E-learning: The Future of Legal Education?

Exploring the opportunities and challenges of distance learning

Everyone agrees that the face of legal education is changing. But how, and why?

The “Why” question is perhaps the more difficult to answer, but part of the answer certainly has to do with the changing needs and expectations of students and employers. Whereas a law degree used to be seen primarily as a vocational training, this attitude has fundamentally shifted in many law schools which now see themselves as providing a broad, skills-based education to prepare their graduates for a wide range of opportunities in the marketplace. In some senses the undergraduate law degree has become the general arts degree of the 21st century. Postgraduate legal education is changing even more radically - a plethora of specialised degrees now flood the market in an attempt to meet the needs of the elusive student consumer.

Another part of the answer to the “Why” question is the changing nature of technology and the possibilities that it brings for teaching delivery. Many Internet-au fait students are far more comfortable in an online discussion group (masquerading as a chatroom) than in a real classroom. Web-based materials can also offer considerable flexibility in learning in a number of different ways, from making effective use of live web links and computer–assisted self-assessment exercises, to the imaginative deployment of audio and video capabilities, each allowing the student to work through the materials at her own pace and to revisit them as needs require.

But it is one thing to make use of technology to support more traditional face-to-face teaching, and a very different enterprise to offer an entire degree by distance learning. Our experience at The University of Edinburgh in launching the LL.M in Innovation, Technology and the Law was inspired by a desire for rapid responsiveness to global change. As innovation and technology landscapes shift daily, the challenge for legal education is not only to keep up but to stay at the forefront of policy and law reform. And because developments and markets are global in nature, a distance learning model seemed like the perfect approach to reach out to students across the world and to bring their needs and experiences together in an environment where learning opportunities are enhanced by technology.

It is important, however, to get the emphasis right. This means that the educational vision must drive the technology and not the other way around. There are numerous web-based delivery platforms now available, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Our approach, however, was to identify the needs and latent skills of our students and to design a bespoke platform to meet them. Navigability of legal materials in an online environment was crucial, but just as important was the facility for productive staff/student interaction. Moderated discussion groups and interactive debates are an excellent way of building a sense of virtual community while ensuring that students are making full and effective use of materials to reach the appropriate levels required of an LL.M degree. (Making participation in discussions and debates a formal part of the assessment procedure has a wonderfully motivating effect on students!)

The challenges of an e-learning LL.M are manifold. It involves an entirely different approach to teaching, both in terms of module design and delivery. Thinking about how best to integrate the various technological possibilities to provide a coherent and cohesive educational package is an on-going learning experience and one which requires effective dialogue with the student body.

The student experience is enriched by these processes. While the learning environment may be novel to some, it is not so alien as to be intimidating. Rather, new approaches to teaching result in complementary ways of learning which build on approaches already familiar to students. A look behind the scenes is vitally important, too: essential to the success of any programme is extensive support services for students – both technical and pastoral.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the enterprise, however, is witnessing the responsiveness of students from countries across the world when interacting in class. A distance learning platform encourages a rapid-response mentality among staff and students alike, and it is ideally suited to instant updates on developments as they happen. This having been said, a final key feature of the e-learning approach – and one which is a direct response to growing student demand - is the flexibility that allows students to work through material at a pace that suits their schedule and other life commitments.

Image: School Of Open Workshop WMDE / Elly Köpf / Creative Commons

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