Our online PBL JD at ANU College of Law – a personal history

by Paul Maharg on 31/05/2016

On problem-based learning (PBL), Barrows & Tamblyn (1976)[1] and Barrows (1986)[2] are the key early texts.  I remember coming across the first in the mid-1980s (not sure how, maybe a conversation with a medical student I’d known since undergrad days, she’d been attracted to it, after her own dismal medical education), following my doctorate and after I’d done a postgrad qualification in Education & EdPsych in 1981-2.  I was working as an adult educator in Maryhill, Ruchill, Springburn in Glasgow — areas of post-industrial multiple deprivation, called in Thatcherspeak Areas of Priority Treatment, APTs, as if poverty were a medical syndrome; or possibly the poor were to be sprayed, like perennial weeds.  As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, eg here, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was then my bible.[3]  It was inspirational working with folk, seeing them change their views of literacy when the education system had written them off, cancelled them out.  Their sense of personal achievement was profoundly moving.[4]  From where I was, with transformational literacy groups and socially-based radical educational projects, PBL seemed exotic, technicist. But it was fascinating, and it grew on me.

Six years later, now a student at Glasgow U law school, faced with the palling tedium of entire lecture courses on legal subjects (and low quality lecturing at that, bar the occasional inspirational lecturer such as Joe Thomson), and casting around for models of education that might be alternatives to the grind of the LLB, PBL became the obvious fantasy option.  No longer technicist, the method seemed eminently practical and useful — and it even could be linked to realist approaches I was learning about in Jurisprudence, and linking that with Dewey, Jane Addams and others.  But how to implement it in law, and when the hegemony of the signature pedagogy was often the opposite of PBL methodology:[5]

PBL process

As a lecturer in Caledonian U Law & Public Admin department I tried small experiments in PBL with basic Contracts classes.  It was clear to me that students liked the approach, and informally, I noted that even on a tiny and statistically-insignificant sample size, they seemed to do no worse in class or in exams than their peers who were having more conventional tutorials.  On the other hand they weren’t passing with outstanding grades.  Was PBL just another route to legal educational mediocrity?  I thought about this and decided it was unfair to the students and to the method.  The students were learning new things — it was just that the conventional assessment they had to undergo wasn’t testing what they were learning: it went under the radar, as it were.  I was also aware that students were uneasy: this was different for them, their peers weren’t doing it, why were they, etc.  All of which was intriguing; but I was then re-assigned to plan a spiral curriculum of skills learning and assessment throughout the entire undergraduate degree, and couldn’t do much more about PBL.

At Strathclyde U in 1999, and faced with the problem of merging two quite different cohorts of Diploma in Legal Practice students and staff from Glasgow and Strathclyde University law schools into one Glasgow Graduate School of Law Diploma, PBL was an option I wanted to follow.  Following David Cruickshank’s chapter on PBL in Webb & Maughan’s valuable collection of essays, and Maria Tzannes bold article, and Jos Moust’s fine work on PBL at Maastricht, I began to sketch out how it might be achieved.  Charlie Hennessy and I went to Glasgow University Medical Faculty and met with staff; and I tracked a class, sitting in with them and absorbing the forms of learning that were going on in PBL sessions.  But I had eight months to put together the curriculum, and little infrastructure or resources at that stage; and it was clear that political problems were going to be considerable in bringing together the two different Diplomas.  I knew enough from talking to staff at Glasgow Med  Faculty that it was best to start out with as full-throated a version of PBL as possible (and my slight experience at Caledonian confirmed that).  So once again PBL was shelved, and I began to plan a curriculum based much more around sims and multimedia which would, I hoped, in their way help to change the lectures, tutorials and workshops that were the staple of the Diploma.  And they did, in what was to become the Glasgow Graduate School of Law; and some aspects of PBL were incorporated in that, but not nearly the full infrastructure.

Later as an adjunct prof at ANU College of Law and observing the debates around how to deal with the curriculum of the JD, two things became clear to me: we could be a lot more radical in how we viewed the Priestley curriculum holistically, and digital technologies rarely entered the debates, in spite of the great work being carried out in simulation in the ANU Legal Workshop at that time.  When appointed full-time, one of my tasks was help embed innovation in the ANU College of Law undergrad curriculum.  Working with Chris Trevitt and others, I proposed that we attempt a world-first — an online PBL JD curriculum.  There are of course online JD degrees in Australia, and f2f PBL JD degrees, but the splicing of online with PBL seemed a natural next step, particularly after my experience of using digital technologies at Strathclyde.  I remember first thinking about it cycling round Lake Burley-Griffin in the dark, where I get most good ideas, mapping it out, rethinking curriculum silos, re-imagining skills development, using the heuristic as a mode of radical educational change based on small group learning.[6]

