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Learn the Law (and other subjects) Anywhere — For Free!

No, it’s not spam. In an increasingly open world, professors from a wide range of universities have opened their class doors to anyone with internet access and a desire to learn.  One particular favorite of mine is Open Culture, which offers a wide range of courses, lectures, and discussions on the law and just about any academic subject under the sun. Some gems under the law section include “Introduction to Copyright,” taught by Professor Keith Winstein and “Environmental Justice and Human Rights in the Aftermath of Katrina” by Professor Cynthia Toms Smedley.  What makes the Open Culture site particularly versatile is that it offers a variety of delivery formats for the lectures.  For example, there are downloadable lectures on your iPod, video streams, and in a few cases, actual lecture notes.  While driving about for errands, I can easily learn a bit more about aspects of environmental law.

I put Open Culture to the test with a current writing assignment I have on extraordinary rendition in the context of the war on terror. Having little to know background knowledge on the topic, I entered “extraordinary rendition” into the search function of Open Courses and as luck would have it, the first entry was a lecture given by Professor David Cole who spoke on the topic at Stanford Law School. While this single lecture was by no means enough for me to write a good brief on the subject, it offered a good overview of the topic and touched upon important policy considerations that helped guide my further research.

Although Open Culture does a decent job of aggregating law school lectures from across the nation, the bulk of the courses remain from other disciplines such as Engineering, Art History, and even Chemistry.  Moreover, these lectures span across varying skill levels with some being from the undergraduate level while others are from graduate level.  The sheer amount of audio, video, and even lecture notes that are posted online is nothing short of incredible.  What is somewhat troubling is that while other disciplines are making great strides towards a “free culture” of information, law schools have been somewhat slower in offering their lectures free for the public.  In aggregate sites like Open Culture, the law school section is significantly smaller than comparable graduate sections like the business school section.   This remains somewhat puzzling.  While there are many free sources available for access to federal cases, it is still difficult for a lay person to piece together these materials together without significant time and effort.  And, for the casually curious, this can be a daunting obstacle.  Why is it still somewhat difficult to find reliable sources that put legal topics together in an easy-to-understand manner in a lecture or purely explanatory format?  Is it better to leave tidbits of legal information to the legal reality shows?

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