Too cool for (law) school? Using technology to engage students in legal skills


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Paper for the BILETA 2012 conference in Newcastle (29th March 2012).

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  • This paper focuses on my development of a skills wiki for law students at City University, and will encompass what lead to its creation, the ongoing development and what I’ve learnt from it. I’ve been at City 10.5 years as Law Librarian and am lucky enough to play a pretty active role within the law school – Key bits of my role include teaching an introductory law course which is compulsory for all undergraduate law students alongside a lecturer. Legal Method takes place in Term 1 of the first year and is designed to cover all the basic non-substantive law that students need to know. I also set and mark 3 assessments on this course. Embedded rather than stand alone.In 2002 I created a website for our law students called Lawbore – this started out as a portal-type resource to encourage wider reading amongst my students, but has developed into something much broader. Encompassing resource guides for different subject areas, the Hub – community stuff, Future Lawyer our careers blog, and Learnmore, our skills wiki, which is what is what the paper today will be focusing on.
  • So taking it back a stage…those issues my students have are I’m sure, very similar to yours. Your average 18 year old undergraduate may not have had too much to do with a library, if they need to know something they’re going to google it or ask their friends and they’re not familiar with most of the sources. Many of them don’t even understand how to use an index in a book, never mind have the patience for ensuring a piece of legislation is up to date. Research capability is not something that’s learnt by osmosis, or developed instinctively. Law firms blame us – BIALL surveyAs I said before, I’m lucky to get a lot of the student contact time in their first term but this is only for undergraduates. At the other end of the scale, we run a large law conversion course which although these are graduates (the majority Oxbridge) they are still totally new to law and all its intricacies. These students study 7 core subjects in 9 months and have to hit the ground running. They need to learn fast but without formal teaching. We know from various studies (Google Generation stuff of course) that students aren’t as competent at using technology as many assume and success in law is very dependent on the student’s use of the correct, most up-to-date information. Using the wrong or out of date law can mean losing a case after all. Hence legal skills stuff is ultra important!
  • Since the Google Generation report, we’ve not seen any lessening of the Google grip around our students throats. Our paid-for resources still come second best. My experience is this is less the case in Law, they know the value of the databases often because they are so focused on their career and appreciate their expertise in databases has a role to play in this. That said, the critical and analytical skills which Nicholas and Rowlands detailed were seriously lacking, often still are. There was much debate towards the end of last year after the publication of Nicholas Carr’s book: The Web Shatter Focus, Rewires Brains, after he opened discussion with the proposition our reading on the web is faster but far less thorough: Describing it as: “The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it”. We want to be interrupted because we don’t like feeling out of touch, each tweet, email, instant message brings us valuable info. But our brain has to reorient itself each time which adds to the cognitive load. Ability to browse and scan v read deeply and think attentively – both important!This quote from Spence was from an article in 2004 – I’m not sure the students perception of their web skills has changed!   
  • Being a newbie!Amount of reading Fitting in Not looking an idiot in tutorialsResearch a big concern – link to survey results Independent researchers Students not so campus basedLegal writing and research were the two big concerns that emerged from survey, followed by mooting and preparing for lectures/tutorials.
  • Current challenges and problems that we have found in trying to improve student engagement in teaching legal skills include:That gaping hole of transition – it’s a big leap to make from A-level to degree. They have a steep learning curve before being able to study substantive law like contract and criminal in their first year. The traditional lecture/tutorial way of teaching is a tough one for students to get a handle on, particularly when so many of these rely on a largely transmissive teaching style. Their experience of education pre-university will differ enormously in both the way they are taught and how much they need to stand on their own two feet. Getting students to take legal skills seriously is a tough one, as many can see it as simply ticking a box, not something which remains with them throughout their profession. Some can feel it is holding them up from the real matters of learning proper law. It’s certainly a challenge to make it stimulating as a subject.   
  • Lawbore already had an existing skills wiki with some good content (created in late 2007), but the very structured ‘look’ didn’t do it justice. It was quite plain-looking, wordy and very organised categories put students off. There simply wasn’t enough visual engagement.Students only used a small proportion of the content. I enlisted a lecturer from the law school to work with me on the redevelopment and we made a shortlist of what was important for the new resource. It had to consist of a wide variety of stand-alone resources in order to offer ‘something for everyone’It was important to give the students some ownership of the resource – get them involved. We wanted a supportive outlet that meant they would be able to find something helpful at any time for those 3am panic moments. There had to be lots of real-life examples for students to learn from and lots of multimedia.We know that students are used to being online for a large part of their day; facebook and YouTube rule. They learn by doing and by watching. The visual is king in their lives. Any redesign had to incorporate lots of different types of media and had to look fun and engaging. The rest of Lawbore has always been a little quirky and the redeveloped Learnmore had to continue in a similar vein.
