10 December 2009 | By Corinne McPartland
E-learning is becoming the norm at the country’s leading law schools, but will it ever replace face-to-face contact entirely?
Blended learning. No, it’s not some sort of cake-mixing technique but the buzzword that many law schools are using to explain how technology is supporting their teaching on vocational courses across the country.
It sounds simple: mix e-learning with other types of training delivery. But questions persist. What are the best ways to blend delivery types? When do you blend? What blends work best with what? And the million-dollar question: will e-learning ever replace face-to-face sessions?
Legal Practice Course (LPC) providers across the country each utilise technology in slightly different ways. But the extent to which it is used is often the deciding factor for students who are unsure of which law school to choose.
But discovering how each law school approaches the teaching of its LPC can be very confusing. For example, Kaplan Law School uses e-learning sparingly in a bid to conserve its ’personal touch’ approach, while the College of Law (CoL) has scrapped all its lectures in favour of i-tutorials that are accessed by students via the internet.
“We use e-learning as a teaching tool to support our students’ learning,” explains Bristol Institute of Legal Practice (BILP) LPC director Kerry James. “It has evolved over the past few years and we’ve started to become much more sophisticated in our use of technology - but it never replaces that all-important face-to-face contact.”
Students studying the LPC at BILP still have to attend four hours of lectures every two weeks - otherwise known as ‘large group sessions’ (LGSs). On the weeks where the school does not run substantive LGSs it holds career development activities, often led by local firms. Attendance at LGSs is optional and students are given an alternative in the form of notes or an online recording if they cannot or do not want to attend.
Workshops are held in groups of around 16 students. There are four workshops a week, each two-and-a-half hours long. Students can choose their timetable from a number of permutations before they start the course.
“What’s really good about e-learning for us is that we can monitor how our students are doing,” says James. “We have various tests that students have to do before workshops and we can check who has done what and which students are finding something particularly difficult.”
Surprisingly, technology and e-learning is more widely used as part of BILP’s Bar Vocational Course (BVC). All BVC students are able to watch demonstration films of advocacy exercises taking place in the courtroom using University of West of England staff and practitioners from the local bar, including a QC.
“This service is excellent and offers substantial support to all students who choose to access it,” says BILP BVC senior lecturer James Lloyd. “The students can also access various legal books and cases through this.”
But surely students cannot really learn to be a barrister through watching a video demonstration, right? According to Lloyd, students watch online demonstrations before they come to class so that they are fully prepared before a workshop begins.
“For example, students can watch a bail application online before a workshop and it really gives them confidence in relation to their advocacy. It gives them a head start and is a great revision tool,” he insists.
The City Law School also uses e-learning much more heavily on its BVC. As part of the course, students can watch demonstration videos online acted out by tutors and past students so that the school’s current would-be barristers can gain a concept of the grade they need to aim for.
It also uses a series of online question-and-answer tests, which are time-released in a bid to stop students completing them all before the course ends.
Chair of the City Law School’s communication and IT committee Marcus Soanes says: “With a skills-heavy programme such as the BVC it’s crucial that students get time inside the classroom but we use the videos to help students in their downtime. It’s not a replacement.”
Soanes also claims that research into the type of candidates who opt to study the BVC, which will be replaced by the Bar Professional Training Course next year, shows that bar students often prefer to work on their own rather than take part in group projects.
“That’s probably why they want to be barristers - because they prefer to work alone rather than as part of a big corporation. But nonetheless we’ve found that students who come to the smaller group sessions [SGSs] after having watched online demonstrations are much better prepared,” he insists.
Kaplan also uses e-learning to support traditional methods of teaching rather than replace them. The school offers all its lectures online in the shape of PowerPoint slides with audio capabilities. But it is still compulsory for students to attend lectures and just use the online notes to revise or if they are unable to attend.
Like other providers, Kaplan also uses online testing before its SGSs and has found that the laptops that it provided free last year have increased students’ ability to research online and prepare for lectures while ‘on the go’.
“Although using technology to support students’ learning undoubtedly improves their experience, it could never replace real-time face-to-face contact and interaction with other students,” says Kalplan head Giles Proctor. “It’s really important to maintain that element because you’re not producing lawyers who can only respond to clients via email - you have to have someone who can communicate well at all levels.”
