Friday, May 20th, 2011...3:42 pm

Collaboration: The Next/Previous Big/Small (No)Thing

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When I first came to SCU Law about 3.5 years ago, I would have claimed that collaboration and team-based learning was utterly and perhaps forever contrary to the instruction of law.  Today, while I certainly see many classes including team-based work in the curriculum and some faculty quite aggressively challenging traditional methods of instruction, I think it’s still valid to say that a truly collaborative atmosphere is not how one would characterize the law school classroom experience.

On one hand, you have students that are forced into quite fierce competition at the individual level due to the requirements of curved grading.  There is also cold-calling of students in large, amphitheater-style classrooms for at least the first year of courses, and libraries where the study carrel still dominates over the group study room.  On the other, courses such as our International Business Negotiations require students to work as teams, assuming specific roles within a fictional company’s legal team, and work out deals with corresponding teams across the globe in Korea.  The issue is the space “in between” these examples.  Even those courses that do have teams often form them out of procedural need rather than pedagogical design.  A more traditional Negotiations course uses groups not because they want to create an atmosphere of collaboration and teamwork, but because there must be two sides to a negotiation.

These are of course very broad characterizations.  I am confident that many professors emphasis team-building when opposing sides are formed in a negotiation.  Even more are certainly considering changes to curriculum.  But, at least presently, there are very, very few courses designed around collaboration.  Curriculum is not built around the need to learn team skills – cooperating, equitable contribution and sharing of information, and nested collaboration by different subsets of the same team.  This level of collaboration is self-reinforcing, and produces teams that are far more than the sum of their parts.With support from the university at large, Santa Clara Law is taking the idea of collaboration in the classroom to the next level, with a full installation of Tidebreak‘s ClassSpot PBL software and accompanying hardware suite.  This is a combination of their ClassSpot and TeamSpot standalone products, which support either whole-class Of course, Ed Tech is about the effective implementation of technology in pedagogy, and it’s the mechanics and dynamics that specific solutions provide that are key.

In this case, the key is to allow a flow from whole class to break out groups back to whole class interaction.  Five break-out “teamspots” that support groups of 4-6 working together on some project, utilizing a large shared display (40″ LCD).  Additional “classspot” run on the instructor’s workstation to which each teamspot is connected, and is projected for the whole room to see.  Class meets together, breaks into groups, shares information, comes back together, and repeat until the desired product is delivered.

The key way that these spots differ from traditional collaboration spaces – such as group study rooms – is that there is a computer driving the shared display.  This may seem minor, but in fact has proven to be a “game changer” for teams.  In the traditional format, one student is singled out to connect his or her laptop to the shared display and “drive” that component of group interaction.  Information, instructions, and other items are sent to that student, who then puts the material on screen for all to review and upon which to comment.

The major side-effects are that the “driver” doesn’t really get to contribute as much (how much online research can that student do in this scenario?) and there is far too much opportunity for unequal contribution from team members.  It is also difficult for, say, half of the group to break off into a sub-set, working on a specific topic, as they do not have a screen to share themselves.  The Teamspot software gets around these issues by making everyone “drivers” of the shared display and fostering an environment where all contribute.  Each team member connects to the spot via a client which allows them to transfer files or share web addresses to the display.  Team members can also share information with each other directly, allowing for sub-groups to form, work on a specific part of a problem, then bring a richer solution to the entire group.  After a break-out team session is done, that team can then send their work to the main ClassSpot computer, which is viewable by the entire course.

Summer 2011 will see the first course that includes curriculum designed specifically for the Teamspot PBL suite.  One of our Legal Analysis Research and Writing courses will include activities ranging from “ice-breaker” assignments – introducing basic legal research skills while using the suite – to back and forth class and break-out group sessions.  Importantly, there is hope that the competitive environment that has emerged in previous years can be broken through collaborative assignments.

Fall 2011 and into the next year will see at least one course with a completely redesigned curriculum, where all assignments are based on the PBL suite.  Other faculty with courses ranging from large lectures to small seminars intend to utilize either the entire suite or just the ClassSpot component.

Stay tuned for updates on this project.  And please send along your own ideas and examples if you have them.


  • And here I thought we were making progress by having a faculty member pilot using GoogleDocs to simulate the creation of a memo. 🙂

    What you’re doing sounds fascinating. I am definitely staying tuned. I did have one question — what support is being provided to faculty to redesign their curriculum around this new collaborative setup?


    • Don’t get me wrong – this is by far the most progressive/advanced/experimental space we have, and it’s not like I have a dozen faculty all peering in the door to find out what’s going on. I might have 5-6 though, which isn’t bad for the beginning of the first “real” term.

      Support is, as per my general approach, kind of…”sneaky.” I am present and I try to make suggestions. I try to identify faculty that might be interested and “hint” to them that they should try this out. I put faculty in touch with each other to talk about uses.

      For the most part, I ask for just one assignment to be changed over. One full assignment – not a little one-off class session where they use it for 10 minutes. The Legal Analysis Research and Writing course this summer did a 15 minute session every class so that was fine. For the one class to be completely redesigned, all of the assignments will involve a short part in class, then time outside of class to work collaboratively. We have put in a few blocks of time into the room schedule (that did not make our registrar particularly happy, to lose about 15% of the room) to let the students work in there on their own.

      These are all lessons we are gathering as we go. The LARAW professor, for instance, discovered that only short assignments in class worked, as it was too easy to go deep into collaboration mode and forget the lecture part of things. As far as the purpose of the installation that’s great, but as for the structure of a class that can be distracting.


  1. collaboration in legal education | Allan Chen

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