  • So let’s take a look at the Mooting area of the law student’s brain to get an idea as to the types of content: Specific examples of:Juxtaposing do’s and don’ts – Mooting video tutorial – judge’s questioning or delivery? Providing real-examples moving away from the hypothetical – Saying it right slideshowDoing by seeing – Mooting top tips – Know your cases, Conclude, don’t just fade out or Don’t show how you’re feeling? Improve communication skills Integrating resources with course objectives (mooting)
  • When surveyed, many students made the point that they everyone learns in different ways. They are very self-aware as to what makes them retain information, and this came across loudly as resources varied in their content and presentation. Law, being a book-heavy subject, seems ripe for revolution (in terms of learning resources anyway!).
  • The Moots area on Learnmore is the most developed, comprehensive section; with a wealth of different types of multimedia: talking slide shows, prezi presentations, standalone video clips and testimonial based clips. We felt it was right to spend a lot of time developing this as students find this one of the most daunting aspects of being a law student. Legal writing – at present this is one of the least developed areas; so far all text-based: with a little guidance on coursework writing, an example of answering a problem question and detailed information about the various law essay competitions there are out there. We’re got some useful content coming from a number of our alumni…more on this later. Exams, like writing, is something we have not really tackled yet. Currently this contains a few tip-based pieces from past students. We’re looking to have a lot more on what we can get across on where students tend to fall down under exam stress. The Careers and Newbies section are very text-heavy at the moment. Hoping to incorporate some more video resources with students talking about their experience as a new student – challenges, advice etc.
  • Whilst it’s encouraging the students do see legal research as one of the most pivotal skills they need to learn, there are still many difficulties in getting students to understand the nature of legal sources.Legal research can be quite an uphill struggle for students who haven’t really had any experience of using even indexes in books or of using structured databases as opposed to google. They need to learn to question the authority of the sources they’re relying on of course. Basics around understanding legal abbreviations, law reports and practitioner texts are tackled here alongside simple breakdowns of different legal sources. Talking slideshows using Adobe Presenter work best here, to try and bring alive a somewhat dry subject. In future I hope to use testimonial-style video in future as well as some ‘how-to’ videos of specific resources and screencasts of online searching. Let’s take a look:Get to grips with law reports slideshow and Using Practitioner Texts
  • A recent US journal article which touched on the ideas of students learning from students offers this useful quote. (*Sniff* they don’t want to hear from us) Obviously social networks are all about us getting a window into the world of our friends, and this is a chance to see how others have used their interest in law to further themselves.Overwhelmingly 71% of LLB students surveyed said they valued mix of advice from lecturers and other students City’s own legal portal Lawbore (of which Learnmore is a part) has long focused on involving the students in the content; the careers blog, Future Lawyer is a mixture of news items running alongside interviews with alumni (video and text based), and articles/event reviews written by current students.
  • This is further backed up by a couple of quotes from our students: ‘Advice given by students is closer to your heart than that given by your professors’ The Careers section of Lawbore is very much pitched as an ‘experience bank’, with articles written by those in the know as well as by students for their peers. Let’s take a look: Get some experience – Matt and AliPupillage – what to expect – Chris BondWorking in a European Union Institution – Helena HadjiyanniGoing to focus on getting some more year-specific stuff up too – e.g. for first year students, a basic intro to what the process is – creating opportunities, breakdown of jargon…
  • A big part of what Learnmore allows us to do is let the students loose on the resource and decide individually what support they need. They can obviously access it 24/7 and we’ve placed a big emphasis on how the resource looks as well as what it does.Right from the off we knew it had to be fun, and the earlier incarnation of the resource launched in 2007, showed that students loved the combination of hardcore textual information alongside the visual ‘this is how you do it’ type of content. They liked seeing visually how things should be done. Design-wise we wanted something quirky, to catch their attention and that had the flexibility to change every now and again. The idea of basing the site around a law student’s brain just seemed to suit our very student-led site. Having random pictures to illustrate what the student is thinking just added to a an extra element of fun. Here’s a few key student quotes from a survey late last year which demonstrate that students are pretty aware of how they like to take in information. Lots of them commented on how tough they find reading such dense text in books and that they appreciated having the option for a break from this.  
