the casebook was as much about the white space between words as the words themselves – white space for students to do their own teaching and learning.”

From my reading of the notes, the conference was as much about the potential uses of an electronic casebook as it was about where law school educators see modern teaching practices headed. If they’re right, the electronic casebook will play a central role in killing off the Langdellian model, and perhaps with it, the Socratic method.

But what about the publishers?

While all this talk of electronic casebooks depends to some degree on hardware and software manufacturers, it’s still up to the content providers to decide which direction we’re headed in. The Kindle model says textbooks are books, they’re just easier to carry around now in a lightweight, portable electronic device.

But going back to Professor Staudt’s experiment, the concept of an electronic casebook was more about content in a software wrapper, not the hardware. And that’s where the publishers (and professors) seem to be planting their stakes. Right now, Thomson West is making a significant investment in their Interactive Casebook series, which is a web-based product. Now, I don’t know when you were in a law school classroom last, but every kid in class has a laptop and the universities are wi-fi’d. It’s hard to see how Kindle or even Sony (if it releases a competing product) will break this penetration. And there are other publishers in the same space as West, such as Aspen’s Studydesk solution. Even the professors are getting into the game by offering up DIY instructions on creating your own electronic statutory supplement.

While I applaud Amazon’s efforts to move the ball down the field, I just don’t see the Kindle DX being the right platform for the law school market (and maybe the entire education market). This is because teaching and learning are headed right off the cliff into immersion. If you don’t believe me, go read Simon St. Laurent’s post “Personalizing the Learning Conversati”on for some observations on what the process is shaping up to look like.

So “yes,” I do believe that Professor Staudt will finally see his idea come to fruition. Electronic casebooks will become the standard within the next two to three years. But it won’t be the type of book Amazon imagines. I’m sorry to say for all the Kindle lovers out there, the battle for electronic casebook dominance will be fought over the Tubes.

Four short thoughts.

1. There are detractors to the whole electronic casebook idea. But they will lose this battle.

2. There are smart people out there writing about ideas for what would make a good electronic casebook. The publishers should be soliciting those ideas and listening to them.

3. There are educators who have already begun the debate about open source development versus walled-in gardens, and the effect on developing electronic casebooks.

4. There continue to be people saying electronic is cheaper for the publisher. It isn’t. As a recent article in the Financial Times pointed out, most of the overhead remains the same and adds new costs for conversion, marketing, and higher than usual royalties, all of which represent new and different costs for digital publishing. So many lawyers assume that because you’re in electronic, its a simple matter of making it available on one of the new e-platforms, or pdf. It isn’t. The costs of conversion itself can be enormous, particularly in law where lawyers demand tools for accessing connected content. And when you’re talking about e-casebooks that may have additional social components to them, the cost of creating the ecosystem will be even more expensive.

[Image Attribution kyknoord.]

Previous post:

Next post: