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January 3, 2007

IT - From Innovation to Considerations With Respect to Implementation

Two "small picture" considerations and one "large picture" aspiration:

In the Classroom. In ranking the top wired colleges, PC Magazine noted two IT classroom developments that would aid law students in their studies: webcasting and podcasting. Many law profs oppose these developments because they worry about a decline in classroom attendance. Just like the hue and cry over student using laptops in the classroom to surf the net, instant messaging, read/write email or play online gambling, I believe these concerns are too paternalistic. Whether students skip class because the lectures are available online as webcasts or podcasts is not a good enough reason for not making these recordings available for all students to use. It's about learning!

That being said, jumping on the webcast/podcast bandwagon is not without its costs. Sticking a digital video camera in each classroom has hardware, software, bandwidth, facilities, and IT staff costs many schools may not be capable of bearing at this time; streaming the video live is even more expensive. The same is true for podcasting, albeit a bit less so because of the lower cost of digital voice recorders. Podcasting would appear to be the easier way to distribute lectures (see Automated Podcasting for Educational Use, posted on this blog and on Law Librarian Blog) but let's be mindful that podcasting is no solution to the hearing impaired.

At the Institutional Level: About 10-12 years ago, fiber optic to the desktop was the holy grail of IHE telecommunications infrastructure. Today, it is wireless connectivity. While wired connectivity was something a law school could largely implement in-house on its own if the physical plant was sufficiently modern, going wireless is so froth will security issues that most law schools need the expertise and financial resources of their university IT departments. Exchanging internal independence for dependence on university IT departments who can better maintain campus-wide security isn't a bad thing; many law schools gave up maintaining their email servers long ago because the software cost of protecting their servers became prohibitive. But once a university IT department takes hold of Internet connectivity, beware of increasing charge-backs for services rendered. Are, for example, increased monthly port fees due to the rising cost of wireless connectivity or are they a means to generate revenue the University IT department wants to spend elsewhere? Today's law school needs to place its IT staff on university-wide IT committees to monitor campus-wide IT developments in communications and classroom technologies.

At the Level of the Profession. The legal profession, including the legal academy, is striving to accommodate students, professors, and the bench and bar whose members include many with disabilities. Much more needs to be done. See ABA Report on Lawyers with Disabilities. It should be embarrassing to all of us (including law librarians) that adaptive technologies, law school IT vendors, and legal publishers still have a very long way to go to meet this objective. Personally, I have observed that law profs, law librarians, and law school administrators do their best to accommodate students with disabilities on a case-by-case basis but some of the information services and products we take for granted need substantial system-wide improvement. Take, for example, the lowly PDF document format. It is a digital document format we all have found useful for preserving the integrity of documents and distributing these sometimes otherwise unavailable documents via email, course management systems such as TWEN, Blackboard, etc., and online depository like SSRN. However, PDF documents can not be "read" by blind students, profs, and others using current adaptive technologies.

Graphical-based interfaces used by online legal research services like Lexis and Westlaw also do not accommodate the visually impaired. Some vendors, like Lexis, do not even provide text-based alternatives to their databases and others, like Westlaw, do provide text-based alternatives that, based on anecdotal evidence, are not as current as their "mainstream" databases. Similar problems can arise from the graphical-based interfaces used in many common course management software applications.

Obtaining usable texts for individuals with disabilities in a timely manner from the legal publishing industry also is problematic. From my personal experience, the norm is that once you have located the right person in the publisher's sales force, you are more likely than not to receive a PDF version of the title you are seeking. As stated above, PDFs are not user-friendly for blind students, profs, practitioners and judges. The PDF document has to be converted to a machine-readable format (e.g., Microsoft Word, Rich Text) or into Braille. Conversion until a machine-readable format entails grabbing the text from the PDF file and hand formating it to mirror the document structure of the printed text. Imagine converting a torts casebook.!

The entire process --- from acquisition to receipt in usable form by end user -- is far too long and oftentimes places a disabled student at a disadvantage; frequently the student receives parts of his or her needed text based on when the course syllabus requires that portion be read for class. Reading ahead, available to all other students, is not an option when this happens. And this can happen all too frequently despite the best efforts of university disability services staffers reformatting texts as quickly and error-free as possible. What about practitioners, judges, etc., who don't have a disabilities services staff to support them? This is unacceptable.

We need a better distribution system. Legal publishers and vendors must institutionalize the provision of their resources in formats usable by students, profs, practitioners and judges with disabilities in as straightforward a manner as is available to all other consumers of their products and services. I see some encouraging signs from the end user perspective. The ABA Report on Lawyers with Disabilities includes recommendations for law librarians that strike at the heart of every librarian's mission of providing access to information to all, namely "[w]ork with the publishing industry to provide materials—e.g., textbooks, handouts, presentations, syllabic, and other school related products—in alternative formats." And the ABA is moving forward this month with the creation of a national organization for law students with disabilities that, among other matters, can lobby for change. In this matter, the American Association of Law Schools and the American Association of Law Libraries should become much more active. Hopefully the legal publishing industry will step up to the plate to do the right thing (and do so sooner rather than later). The right thing in this nation of plenty is to go well beyond current legal requirements to set a "best practices" example for all legal publishers to follow, see U.N. Adopts Landmark Convention on Rights of Disabled.

I will now step down from this soap box to congratulate Doug Berman and all contributors to Law School Innovation for making this blog a forum for exchanging ideas about innovation in the legal academy. And to the readers of this blog, I wish everyone all the best in 2007. Joe Hodnicki

January 3, 2007 in Technology -- in general | Permalink

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