MOOCs at Carolina Law

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By Sara Sampson and Leslie Street
September 25, 2013

A massive open online course, or MOOC, is open to anyone and is meant to have lots of students. Although MOOCs have been around for a while, law schools are just starting to venture into providing them. Case Western Reserve ran a MOOC on International Criminal Law in May, and there are several other courses beginning this year. Coursera, the largest MOOC provider, is offering several courses on law at, and EdX, a free platform, is also offering a few courses on law at Academic law libraries may soon be called upon to support this instructional model.

Our Experience

In 2012, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill entered into an agreement with Coursera to offer MOOCs. After a competitive application process, several courses were selected as UNC’s first MOOC offerings, including Professor Don Hornstein’s Introduction to Environmental Law and Policy.  

The Kathrine R. Everett Law Library at UNC has a long history of supporting Hornstein’s courses. Specifically, former UNC Law Librarians Margaret Hall and Nichelle Perry created and delivered a training module on LexisNexis and free legal research tools for Hornstein’s undergraduate Environmental Law class. The law library’s longstanding liaison program facilitates relationships between librarians and faculty. Naturally, Hornstein turned to his library liaison to assist with the MOOC. Hornstein thought it important to include a research component in his MOOC course because students would be taking the class from countries all over the world. It simply would not be possible to teach each student about the legal regime in each of the countries they represented, and thus, he believed it important for students to learn how they could find environmental laws in their own countries. In his video introduction to the course, he listed legal research as one of the important skills students would learn in the MOOC.

After several discussions, we decided to develop a research guide on the general topic and create two research assignments for the students to complete. Because of the limitations of using copyrighted materials for the MOOC and because students from around the world were enrolled, we decided to focus on freely available foreign and international resources for the assignments.

The first assignment required students to locate legal documents related to water quality rules in South Africa. This assignment used EcoLex, a database maintained as a partnership between several international organizations like the Food and Agricultural Organization, the United Nations Environmental Programme, and the Dutch government. We sought to use databases that students could also use to locate relevant laws in their own particular countries. The second assignment focused on a transboundary water issue that required students to look at relevant treaty law. 

Because MOOCs can have tens of thousands of students (though, according to Steve Kolowich in an April 8 blog post on his Wired Campus blog, of the average Coursera MOOC enrollment of about 33,000, only about 10 percent of the students end up earning a certificate), the assignments and their instructions needed to be clear. We simply could not have even a small percentage of students contacting the reference desk in the law library. Additionally, the electronic resources that the students must use for their research should be able to support large numbers of students accessing them simultaneously. Fortunately, MOOCs encourage the students to help each other rather than seek help from the professor or other university personnel. 

Stay Tuned

Hornstein’s MOOC began September 16. Stay tuned for our longer article  in the February 2014 issue of Spectrum, in which we will analyze the impact of MOOCs on legal education and the role of law libraries in supporting MOOCs, as well as note serious concerns related to the effectiveness of legal education delivered in this format and the privacy and copyright issues involved. 

 Sara Sampson ( is the deputy director of the law library and clinical assistant professor of law at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

 Leslie Street ( is the assistant director for public services, law library and clinical assistant professor of law at UNC.