Learning In Law: UKCLE Conference 2008

For the new year, I’ve been sent to Coventry – but don’t worry, it’s just for the day. Hello from the University of Warwick (a few miles outside said city), where I’m attending a conference on legal education. These are my notes – fairly rough in parts. (Note: I’m publishing this later in the evening, back in Dublin, having experienced some problems accessing my blog during the day. I’ve combined all the stuff I was writing as I went into a single entry. I hope you don’t mind…)

(Dis)integration…designs on the law curriculum – Learning In Law Annual Conference 2008

General

My heart goes out to the organisers of the event, the Learning in Law Annual Conference (LILAC). They are the wonderful UK Centre for Legal Education (UKCLE; shame they couldn’t make the acronym UKELELE). They have been organising and promoting the conference for much of 2007, and now the day of the event has dawned, with biblical plagues being sent down upon them. For example, it’s very cold. Ready to snow, in fact. The British railway system is having one of its periodic meltdowns, with the West Coast Main Line (serving Coventry, the nearest station to the University of Warwick) being closed due to ‘overrunning engineering works’, and apparently the traffic is awful (one pair of speakers already cancelled due to being stuck on the M1). I came through Birmingham Airport; no trouble there, although yesterday there was a fire at the airport’s railway station (all we need now are the locusts). It’s a day-and-a-half-long extravaganza but is a little on the pricey side (thankfully there is a student discount), so I’m just attending one of the days.

Law Teacher of the Year

A particular feature of the conference is the showcasing of the nominees for Law Teacher of the Year. One brave nominee, John Tribe (Kingston) even brought along the antique pillories (thankfully – are there any other kind?) that he uses to support the teaching of insolvency law (presumably for visual and pedagogical purposes rather than for better in-class discipline), stored in his Museum of Bankruptcy Law. My good friend and fellow blogger Fernando Barrio (see his blog) is a nominee and was setting up his stand as I arrived this morning.

Parallel Session 1 – Engagement

The parallel sessions grouped papers around keywords – and ‘engagement’ was the keyword for the option I chose to start things off at (around) 9.45.

Jane Henderson and Laurie Lomas: Concept Mapping in Higher Education

This talk dealt with the use of ‘concept mapping’ in teaching at King’s College London, in particular in a project for first year contract law tutorials.

There’s a difference between mindmap and concept mapping, although there are some similarities. The main difference here is that the arrows are labelled. The label can change the meaning.; the focus is how you link concepts together.

We, the audience, demonstrated this ourselves by doing a concept map on paper with sticky notes and lots of arrows on ‘what is a law teacher’. While completing this, the presenters explained how this approach was particularly helpful for supporting legal education, and reported on the results of their analysis of student concept maps. Students were asked to create a concept map of contract law, at the start and at an intermediate point of the semester.

Significant changes were recorded in the detail of the maps created by their students – related to the substantive learning during the semester. Spokes, chains and networks were differentiated (networks being the best, and really only came about in later maps). Differences in whether the labels were merely descriptive or also had elements of further knowledge / causation / etc were also recorded; some tentative correlations to student performance were also mentioned.

Alison Bone: Designing student learning by promoting formative assessment

Alison Bone opened with a further tale of woe involving a cold hotel room, a bath and a power cut. She also admitted that the title is a lie; you can’t actually ‘design’ student learning (“you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink…”).

Students are generally unsatisfied with assessment and feedback, although they’re generally happy with their courses (source: NSS). However, in a survey as part of a previous project by Bone, it turns out that very few UK law students have an opportunity to do ‘pure formative assessment’ (i.e. assessment with no summative component at all).

