Law in the Internet Society

The Need for a Plan B at Columbia Law School

-- By MariaLedesma - 08 Dec 2021

The Need for a Plan B

On December 7, 2021, an outage at Amazon Web Services (“AWS”), the largest cloud computing provider in the United States, left many users of its services in the dark. Among those who reported interruptions in their own services due to the outage were major streaming services like Netflix and Disney+, as well as companies like Coinbase and Sweetgreen. More importantly to me, the outage impacted the Columbia University community, particularly its Law School students. That is, among those who were directly affected by the interruption in services were students like myself, who either personally discovered something was wrong after being unable to access the Echo360 course recordings on CourseWorks? or who were made aware of the incident through an email from the Columbia Law School IT Helpdesk on Tuesday afternoon. Although cloud services will continue to reign supreme in the future, and undoubtedly play a role in the Law School’s continued technological growth, if there is one takeaway from this outage it is that the Law School needs to end its complete reliance on third party providers to record and store their courses, and should instead require its faculty to do so in the interest of their students. Alternatively, students should be allowed to audio record their courses, absent instructor approval, to prevent being unable to access them during the course of the semester.

While my knowledge of the terms of the Law School’s relationship with third-party providers of educational tech services like Echo360, Inc. is limited, I am aware that the Law School relies heavily (although practically entirely is perhaps a more accurate description) on this company’s software to record and store its live courses. Students are then able to access these recordings through CourseWorks? . During the AWS outage, however, Echo360 experienced a system-wide outage. As the email from the IT Helpdesk to the Law School community detailed, “[r]ecordings are currently unavailable via the Echo360 website ( and via the ‘Echo360’ tab in Courseworks, and new recordings cannot be scheduled for capture at this time.” Moreover, “[a]ccording to Echo360, the access issue appears to be linked to an outage at Amazon Web Services' (AWS) east coast servers. As such, this issue is affecting all US customers of Echo360.” With no timeline for resolution in sight, students were left in the dark as a result of the Law School’s complete reliance on this software to capture and record their courses.

Given the likelihood that a cloud service like AWS and by extension Echo360 will experience another partial or total system failure in the future, the Law School should require its faculty to audio record their courses in the interest of their students. Just as the School now provides its instructors with microphones both to project their voices while teaching as well as for the purposes of the Echo360 recordings, the School should provide its faculty with voice recording devices to record their classes. Turning on one of these devices would be easier if not just as easy as turning on the microphones instructors currently use. Instructors could then either upload their individual recordings onto CourseWorks? or their own course website. Although I do not know how arduous or time-consuming a process like this would be, two alternatives come to mind in the event that instructors outright reject this idea. For one, their assistants could be tasked with uploading the recordings onto the relevant course site. Alternatively, instructors could be required to upload their recordings onto their sites only after becoming aware of a system outage like the one that took place on Tuesday. To be clear, they would still have to audio record their classes every day, but would only be required to upload the recordings after becoming aware of a system failure. While some sort of system would have to be put in place to ensure that the faculty is actually recording their courses even in the absence of a system failure, this seems like a feasible task. Overall, any of these steps would be better for students than the status quo that left students unable to access the recordings of their courses this week.

Although I believe that instructors, rather than students, are better positioned to audio record and upload their recordings onto their websites for use by all registered students in a course, students should be allowed to audio record their courses if instructors refuse to do so. Today, however, Rule 5.3.4 of the Law School’s Academic Rules and Procedures states that “[v]ideo or audio recordings are not permitted to be made during classroom lectures except with the approval of the instructor.” Assuming that the above proposals are rejected by instructors, and given the likelihood that AWS and Echo360 will fail again, this rule should be amended to allow students to record their classes at all times for their own academic use absent instructor approval. In the likely event that another outage occurs, preventing students from audio recording their classes would not only hinder their ability to access course recordings to enhance understanding following a course but would significantly interfere with their ability to review recorded materials in preparation for final exams, as this outage likely did. As such, it would be in the best interest of students to allow them to audio record their courses going forward, if their instructors object to recording and making their courses available to students themselves.

Without a doubt, cloud computing services like AWS and Echo360 will suffer system outages in the future. To guard against these system disruptions, the Law School needs to end its complete reliance on third-party providers to record and store their courses, and should instead require its faculty to do so in the interest of their students. Alternatively, students should be allowed to audio record their courses, absent instructor approval, to prevent being unable to access recordings during the course of the semester.

You said this already. How could a mere repetition be the conclusion?

How did you establish that students have a right to a recording? I managed to get a reasonably good education without having recordings of classes, ever.

How did you establish that teachers don't have rights to their work? The university doesn't think it owns the rights to our lectures and classes; the actual copyright policy of the university is directly to the contrary. In my 1L course, where I want swtudents to have absolute confidence that they can speak freely, no recordings are made, including by me. Why should any one student be able to override that commitment at will?

You are of course correct about the over-reliance on cloud services. Columbia's IT policies are radically amiss, and will need to be corrected, expensively, in the next reign. That's not an unfamiliar problem in large organizations of all sorts. But you might not be correct that the service level provided by the public cloud companies is inferior to that achievable by most in-house IT servicers.

Let's consider the opposite end of the spectrum. I rely on no third-party servicers, as you know. From the bare metal up, what we use is made by me, provisioned by me, operated and maintained by me. For my scale, my backups and outage provisions are as good as can be.

But if we have an outage, time to full restoration is absolutely determined by my personal availability. So what a big team using my architectures and materials can fin in a couple of hours, I can too; unless I'm out of touch or unable to get to the relevant resources. So whether my service availability is six nines or four nines if I have one outage a year depends on the accidents of timing. As it is, I've had 145 minutes downtime over the last three years, so I'm at six nines and AWS cannot offer better. But one bad day could change that.

If you want to analyze the issues of cloud services dependence, there's lots to learn about and present. If you're going to make policy about who has what rights in the curriculum, you need at least to study the pre-existing conditions and their political valences. If you want to complain about the quality of educational service you need to keep in mind that the law school and the business school are the only parts of the university that are physically equipped to record comprehensively in classrooms. If you want to strengthen your memory for what goes on in class, never listen to another recording again.

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r2 - 04 Jan 2022 - 20:46:11 - EbenMoglen
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