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Digital Business Law

Lon MoellerLaw is a complex topic for undergraduate business students, but many of the textbooks used to teach it don’t make the subject any easier.

“They’re dense and boring and not written in a way that’s accessible by students going into business, not law school,” says Lon Moeller, associate dean of undergraduate programs in the Tippie College of Business who teaches business law, and, as a graduate of the UI College of Law, is a lawyer himself.

So he and Jay Christensen-Szalanski, a Tippie professor who also teaches the course, decided to write a new textbook themselves, one focused more on the practical application of legal principles to business and less about the law itself. But they decided that if they were going to write a textbook with a new focus, they might as well redesign the whole thing from scratch.

Jay Christensen-SzalanskiTheir conclusion: Why bother with a printed book at all?

The result is “Exploring the Legal Environment of Business,” a new digital textbook designed for use specifically on a tablet or computer, taking full advantage of interactive technology by making videos, photos, links, pop ups, and even animation as much a part of the learning experience as the text.

“Today’s college students are a generation that’s grown up in a media-rich environment, and they’re not only comfortable working with technology that engages and stimulates them, they expect it,” Moeller says. “They’re less tolerant of boring material.”

While other textbooks are available in electronic form, Moeller and Christensen-Szalanski say they are little more than pdf versions of the print books that can be downloaded from the web, so students still have to fight through dreary text loaded with legal jargon. Those books, they say, fail to take advantage of interactive technology to make the material more engaging, which is the whole point of their d-book.

“Our programming allows users to access media differently, to engage them, and allows students to individualize their learning in a way that’s best for them,” says Christensen-Szalanski. “We’re not making entertainment, but we do want to make it intellectually stimulating and challenging. The whole idea is to make sure the students read the chapter on contracts for the contracts class.”

So, for instance, the book’s chapter that discusses the legal concept of liability uses video to show an argument in a restaurant that escalates into a fight. The Rashomon-style videos are from the perspectives not only of the two participants, but of wait persons and nearby patrons who are witnesses. Christensen-Szalanski says they designed the chapter with video as the centerpiece to illustrate the challenges of liability law from a business perspective, while the text acts as a support.

The concept of jurisdiction has also always been a challenge to teach in business law because of its dry, technical nature.

“Jurisdiction has lots of little rules and it’s very complex, so how do you teach it so students can see the big picture and put all the pieces together,” Christensen-Szalanski says. “Traditionally, it was taught by memorizing rules, which might be necessary for a law student but not a business student. In our book, we teach it in a way that shows the strategic value of understanding jurisdiction to a business manager.”

A digital book is also easier to keep updated. If a new law is passed or court decision comes down, for instance, students with a printed textbook would be reading outdated information until a new revised edition is published. With a d-book, the publisher can simply update the text and push it out to readers in a matter of days.

They’re now working with McGraw-Hill for national publication next year.

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