The debates were intense, invigorating, with the planning, collection of a substantial working library of materials on PBL in a Zotero library, and production of internal working papers, wireframe designs, and much else as part of the ongoing process.  Some of us visited Maastricht, some visited York Law School’s PBL LLB programme — I know the Director of Learning and Teaching there, Scott Slorach, from my time at Strathclyde Law School where he is still a Visiting Professor — and York’s curriculum, and Scott’s work on it, has been invaluable in helping us over sticky design issues.

What we were doing was nothing less than analysing the entire Australian qualifying law curriculum, disassembling its assemblages of content and method (and yes, in the Deleuzian sense as well as Twining’s plumber’s sense).  We re-assembled the curriculum anew, designing the arcs of problem narratives and the great holistic arc of the curriculum, dwelling on the phenomenology of experiential learning, building spaces for capstone experiences at its conclusion, while attending to the regulatory demands of Priestley, the CALD guidelines and much else.  Nor did we focus just on regulatory content.  PBL and the huge resources of the web, both comms and content, are ideal for intimate learning in the realm of legal theory.  York University Law School’s PBL programme shows how the methodology can support subjects such as War Humanitarianism and Law, or Theoretical Criminology, or Philosophy of Criminal Law.  And of course PBL is ideal for learning reasoning and interpretive skills, of which statutory interpretation is only one sub-set, that arise naturally from the consistent, habitual analysis of problems.

And now our online PBL JD is up and running at ANU, with the first cohort of students studying Torts/Civil.  It’s been a huge team effort over a number of years, but we’re off the start-line and running the cursus.  We’re also about to start the evaluation.  For as you might expect, this world-first will be a research project where we investigate what changes and why.  Future posts will chart its progress.  And if St Kentigerna, that indomitable holy leader in eighth-century Scotland, daughter of Cellach, King of Leinster, became patron saint of twenty-first century Ardcalloch, who should be the spiritual, tutelary presence for our online PBL JD?  I haven’t had any visitations yet, so over to you, dear reader.


  1. [1]Barrows, H.S. & Tamblyn, R.M. (1976).  An evaluation of problem-based learning in small groups utilising a simulated patient. Journal
    of Medical Education, 51,  52-54.
  2. [2]Barrows, H.S. (1986). A taxonomy of problem-based learning methods. Medical Education, 20, 482-486.
  3. [3]I still have my dog-eared copy.  Equally battered, falling apart actually, was my other favourite text of those dark times, Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, with a great introduction by Hannah Arendt.  I keep meaning to write about both texts, which were side by side on my bookshelf for years, the way that you put books together and know that they’ll get on well with each other.  What did a Brazilian educator and a German Jewish intellectual have in common?  Actually a lot more than you’d think — a profound knowledge of Marxist thought, a commitment to left politics, two lives spent in counter-cultural activities, both influenced by theology (for Freire, liberation theology, for Benjamin, Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah, and much else), both shining examples of committed, critical lives.
  4. [4]And I’ll discuss that briefly in the plenary session at the Directions in Legal Education Conference, Chinese University of Hong Kong, later this week.
  5. [5]Actually this diagram doesn’t do justice to the phenomenological complexities of either conventional or PBL curricula, but at least it expresses the main difference in approach, which is to say, if you’re a student you either start with a given body of knowledge, or start with a problem.
  6. [6]Darkness and sleep are incubators of creativity.  I first thought of Ardcalloch lying half-asleep in the bole of a tree on the islet of Inchcailloch (‘isle of nuns’ in one translation) in Loch Lomond, within the garth of the chapel dedicated to St Kentigerna.  Hurry, she said, build a virtual town on the web, use it for education, call it after my isle.  I shall watch over you.  And lo, it came to pass and Kentigerna became patron saint of the entire project.  It’s ironic that with the disappearance of the Glasgow Graduate School of Law after over a decade of work, all web traces disappeared, too, with the exception of a partial history of Ardcalloch — a history of a town that wasn’t real but wasn’t not real either, neither fiction nor fact, inhabiting the space between tradition and innovation.  Here’s the first section, on the town’s origins and Kentigerna.  The medieval and eighteenth century sections seem to be lost online, though I have them somewhere in my dusty files; here’s the Renaissance section, the nineteenth century, and the last section, on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

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