On the Value of eTextbooks, and a shameless plug

by Beau Steenken

Opensourceway / CC BY-SA

I recently returned to my office after six weeks of parental leave. Among the veritable horde of mailings awaiting my return was the July-September issue of Legal Reference Services Quarterly. In it, I found a very persuasive article by Jeremy J. McCabe arguing for the adoption of electronic casebooks. (Jeremy J. McCabe, Following the Herd: Bringing Electronic Casebooks into the Law School, 34 Legal Reference Services Q. 196 (2015).)

In his article (also available on SSRN), McCabe nods to the inevitability of electronic casebooks but also advocates that law schools get in front of the curve because of several advantages offered by the electronic format. Specifically, he identifies (1) the consolidation of materials (students would be able to carry around a single electronic device as opposed to having to carry multiple books), (2) potential cost-savings (depending on the publishing model), (3) the ability to update materials (it’s a relatively simple matter to update a hosted electronic file), and (4) the ability to include non-traditional materials in a casebook (e.g., the possibility of including video and other multimedia in an electronic casebook). Interestingly, McCabe suggests that adopting truly open source electronic texts may maximize these advantages, and he provides descriptions of a number of providers of such electronic textbooks, including CALI’s eLangdell bookstore.

Having recently co-authored a 1L Legal Research textbook for eLangdell Press (Beau Steenken & Tina M. Brooks, Sources of American Law: An Introduction to Legal Research (2015).), I can personally attest to the advantages of electronic, open source, open access publication. In fact, Brooksie and I chose eLangdell as a publisher precisely for some of the reasons identified by McCabe. First of all, we wanted a text that would not cost our students inordinate amounts of money. The eLangdell store provides free downloads of the electronic text in a variety of formats (word, pdf, epub, and mobi). Furthermore, if students really want a print copy, they can order one via Lulu from the eLangdell site for a reasonable price (roughly $4 for black and white, or about $11.50 for color).

We try to steer our students toward the electronic version for the added functionality the electronic format provides. For instance, we include screencasts demonstrating electronic research techniques when discussing electronic research. Also, every time we mention a case or a statute as an example, students can follow a hyperlink to see that source in full. Furthermore, we provide links to relevant CALI lessons for every chapter so that students who want more practice can easily get it. Linking to CALI lessons is  a practice McCabe recommends in his article.

Finally, we view the ability to update the text easily and frequently as essential to a legal research textbook. When the major research platforms change their look, we’ll be able to create new screencasts and substitute it for the old ones instantaneously. Similarly, we’ll be able to review the exercises we include to make sure they still work as the law changes, and we’ll be able to adapt them as needed. In fact, we’re under contract to update the text annually, which is a necessity in the constantly changing field of legal research. Furthermore, eLangdell publishes all its texts under a Creative Commons license, so legal research instructors may freely update our materials themselves if annual updates seem too infrequent. They may also adapt the materials to better fit their curriculum or jurisdiction, adaptations that are not feasible with print or non-open source, open access texts.

All in all, my co-author and I found working with eLangdell press to be a rewarding experience, and we are  pleased with the resulting electronic text. Our experience suggests that McCabe’s call to adopt electronic casebooks across the law school curriculum should be heeded, and I encourage everyone to check out the eLangdell bookstore!

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