Computer gains

New learning tools can offer an enhanced experience for students, but they should be used with caution, says Peter Crisp

E-learning is now a key feature of the legal education landscape. The term ‘e-learning’ is a catch-all one, used to cover anything from searching the internet to an MBA programme delivered entirely online. Even the act of making a manual or lecture notes available online is described as e-learning.

Although initially major uses of e-learning were in distance learning, programme elements of e-learning are now very much in evidence as a supplement to or in addition to face-to-face teaching.

Most students starting a law course this September will expect that learning resources will be available electronically and that their course will comprise what is now called ‘blended learning’, typically including a mix of face-to-face, online and activity-based learning. According to the Department for Education and Skills, 67 per cent of 16-year-olds have experience of authoring web pages, usually as part of a school project.

Different grades

At the most basic level, administrative materials, such as course specifications and outlines, the syllabus, and the course handbook, should be available electronically. Likewise, class and lecture materials, such as handouts, slide presentations and reading lists, will be published on the internet. But although this is a useful support tool, simply dumping material on the internet is not a substitute for delivering a live class. Online lectures and tutorials need to be designed as such and should be much more than just lecture notes provided in an electronic format.

Students will expect informational and reference materials for them to use as background resource materials. But, again, this needs to be designed as an opportunity for guided exploration, rather than just leaving students to browse at random through a wilderness of documentation.

Value is really added through online activities and exercises where students can practise and try out things on their own.

At an even more sophisticated level, collaborative learning activities can be created for students to work together on projects without necessarily being in the same physical space.

‘Anywhere, anytime learning’
The obvious benefit of e-learning is that it gives control to students over when and where they study – ‘anywhere, anytime learning’. Crucially, it allows students to learn at their own pace. It can be effective in supporting a variety of levels of understanding by providing various routes through resources, by the use of hyperlinks and decision points.

Used effectively it can create an environment that promotes an active approach to learning. BPP Law School, for example, has developed an online property simulation in which students work through a residential conveyancying transaction, complete with a short-tempered partner and an angry client if the student makes a bad decision.

E-learning can give the student access to a range of resources and materials and services that may not otherwise be available or accessible. The use of graphics, sound, animation and multimedia can act as a motivating factor. Simulations can include telephones ringing, emails arriving, partners knocking on doors – learning can and should be fun.

Online testing is an efficient and quick way for students to assess their own understanding of a subject. For example, simple multiple-choice tests can provide instant feedback of a continued #+ continuedstudent’s basic understanding of material.

All of this results in a more student-centered learning experience that can be tailored to meet the learning needs of individuals and designed to encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning.

It’s good to talk

Online discussion boards and chat rooms are much trumpeted. They enable students to maintain a tutorial discussion over a longer period of time and thus support and encourage collaborative and co-operative learning. Research shows that when used, the medium for discussion is capable of inducing a more considered response by students, which often leads to a deeper understanding of the subject.

Maybe, but a significant body of research also demonstrates that students need some motivation to participate in online discussion forums. Simply suggesting the educational benefits to students does not have the desired effect. Students may perhaps be intimidated by the permanence of comments on a discussion board rather than the ephemeral nature of face-to-face comments in class, which are later forgotten. Simply providing a discussion board facility does not mean students will use it, which, of course, is a potential drawback of any e-learning provision.

Adding value

If you are using e-learning as part of a blended learning strategy, then when replacing traditional teaching methods, the e-learning must not only be worthwhile, but should be more active and engaging.

Technology should only be used where it adds value to the students’ learning experience. It is not a good strategy to use e-learning for the sake of it, let alone for purely organisational reasons – there must be an educational case for utilising e-learning. Further, any e-learning strategy should recognise the unique demands and opportunities of this method, rather than attempt simply to replicate existing classroom and course design practices.

Although e-learning clearly has marketing potential and for some this alone will justify the use of it, the advice provided by academic researchers is that the cost benefit will not yield a positive result unless e-learning enriches the student’s experience. Academics warn against producing something that looks good but delivers little benefit – students find out eventually.

So what do the students think?

Adam Betts, who recently studied the Legal Practice Course (LPC), preferred human contact to a computer screen: “Although it was nice to have [e-learning] as a back-up, it was not my first port of call. What I most appreciated was the ability to review and revisit a topic again – students certainly want more choice and flexibility.”

Betts’ comments are echoed by another LPC student, James Plummer: “Used sensibly as part of the syllabus, e-learning can be of great benefit and allow students to assess their progress and evaluate areas for improvement early on.”

For the institution, the decision to implement e-learning should be seen as an investment that will yield a payback over a number of years in terms of an enhanced learning experience as well as improved resource utilisation.

Learning and teaching issues must drive e-learning developments. If e-learning is to be truly successful, it needs to reflect the different ways in which students learn. Students really want choice.

Peter Crisp is chief executive at BPP Professional Education