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Hanlon, J --- "Time to Throw Away the Chalk? Law on 'Blackboard'" [2004] LegEdDig 31; (2004) 12(4) Legal Education Digest 21

Time to Throw Away the Chalk? Law on ‘Blackboard’

J Hanlon

[2004] LegEdDig 17; (2004) 12(4) Legal Education Digest 2

38 Law Teacher 1, 2004, pp 41–54

Learning through or with the aid of computers has had an increasing impact on learning and teaching in recent years. The terms commonly given to this new type of learning experience are e-learning or Computer Assisted Learning (CAL). The terms are used interchangeably throughout this paper.

This paper has two aims. First, it is an initial attempt to assess what effect electronic delivery of law units/modules has on actual student assessment performance. The second aim is to reflect on and share some of the experiences in the use of CAL in the delivery of two undergraduate law modules in the LLB program.

The paper makes no pretence to be a critique of the pedagogical virtues of CAL. It merely attempts to set out this author’s experiences in the use of CAL in teaching law and is an attempt to highlight some of the advantages perceived as well as some of the difficulties encountered. The e-learning vehicle chosen to deliver the modules was Blackboard. Blackboard is a commercially available virtual learning environment and is in use throughout the entire university. The package provides the user with a platform from which to deliver a ‘Total e-Learning Infrastructure’.

The student needs to be enrolled onto a particular module on Blackboard. There is a facility for this to be done centrally, so there is no big task for the tutor. When students subsequently log in, they are presented with a personal welcome. In addition, they see a ‘Module Map’ which, like Window’s Explorer, allows them to navigate easily around the module and see an overview of the module content. The Module Map offers areas such as ‘Module Documents’, ‘Module Materials’, ‘Assignments’, ‘External Links’ and ‘E-Mail’.

CAL is often advocated on educational rounds but is still somewhat underused. Educational research has consistently highlighted the pedagogical value of providing detailed, timely feedback to students. But great demands on academic time mean that tutors have had to reduce the levels of conventional tutor-feedback offered.

The aim was to set up a Virtual Learning Environment in which the European Community Law and Company Law module guide handbook were located, complete with links to both external and internal documents and resources. There was a desire to introduce direct links from the text within the handbook, but also from separate pages within the environment. A major part of the exercise was to introduce some formative multiple choice Computer Assisted Assessment (CAA) question pools.

The idea here is that e-learning encourages contact over and above face-to-face contact and at a time convenient to the student. It is difficult to assess precisely the value of tutor-student interaction and even more difficult to assess student-student interaction. Nevertheless, this is recognised as one of the most important elements of a learning experience.

In terms of sharing resources, the use of Blackboard was a great success. No student could say that a resource suggested by the tutor was not available. In the context of Blackboard this means that the students are offered access to real life ‘apprentice-like’ activities through simulation activities and interactive learning activities.

E-learning allows staff to offer more formative assessment than would be practical if marked in the traditional manner. There is little doubt that one of the attractions of any e-learning environment is that it enables students to engage and learn at a time that is convenient to them and offers students a new freedom in how they organise their time.

The ability to make available information from a wide variety of sources is one of the advantages of CAL. But this strength can also be a weakness. There is so much information available, but unfortunately it comes without a ‘kite mark’ of quality. Students need help with techniques for locating and assessing the value of what they find. A valuable lesson that a student must learn, sooner rather than later, is to know when to stop searching.

It has been suggested that students working collaboratively online often strive for higher standards due to the public nature of their work. It may be that the use of these communication tools is more suited to distance learning, where face-to-face meeting is not possible or, at best, is infrequent.

E-learning is flexible with regard to time and place but also offers flexibility in the way students learn. There is the possibility of a wide range of formats, e.g. text, videos, simulation, quizzes and discussion.

There was also the issue of sitting the test. The student has only one attempt at the quiz. It was not possible for them to log off and come back to it a second time. However, with computer delivered tests, there is a serious risk that those students most comfortable with the technology will have a distinct advantage over those who are anxious about using the computer. Steps must also be taken to ensure that students with special needs are not disadvantaged. It is not practical to offer students a choice of test delivery. This defeats one of the objectives of CAA testing. Therefore, it is essential to give the students practice so that they are familiar with the CAA system.

Colleagues have suggested that the availability of an on-line module would adversely affect attendance at lectures and seminars. It was also suggested that this would have a greater impact on the weaker, less motivated student.

The biggest hurdle is starting! Once the idea has been accepted and the first tentative moves have been made, the project does gather its own momentum. The assessment criteria, although ‘old fashioned’ were stimulating and demanding. The student experience, as evidenced by replies to a student survey, was generally good. A few students thought that ‘it was not fair’ without advancing any reasons for their conclusion. Some said that they could not access Blackboard, despite the fact that all students had been logged in centrally at the start of the module.

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