Virtual learning is making inroads into legal education, with students taking to it more readily than some tutors, reports Jonathan Ames
It is easy to forget how relatively recent the legal education sector’s technological advances have been. Peter Crisp, chief executive of BBP Law School, recalls wistfully that when he joined the college in the late-1990s, it had yet to implement an external email system.
“We can all come up with stories of what it was like on the Ark,” he quips.
The wider legal profession was not much more advanced in those days, recollects Crisp. When he kicked off his career at the bar in 1994 he says he “had a laptop, but my pupil master used to dictate opinions and statements of case to a secretary. While that probably still goes on in some chambers, things have changed enormously”.
That is a slight understatement, as illustrated by the virtual learning programmes at law schools and other leading providers of legal education around the country. In fact, although Crisp and his contemporaries are able to hark back to the time when quill pens and sealing wax were standard kit, the reality is that for the vast majority of their Facebook-generation students there has been no reality other than online education.
“It’s no longer a novelty - students don’t bat an eyelid,” comments Sarah Hutchinson, the College of Law (CoL) board member responsible for business development. “We say go on to ’Blackboard’ and that’s the end of the instructions - they know exactly what to do.”
Blackboard is the college’s virtual learning environment - an online filing cabinet that is accessible anywhere in the world. According to Hutchinson, the programme is the market-leader at US academic institutions and has made huge inroads in the UK.
“It has the advantage of being phenomenally well-used,” she says. “In other words, every university student will
be familiar with it. As a platform it’s useful because it’s intuitive - the students don’t need to be told how to use it.”
Making it work
Both the CoL and BPP have invested considerable chunks of cash into virtual learning. Crisp says BPP has ploughed more than £2m into its systems in the past five years, while the CoL claims to have gone even further, making an initial £2m investment some five years ago and topping this up with six- or seven-figure sums annually ever since.
According to Hutchinson, getting the design right is what ratchets up the costs.
“You can’t take a lawyer who has traditional writing skills and expect them to produce wonderful online content,” she says. “You’ve got to train and invest in people to make the technology work. It’s all about getting people who have a wealth of knowledge and experience to translate that into the online environment. That’s quite challenging.”
Despite lawyers’ reputation for having been in the technology slow lane for many years, senior figures in legal education say their field of academia is ripe for virtual learning. According to CoL research, 75 per cent of a junior lawyer’s time is spent writing, drafting or researching. Those lawyers are not interviewing clients - “Nobody is going to let them near clients until they’re much more experienced,” says Hutchinson - and if they are in a client meeting they are drafting the minutes or notes.
“It is those writing, drafting and researching skills that are most easily delivered - and arguably better delivered - through online supervision,” asserts Hutchinson.
The college’s researchers also reckon that more than 75 per cent of an average junior commercial solicitor’s time is spent working on computer screens.
“So in some ways the traditional face-to-face classroom environment is artificial compared with modern business practice,” says Hutchinson. “Students don’t go from university to a work environment where 20 people sit in a circle and talk about things. They go into an office where you sit behind a screen with your headset on and that’s how you spend three-quarters of your day.”
Adrian Savage, the academic responsible for curriculum design and development at Nottingham Law School, agrees in principle, although he says the suitability of legal learning to the virtual environment depends on the course.
“The LLB distance-learning course we run is in theory capable of being completed entirely online,” Savage says. “It’s very text-based because it’s academic law. Academic law - which, at its most basic, is a question of assimilating knowledge, learning how to apply it to facts and obtaining feedback from the tutor - can all be done online.”
So legal education lends itself ideally to this type of training. But what does that mean in practice?
From the beginning of last year for the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and from last February for the Legal Practice Course (LPC), the CoL has offered a ’supervised mode of learning’, which means that students undertake substantial amounts of private study online in what amounts to virtual Oxbridge-style tutorials. Students create a piece of work - be it a legal report or a draft contract - that is then critiqued by a tutor via an internet-based virtual learning system.
Students on the virtual learning track can complete both courses while physically attending classrooms for only four long weekends, during which time they are lectured on skills that are not easily replicated other than in face-to-face tutorials or workshops, such as advocacy. For the rest of the course they follow the same curriculum as those students who have more face-to-face instruction. They do all the same preparation, reading and research, but instead of turning up at a workshop they submit their work to a tutor online.
Currently the number of students opting for such a heavy dose of online learning remains small. For example, of the roughly 1,800 students expected to start the college’s GDL this September, only about 100 will plump for the online supervision model, while just 50 of the approximately 4,000 LPC students at the college will take the exclusively online course.
That is not to say that the majority will miss out on virtual learning - they will have a blended course that involves some online training but they will still attend face-to-face workshops rather than having online supervision.
Ways to go
The core mechanics of online learning boil down to either ’synchronous’ or ’asynchronous’ models. The former is the more advanced and futuristic, creating a virtual lecture hall with lecturer and students all logging on to computers simultaneously. The most advanced versions involve web cams so all participants can see as well as hear each other, but far more common is a simple audio link that allows real-time conversation between the instructor and the students.
The lecture and other materials are streamed down the line, while the students can also communicate through text-based messages. A series of ’emoticons’ - screen-based graphic icons - are available so students can indicate that the lecturer is going too quickly or that they do not understand a specific point. There are also emoticons for asking the lecturer to reiterate a point and students can request private meetings with lecturers in virtual break-out rooms.
Crisp acknowledges that some traditional tweed-jacketed lecturers have faced a steep learning curve in adapting to the online teaching environment.
“It’s a skill and it’s taken people time to get used to it,” he says. “But the students do it without batting an eyelid - they’re completely au fait with it. We’ve had positive student feedback when we’ve asked. On the other hand, it’s what they expect.”