Legal Education Digest
Students as Legislators: Simulating the Making of an Act of Parliament by Collaborative Electronic Learning
I van Haaren-Dresens
 LegEdDig 61; (2004) 13(2) Legal Education Digest 19
38 Law Teacher 2, 2004, pp 203–212
Some years ago the staff at the Faculty of Law of the Dutch Open University came to realise that it would be wise not only to teach theoretical subjects but also to train students in academic legal competencies. This awareness proved to be in line with the current thinking in educational science on the need for the recognition of competencies in post academic higher education. One of the projects developed for this purpose is an electronic legislation course in which students are trained in competencies that are needed in the process of making laws. The course is offered through a website of the University that is accessible to participating students and tutors only.
The advantage of distance learning is that students can study at a location, at a time and at a pace of their own choice, but the disadvantage is that they do not meet and talk with fellow students. Since most academics do have to work with others in their professional careers, the skill of collaborating is rather important. Therefore, training students in collaboration before they start working as lawyers might be quite useful. This also goes for the capability actively to deliver a certain result within a set period of time. On this basis the following principles for the new legislation course were defined: (1) It should be an electronic course; (2) It should be focused on collaborative learning; and (3) It should train students in competencies, attitude and knowledge.
The course takes the form of an Internet website. The site contains a collaborative learning setting, that is, a setting where there are shared realistic and relevant problems, shared needed goals, room for multiple perspectives on problems and solutions, shared responsibilities both for the process of achieving a final product and for the product itself and mutual trust between participants such that they are valued for their contributions and initiative. Beside an open part with general information on the course meant for participating students as well as for all others interested in collaborative learning, the restricted so-called ‘content web’ of the learning setting contains two large assignments students have to fulfil.
The students are assigned to groups of four participants each. Students communicate through newsgroups that belong to the electronic learning environment. Beside a printed book, all materials needed for the course are offered in an electronic way via the website. The course is part of the Master curriculum in Dutch Law. There is no exam at the end of the course but the whole process is monitored by the tutors and they can intervene and assess students at any time.
In the first assignment students must share the results of their individual work with the three other members of their group. In the second assignment the four members of each group work collaboratively and the results are the group work. The emphasis is on the assessment of the contribution of others’ learning and on collaboration instead of on individual competitive assessment.
Beside the quality and degree of collaboration, the criteria by which the tutors assess during the whole course are: (1) the legal quality and accuracy of the documents produced; (2) the legal quality of the discussions between the students; (3) the ability to act in their roles; and (4) the ability to act with a professional attitude.
The first assignment consists of four subtasks. In the first subtask, students have to study a printed book dealing with theoretical and practical themes on legislation. After a set period of time for studying the book, students have to start dealing with a series of legislation-related problems that are put into the website by the tutors. These are the following three subtasks. For the first one of these, the course website contains an electronic file with several documents on a sex selection clinic case. The next subtask deals with the hierarchy of regulations. In the last subtask students are referred to websites on which legislative documents of the Dutch legislature can be found. The participating students have to fulfil the three subtasks individually by searching information and documents on the world wide web and analysing the materials found. Their results have to be laid down in electronic documents and must be subjected to peer assessment by posting them on a set date to the restricted newsgroup of the respective student’s group.
The second assignment contains the ‘real work’, that is, the process of making an Act of Parliament. In the second assignment the groups of four students either act as virtual political parties in the Dutch House of Representatives or in the role of the Government, responsible for and defending the draft Act. Each group has to choose its own chair for the various parts of the assignment. The official documents are assessed by the tutors, as is the participation of the group and its members in the process. After the written rounds are finished, a virtual plenary debate takes place in the House through real time conferencing via Net meeting with the tutors acting as chairs of the House of Representatives and each political party as well as the Government being granted time for their virtual speeches.
After the construction of the course, it had to be tested in a pilot in order to find out whether students would learn what the tutors expected them to learn in the course and if and how amendments to the design were to be made. In the first pilot or test setting only six participating students were accepted and were divided into two groups of three students each.
The tutors presented a draft law and the explanatory report to Parliament. The groups of students had to comment on the draft in a written document. Then the tutors had to answer in their capacity as Government Ministers to all that was brought in by the students acting as MPs. In the second written round students discussed the topics the government elaborated upon once more or more specifically and the Government responded again. It also presented an alteration to the draft. However, the total investment in time and energy of the tutors in relation to the number of students served was considered too large and therefore the course in its pilot setting was too expensive. Therefore it was decided that the tutors would not play the role of Government during the whole process anymore as producing all documents took them too much time.
A second pilot was held in which the number of participating students was expanded up to 20. The students’ group that acted as the Government had to produce all other documents that were to be exchanged. However, fears proved to be unnecessary as it was still possible for the tutors to give enough directions whilst monitoring all groups.
Some students in the pilots suggested oral debate instead of real time conferencing and conference calls, as that might even be more vivid than a virtual one. However, it is thought important to execute the whole course electronically as students of the Open University are all in different personal circumstances and they live not only just all over the country but also in other parts of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the rest of the world.
Students in all sessions said that they did not experience too much pressure from having to work within a set structure of activities and dates. The role of the tutors during the process is meant to be a passive one as students are supposed to learn with and from one another. In the first pilot some participants, although familiar with the tutors’ passive role and the fact that, as long as they were doing all right, the tutors would not intervene, came to feel somewhat unsure about their achievements during the course since they were not told explicitly whether they were going in the right direction.
After the second pilot, students were very positive about the size of their groups and their roles. Like the participating students in the first pilot, they also were very enthusiastic about the contents of the course. The participants also stated that they had learned how to cope with criticism better and how to help others when they are experiencing all kinds of difficulties. Also the experience that it feels good to take responsibility for finishing one’s work in time was mentioned as positive. They stated that they believed the legal knowledge they had acquired would last much longer because it was acquired through producing legislative documents by active learning instead of the passive consumption of knowledge in traditional courses.