  • Translate the existing structure to delivery on tablet. Grouping of resources. Tactile – immediacy of the productConsistent – visually and interacting – access via menus and on-screen needed to be swipeable whatever material you were looking atCompatibility – Legacy content – esp presenter files – impossible to separate out audio and visual. Flash-based. Content needed to be repurposed. Videos all converted from .flv – mp4. Issues with those involved – precious about previous versions graphics Future – need to be able to add new content, and amend existing without needing a developer. Testing will be going on with students over the next 2 months on a weekly basis- interaction lab – setting them defined tasks asking them to speak aloud their thought processes and video recording. Data will be analysed both during and post testing.
  • Too cool for (law) school? Using technology to engage students in legal skills

    1. 1. Too cool for (law) school? Using technology to engage students in legal skills Sanmeet Kaur Dua George BuchananEmily Allbon
    2. 2. Where did it all start…? My role Lawbore elements  Topic guides  Hub  Future Lawyer blog  Learnmore
    3. 3. Learning legal skills: what worries me LALALALALA… I‟m not interested in any of this skills stuff!
    4. 4. Better and targeted research  Search engine holding all the answers?  Surface learning  Internet stealing away our capacity to concentrate  Spence (2004) ‘we’re on the web all the time. We can find the information we need’
    5. 5. What worries them?writing | research | exams | mooting | lawcareers
    6. 6. Existing problems for engagement Skills gap A-levels to degree  Lecture/tutorial model  Managing student expectation – helping them see it informs all learning  Subject can seem dull in comparison with substantive subjects
    7. 7. So what did our resource have to be/do? Eye catching visually  Resource-based  Focused around the students  Available 24/7  Promote independence and academic confidence  Lots of multimedia
    8. 8. Let’s take a look…
    9. 9. Why does multimedia help? I’m that type of learner/everyone learns by different methods – closes the learning gap More interesting medium Get the chance to watch it again More fun to work so I concentrate more/get us students working with a greater passion Makes it stick more in my mind/ideal for people who are more ‘hands-on’ Able to visually see things Variety of resources is refreshing, not dull and boring like a book Breaks up lectures/visuals can be beneficial from the daily monotonous lecturers talking
    10. 10. What methods did we chose…?
    11. 11. Research on Learnmore
    12. 12. Law profs….yawn…  “Law professors‟ personal stories about „how I learned it‟ – somewhat meaningless and antiquated. ..Novice peers, are perfect mirrors to help each other reflect and regulate law student learning” (Herndon, 2010)And then in 1974… =
    13. 13. “Felt inspired by reading about what othersin our position have achieved”
    14. 14. What do the students think aboutLearnmore as a learning resource? ‘Differentresources – online ‘It helps to have lots of tutorials, slideshows anddifferent types of resources videos – present the to learn from, not being information in a fun and reliant on always learning stimulating way...’ by reading!’ ‘It gets intense going through textbooks as „Suits different people andreading can become a chore how they study’ – nice to have something to lighten it’
    15. 15. An app?JISC funded until end ofMay 2012 Interactivity On the move Visual crispness Wider reach Try something new
    16. 16. Challenges?  Mainly concern info architecture  Need to be Tactile  Consistent  Compatibility  Established feelings to web version  Future-proofing  Ensuring the students like it!
    17. 17.  New content creation  …look for more funding! Template for text pieces Illustrations Activities Re-recording audio Testing, testing testing! Roll out
    18. 18. Image credits Slide 1 Love me, love my lady sunglasses by Bobaloo Rox Slide 3 Lalala…I don’t wanna hear this! by hebedesign Slide 4 The brain typography’ by labguest Slide 5 Y2.d40 | worry lines by B Rosen Slide 6 mind the gap by limaoscarjuliet Slide 7 Cat eyes by eye/see Slide 12 Professor Finger Puppet by abbey*christine and ‘The famous yawn - cc licence’ by Hilary Quinn Slide 16 [108/365] Ill-advised by pasukaru76 Slide 18 365::153 what’s next? by .reid
    19. 19. References Carr, Nicholas (2010) The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains, May 24 2010 _carr/all/1 Herndon, Lynn C. (2010) Help you, help me: why law students need peer teaching UMKC L. Rev, 78, p.809 Nicholas, David and Rowlands, Ian (2008) Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, Spence, Larry (2004)The usual doesn‟t work: why we need problem-based learning portal:Libraries and the Academy 4(4) p.485-493