BPP, meanwhile, puts all its Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and LPC lectures on MP3 files. Students studying the LPC receive four lectures a week and five SGSs, each lasting two hours.
After initially being sceptical at CoL’s decision to scrap its lectures in favour of online i-tutorials, BPP is now beginning to embrace e-learning. For example, it recently unveiled plans to launch an online version of its Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree in a bid to give students more flexibility.
The new online option, which costs around £10,800, has been designed so it can be studied for two or three years full-time or for six years part-time.
Unlike on other courses, students will be able to sign up on a module-by-module basis each term, meaning they can shift between part-time and full-time study modes.
“This programme is vocational and great for people who want to have more flexibility in the way that they study,” says dean of BPP Law School Peter Crisp. “It’s great for students who have a change in circumstance but still want the opportunity to study.”
The school has also recently created virtual ‘online classrooms’ in a bid to offer its GDL to students across the globe. Students can take real-time lectures online, where they attend classes remotely via the internet. Students can do everything they can do in a normal SGS. They can raise their hands, speak to other students and their tutor through earphones and even see each other via webcams.
“This is the same as any other workshop but done over the internet in real time,” explains Crisp.
The school has started to slowly expand its use of online learning - even though previously the lack of it was its unique selling point and one of the areas that set it apart from CoL.
The move towards more e-learning could be a result of BPP’s parent company BPP Holdings being taken over by US-based Apollo Global, a joint venture formed in 2007 between Apollo Group and private equity house the Carlyle Group for £305m.
Apollo is well-known for driving online learning in the US, so it is hardly surprising that the school has put in plans to the Solicitors Regulation Authority to launch an online LPC in 2010.
The course will be run similarly to the online GDL, whereby students attend real-time online classes and then have to attend a small number of weekend sessions.
“Students learn in different ways and have different demands on their time,” argues Roxanne Stockwell, dean of learning and teaching at BPP. “We’re trying to provide maximum flexibility. Many students like to attend live lectures, but they also like to listen to lectures several times, especially when revising for exams. This way they have choice.”
CoL students typically have four workshops per week and to compensate for the abolition of lectures SGSs have been increased to two-and-a-half hours each. The college, however, recommends that students put in a 40-hour working week, which includes i-tutorials, tests and feedback, preparation and independent research.
Like BPP, CoL wants to introduce an online version of its LPC in 2010. The school hopes to bring in a ‘Supervised Mode’ (S-Mode) learning methodology, as used on its LLM programmes and being piloted on the LPC at the moment.
CoL’s director of vocational programmes Scott Slorach says: “It shifts the emphasis in legal learning away from the one-to-many [lecturer to students] structure of conventional education to a one-to-one approach whereby students are supervised on an individual basis by tutors and are motivated to disciplined self-study.”
Under the S-Mode, students rarely attend the college. Much of the learning is achieved through i-tutorials and online demonstrations, while the supervision itself is delivered on a personal basis by emails to and from tutors.
In February this year, CoL invited legal technology specialist Richard Susskind to undertake a review of its use of e-learning techniques over the past five years. In particular, he was asked to evaluate CoL’s deployment of i-tutorials as an alternative to lectures, and also to offer his views on the S-Mode.
In his report Susskind says: “Among those students who have actually studied under the S-Mode, whether as LLM students or on the LPC pilot, there is considerable enthusiasm for the concept.”
Susskind claims students value and enjoy the one-to-one attention of tutors and say that it increases their confidence, both in their knowledge and in their ability to sit the examinations.
lso, he says the S-Mode is much more convenient for part-time students or for those who want to avoid the time and expense of travel.
But with course costs constantly rising and online versions costing the same as regular LPCs, do students feel as though they are getting value for money and, more importantly, the same quality through e-learning?
According to one CoL student, apparently not. “No matter which way you look at it, if you’re paying out all this money you want to see where it’s going,” he says. “The cost of downloading a song on iTunes is far cheaper than buying a CD – the same can be said for e-learning versus lectures and workshops.”