In their spare time

by Paul Maharg on 02/12/2016

Saw this recently on Legal Futures, one of my favourite online sources of professional legal news in E+W:

Law students build app aimed at helping crime victims

My eye was caught by this sentence:

Mr Bull, LawBot’s founder and managing director, who is German and speaks six languages, wrote the software.

So just to slow up for a moment there, we’ve got:
1.   A law student
2.  who’s MD of a company
3.  called LawBot
4.  is German (could be tough, with Brexit…)
5.  writes code (as well as essays, one presumes)
6.  speaks six languages (only six – what’s he doing in his spare time)

Actually the article goes on to tell us what he did in his spare time.  He wrote the app, along with his colleagues.  All of which raises serious issues for those of us designing legal curricula…

… foremost of which might be: how we can make this spare time activity mainstream in our programmes?  At first glance, it could mean taking a model of learning from CompSci and embedding it deeply with Law – so design a curriculum where students study programming + law?  That sounds reasonable.  But look more closely at the six elements.  We’d surely want to encourage students to engage in them all, and more.  If you’re going to think about writing an app, then apart from the expert knowledge you’ll embed within it, sooner or later you’ll think about how you will develop it, what commercial or charitable structure you’d want to use, and what that activity might help you do in the future.  In other words we need to move from a curriculum that starts and ends with a study of legal structures (forms of companies, partnership, etc) to a curriculum  can be used to support creativity in whatever form that takes – digital, legal, linguistic.  If we’re to achieve them all we don’t want any particular discipline to dominate: language learning should be broad enough to encompass human as well as machine language-learning, for instance.[1]

All of which means recasting interdisciplinarity for our teaching, and at a fundamental level.  We need to take a creative swerve even behind the concept of a learning outcome and rethink, reshape what the experience of learning can be in the digital environment, or in the campus-based/digital environment.  Eg currently, LMSs facilitate, for the most part, shovelware, that encourages bean-counting.  We should want our students to be creative, collaborative, and use tech as a creative tool.   What matters, then, is how we as teachers and designers craft the learning environment, and how we help students to learn not just knowledge and skills but the social context within which they can be used, and the practical means to do that.

To support that creativity we need to design not just joint programmes but interdisciplinary programmes that bring together students as co-designers.  What might the detail of that look like?  Consider a couple of short webcasts, say 15 mins each, eg an interview with Mr Bull & colleagues, and a panel from the A2J movement in some US law schools are used as part of an interdisciplinary module.  Imagine that any primary resources (cases, legislation, etc), and ancillary documents, graphics, self-testing questions with branching feedback, staff commentary are available, clustered around the central figures within the televisual event.  Time-shifting, replaying, re-thinking, reading, discussing, all at the students’ pace, is possible.  Students can leave questions under their own names or anonymously, which will be answered by you or a tutor from CompSci, Law or any other discipline, or from digital industries, the answers available to all.  Dialogue is possible there.  So is interactivity, amongst students, between students and staff that we simply don’t have before: likes, dislikes, tags, shares, dubs, redubs, extractors, mashups, response-videos, comments on videos by students as per YouTube, splicing text with video, saving resources to exam questions, structuring, restructuring Open textbooks that have video embedded in them.  All this exists out there on the web.  We just aren’t using any of it in our courses: as William Gibson (wasn’t it?) said, the future is already with us, it just isn’t evenly distributed.  For a glimpse of that future, see Kris Greaves’ fine article [paywall] that I published earlier this year in the digital technologies Special Edition of The Law Teacher, a substantial analysis of how we could use data-rich environments to enable our students to learn.

