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A Review of Coursera’s English Common Law MOOC

The desire to introduce students to a university or subject has often been cited as one of the motivations behind institutions offering a free online class. And University of London’s English Common Law: Structures and Principles (just completed via Coursera) is probably the closest example I’ve experienced yet of a course functioning as both a learning tool and brochure.

English common law MOOC

Bill TYne via Flickr

The sheer scale of material that has come to make up English Common Law means a six week course can only scratch at the surface of the subject. For unlike the Civil Law tradition that holds sway on most countries in continental Europe (a legal tradition that traces its roots to the top-down law code of Ancient Rome), English Common Law – like the English language – is a fusion of multiple overlapping traditions held together by the nature of the society upon which it is built.

Its organic qualities also makes the Common Law hugely dynamic. For in addition to blending the historic tradition of justice delivered by judges looking to one another for precedent and decisions by the crown acting separately from the courts (the tradition of Equity), you’ve also got a sovereign Parliament in the mix which allegedly has sole jurisdiction over law creation.

I say “allegedly” because modern legal theory has justified giving judges more and more latitude to interpret Parliamentary rulings in ways that make them just one more element for justices to consider as they maintain or create new precedents for other judges to follow (or overrule). And over the last few decades that European Civil Law tradition I just mentioned has found a back-door entrance into the English legal system through the European courts (notably the European Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights) which have delivered verdicts either influencing or binding member states (including the U.K.).

So even if you decide to spend your life studying the subject (not just six weeks), English Common Law (upon which the legal tradition of the U.S. is based, by the way) is alive and evolving even as you read this review.

Having said that, I’ve taken a fair number of survey courses this year that cover vast subjects (such as Modernism or the Universe) where the professors seemed less self conscious of the limited time they had to introduce their subject.

Professor Adam Geary who taught the bulk of University of London’s Common Law class (with a few lectures delivered the fabulously named Dame Hazel Genn) did a lively and able job touring students through the interconnected strands of a Common Law tradition he clearly loves. And once I was able to get past his more than passing resemblance to a young Hugh Laurie, I found his lectures gripping and informative (especially when describing notable or precedent-setting cases).

But if the course is given again, I do hope Professor Geary and his team will choose to give themselves more breathing room by adding a couple of additional lectures, rather than feeling the need to point out again and again how such a short course can only begin to introduce this or that topic.

Beyond lectures, the course tried some interesting experiments in student engagement, including weekly Q&A sessions where the professor addressed some of the hottest topics being argued over in the discussion boards and regular Twitter conversations with enrollees. They also included short vignettes featuring real British law students discussing and debating the subject of the week, another creative means of adding a level of intimacy to an otherwise standard MOOC class of thousands.

Readings were mostly drawn from a textbook that paralleled the lectures topic-by-topic, similar to what Professor Michael Sandel offered students taking his edX Justice course. And while weekly quizzes and a final exam tried to dress up their multiple-choice assessments by basing each question on a passage of legal text, testing suffered from the same issues I’ve seen in most MOOC quizzes (notably the telegraphing of correct answers – invariably the longest choices).

This was actually the second law course I’ve taken for my Degree of Freedom project, the first being Richard Adelstein’s Property and Liability (which was more of a hybrid law, economics and philosophy course). And given the structured nature of the subject and availability of free source material (legal documents, court cases, etc.), law seems like a subject primed for rapid MOOC expansion.

So I hope University of London returns with more courses on more legal topics like the English Common Law MOOC. And I hope other law schools follow the lead of their British cousins to provide free learning in an area that (if my parent’s CourtTV addiction is any indication) can meet huge pent-up demand.


Editor’s note: This guest post is from Jonathan Haber at Degree of Freedom, who is tracking his progress in trying to learn in just twelve months everything he would if enrolled in a four year liberal arts BA program and using only free resources.  Along the way he is writing reviews of courses he completes, some of which he generously allows us to republish here. To get all of Jonathan’s MOOC reviews, and more, be sure to sign up for the weekly Degree of Freedom Newsletter.

Jonathan Haber (19 Posts)

Jonathan Haber is a Boston-based writer and educational specialist whose Degree of Freedom project is experimenting with whether it's possible to learn everything you would get from a four year liberal arts degree in just twelve months using only free educational resources. You can follow his progress at

One Comment

  1. I agree it was an excellent course – the sort of course that you feel everyone ought to have under their belt before they hazard an opinion on any judicial matters, or even vote.
    I was a bit disappointed by the Prof’s tendency to say everything three times, and in the last lecture he says he would like to talk about Article 8, mentions articles 9 and 14, says something about everything being coherent, and never mentions article 8 again. Disappointing script or editing error because article 8 would have been good to know about, it’s the controversial one whereby every known criminal evades deportation by claiming the right to ‘family life’, sometimes on the basis of owning a cat.