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Coursera Review — Property and Liability

Law is one of the most popular academic disciplines and, naturally, a requirement for anyone planning to be a lawyer. However, the subject is also a magnet for those seeking to continue their education or to enhance their knowledge in general. The fun factor of MOOCs is that it allows students to explore their potential beyond their current research interests, so MOOCs on the law don’t necessarily attract only law students or people working in this field.

After all, the urge to know our legal rights and economic obligations never hurt anyone. And it might not yet be possible for a future lawyer to complete their studies entirely within an electronic platform. But a good pre-law course can most certainly benefit undergraduates considering careers as counselors.

property damage law MOOC

by Greg Neate via Flickr

Most law MOOCs currently on offer are mainly very basic courses and some of those use the self-paced model. Thankfully, Wesleyan University began offering Property and Liability: An Introduction to Law and Economics on the Coursera platform in late March. The instructor, Professor Richard Adelstein, is an expert in economics and social sciences and comes from a distinguished research background, featuring MIT and Harvard in his studies. Teaching since 1975 at Wesleyan, he now holds the chair of their Economics department.

Course logistics

As a MOOC student I highly appreciate when the course info page accurately describes what a class ultimately covers. As it explains in this case, the six week layout is based loosely on an imagined neighborly dispute between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Video segments present definitions such as the “Coase theorem” and “plea bargaining,” but the professor placed significant value in explaining the key terms via practical examples and occasionally using his own inspired drawings (of questionable quality, yet it’s the effort that matters).

The lessons are easy to follow, even without prior legal knowledge. Repetition of theory and plenty of illustration from actual cases make sure that you get the gist. Professor Adelstein presented definitions in segments, explaining each step with precision and a peculiar serenity.

Within the video lectures there were one or two embedded questions, not counted as part of the final score, to ensure understanding. In order to earn a statement of accomplishment, students had to answer a multiple choice pop quiz based on video presentations in weekly modules (adding up to a total of six assessments with a minimum score average of 85%).

The majority of the questions involved critical thinking, i.e. calculating losses or gains of a plaintiff depending on various circumstances. Parroting theory usually gets you nowhere in legal procedure, and that is the spirit of the course at hand. In case of errors, there was usually feedback underneath each question set, so it was made possible to get 100% after a couple of tries. Surprisingly, there weren’t any readings either! That made it easy to navigate the course page and alleviated anxiety, since law books would probably be hard to digest for the average participant.

The sound was a bit off during the first week, but the technical infrastructure was soon improved. After some complaints in the forums regarding missed deadlines, all quizzes were reopened during the final week for procrastinators. A penalty of 10% was issued for tests submitted during that week.

Course overview

Week one introduced property rights as a “quiver of arrows.” If you own a property you get to live in it and work in it, but you do not hold the property right to commit a crime in it. [pullquote position=”right”]To illustrate this approach, we were introduced to two neighbors, Jefferson and Hamilton, whose disputes reflected the theories of the following weekly tests.[/pullquote]

Week two lectures dealt with famous figures such as Posner (Posner’s Corollary) and Coase (theorem), introducing their interpretations of owning property rights. Perhaps the most surprising example of property implications was the famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King on August 28, 1963. Little known to an international audience — myself included — was that a private music production company was recording on location in Washington that day, which led to a trial regarding the rights of such historical content.

Week three was somewhat heavier, presenting issues of liability, externality and the work of English economist Arthur Cecil Pigou (Pigovian Tax). Mostly staying close to the subject of economics, the majority of lectures focused on market terms and concluded with Voltaire and the origins of probability scaling (cost imposers vs cost bearers).

Week four made things more interesting — torts, which constitute economic injuries or infringement of rights by negligence or on purpose. In the case of Boomer versus Atlantic Cement Company (1970) the term “efficient tort” was made clear. Finally, shifting to a criminal liability context in the case of McGautha versus California (1971), we witnessed the full extent of Californian law regarding a first degree felony murder and a “split” verdict concerning the moral costs and liability price of each of the defendants.

Week five gave insight into the Bentham’s utilitarianism and Locke’s translation of the law. Again, interesting real cases were used for illustration; the new fair use of dissemination and distribution of intellectual goods was regulated by the advent of Xerox machines and their large-scale photocopying abilities.

The last week described the differences between the American plea bargaining trial method versus the more rigid European systems, reviewing the legal sanctions in France (délit) and Germany (Strafbefehl). Based on the “due process of law” phrase in the fourteenth Amendment to the United States constitution, U.S. prosecutors are actually compelled to honor whatever promise they have made to the defendant so that their penalty is reduced, making plea bargains a viable resolution method.

Coursera review – my conclusion

I learned to appreciate the simplicity of the lectures in Professor Adelstein’s course and I would definitely recommend Property and Liability: An Introduction to Law and Economics as Law 101 to undergraduates and anyone having similar interests. I mean, admit it, you too were once a huge fan of LA Law‘s posh vocabulary back in the late 80s, weren’t you? Now, with this course, you can actually find out what all the jargon was actually about.



Rozalia Zeibecki (5 Posts)

Teaching English and German as a foreign language, working on MA thesis (German language acquisition through MMO RPgames)- gamer, gamification enthusiast, Vin Diesel movies fan (haters can hate), food addict. Student at Coursera, EdX and other #MOOCS, I blog about my experiences in - Also tweeting @rozoua about #edutech among other stuff. Proud to be Greek