For yet more evidence of big data’s reach, and how it can be used creatively, see this article from Wired.   I love the potential dovetailing of criminology & education.  Imagine our students studying this as a case study: Big Data + (Becoming a Man + Ethical learning + Intensive tutoring).  Or better still, imagine our students being trained to use Big Data in order to research and identify change moments for themselves, and thereby helping to dismantle, conceptually, the idea of Higher Education as a common good, as our liberal cultures have it, maybe seeing it as a privileged, gamed system that actually perpetuates inequality, and then beginning to do something about that, much as Mr Bull is doing something about ‘helping regular people understand the difficult rules that shape and govern our everyday life’.  Pure Dewey.  Or take a look at the creativity of this piece, where a HDR student is using large datasets to improve his literature searching.   And we haven’t begun to discuss simulation, virtual reality, augmented reality, gamification, workplace learning.

Before we get too carried away, there are regulatory implications to this for legal educators.  How do you measure what students might do within such learn-rich environments?  More profoundly, how do you begin to persuade regulators and accreditors that it’s pointless to begin to even try to measure input?  The key should be output, and output based upon student experience.  What do students learn out of all this?  Do they feel that they learn?  Efficiently?  Can we prove that they do this?  How should our teaching practices change?  What should replace them, how will they will transform in this new culture?  Assessment practices, too, should change as a result – how are we going to re-design that?  We need to learn how architectural students are assessed on their portfolios, on their design work, and how salon learning and assessment works.  In a course that some colleagues designed in another university where we used sophisticated multiple choice question sets in the examination, we actually used them to teach students, embedding examples into workshops and seminars on civil procedure, and asking students to question why they got some wrong, what was the process, etc. in what was effectively an open book culture, throughout.  In its way this was a prototype of architectural design thinking and problem-based learning – asking students to think about the gap between their current knowledge, skills, habits and standards, and what they need to know and do in order to bridge that gap.

Teaching, learning, digital cultures, assessment – these are not reforms that can be carried out piecemeal.  They need to be parallel, integrated projects, where staff work together in teams.  At Strathclyde we encountered exactly the same problems at the start of the new digital culture we wanted to create; but we responded much more swiftly and decisively to them, because if we didn’t we’d be overwhelmed: no one else was going to do our design job for us.  So we worked out new ways to be effective as an administrative unit, a teaching unit, a research unit, and worked as a close-knit team – I met most days with my tech team manager in the Unit I directed, shifting, tweaking, preparing for horizon-changes.

Many law schools, faced with Mr Bull’s innovation, will be happy to claim at least some credit.  But the students worked on it in their spare time precisely because it wasn’t part of the curriculum.  For their part, most law schools continue with the structure and content of mid-twentieth century educational programmes because they can, caught between print-bound cultures that depend on large lecture theatres, 50 min lectures, unwieldy lecture+tutorial models, cumbersome forms of written exams, elderly admin systems; and will resist new modes of learning, again because they can.  It’s an increasingly uncomfortable existence, though; and faced with major changes racing fast over the horizon they’ll need to adapt fast.[2]

So what sort of changes are we facing, or is that just me spouting futureshock vapourware?  I’m not talking changes such as TEF or its equivalent in other jurisdictions.  Take a look at this article from Inside Higher Education on Pearson’s Hololens initiative.  The article makes the argument that we need to see through the inevitable hype that will accompany such initiatives in augmented reality.  But to my mind more important is the article’s reminder of the sheer financial and organisational heft that Pearson, now that it has divested itself of troubled profit margins from old technological platforms such as The Economist and The FT, brings to bear on Higher Education, particularly in partnership with digital corporations such as Microsoft.  If you’re a legal educator, doesn’t Pearson’s move make you just a bit more uneasy about the future of legal education in law schools?   If so, our answer should involve rethinking our approach to education, and radical creativity within our own curricula.

  1. [1]And not only living languages: why shouldn’t we learn to read Assyrian, or some other entirely new script-based language which, having studied ancient Greek at school and music as an adult, I always thought a useful skill.  No, seriously…
  2. [2]It won’t have escaped you, of course, that the institutions under least pressure to adapt are the top law schools such as Cambridge, who nevertheless have students such Mr Bull & colleagues who produced this app in their spare time.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Tamara Hervey December 2, 2016 at 23:39

More thoughtful iconoclasm from the excellent Paul Maharg!

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