Pilot project – the main assignment was 2500 words on ‘recent developments’ in employment law; students were allowed to submit 500 words in advance (whether from the same material or not), optional, for formative assessment. Promised within 2 weeks. Nearly two-thirds of those who responded to a subsequent questionnaire said that they didn’t do it, and the vast majority of those said that it was due to lack of time, with only two of them saying that their reason was that they did not think it would help. Fiona Cowlie (Keele) commented on an experiment where she found that after students requested more feedback, a significant group of students did not even collect it! For those who didn’t do the assignment, the response to a question on ‘in hindsight, would it have been useful’ was mixed, and seemingly tainted by the marks received! Bone distinguished between ‘feedback’ and ‘feed-forward’, an increasingly familiar but still interesting nuance. Jane Henderson (one of the earlier speakers) asked about the impact of student fees. Most did find it helpful but for various reasons, including time management, feedback received, etc. From the slides – “A useful suggestion was made that a generic feedback sheet could be given to the whole group after the samples had been returned pointing out eg common errors and good practice – this is currently only done for summative assessment A useful suggestion was made that a generic feedback sheet could be given to the whole group after the samples had been returned pointing out eg common errors and good practice – this is currently only done for summative assessment.

Keynote

Avrom Sherr (IALS, London) gave a keynote address entitled ‘Language Cuckoos, Cultural Hegemony and Legal Education in the EU: The “Commonisation” of European Law’.

He spoke about two trends that seemed to be in conflict – British isolationism from the EU and Europe in general and educational terms (Euroscepticism, not fitting correctly into Bologna, political context, etc) but also English-language dominance of law and lawyers – becoming a lingua franca (what he referred to as being a phrase “in Italian, about French, meaning English”). The results of some basic research on Italian and German law schools were presented – English strongly dominant in Italy (some foreign language education is required, although a lot of it is pass/fail or ungraded), Germany requires law schools to have a course (module) on foreign law (taught in the foreign langauge) or a law-based foreign language course – again, much of this is in English. There are “Law and” programmes as well of various sorts. Munster even get various native speakers to teach the courses…and it’s even happening in Paris!

He cited this interesting post from Concurring Opinions: “Coming to law school is sort of like learning another language” (here) and told a fun story about Babelfish (Guardian story: “How Babel Fish almost caused a diplomatic incident“). Futher honourable mentions went to Gramsci on power/culture/symbol of language, linguistic hegemony, the market effects of English dominance (Francois Grin, The Economics of Language, 2006) and even Robert Phillipson (someone I’ve read a lot of in the context of linguistic imperialism) – English as the ‘cuckoo‘ in European higher education. We heard about the role of common law legal education more generally, and its ‘fundamentally conservat(ism)’ (Burridge & Webb, (2007) 10(1) Legal Ethics 72-97 (forthcoming)).

Sherr’s conclusion was, by his own admission, inconclusive. The question time was very very short, unfortunately. I would have liked to have raised issues like the role of EU multilingual policies, particularly when it comes to the translation of legal documents, the procedures of the European Parliament, etc. I’m sure others would have liked to consider the classic comparative law questions of the role of common law in the European legal sphere, not to mention the tantalising references made by the speaker to the cultural and normative impact of using a ‘foreign’ language to discuss the law in a given country.

Parallel Session 2 (Integration):

“It’s Land Law, Captain, but not as we know it”: using drama to enhance large group teaching
Mark Davys and Jenny Smith

These speakers, from Keele, gave a very entertaining and engaging presentation about the subject that must have been my least favourite as a law student, land law. With falling attendance and a perception of difficulty, they faced a particular challenge. Davys started by bringing certain dramatic elements into the classroom, making it more interesting – would it get students into the room, even if only to see what the mad idiot did next? So we heard about things like dressing up as James Bond (licensed to register), or channelling Prof. Dumbledorm (Hogworths School of Conveyencing) – and not to mention Star Trek (complete with the backing music from the original 1960s series). But didn’t work in full, so they thought about it some more. They discovered that drama helped to break the material (and the lecture) up into manageable chunks. Change of style/break from learning was helpful to maximise student learning. Furthermore, linking concepts to (contemporary) culture did help to make it more memorable . For example, Peter Birks’ “five keys to land law” were reorganised to spell TARDIS. Thus, Davys reconfigured the ‘fun’ to ensure that it was used to highlight key terminology and new material. An example was an end-of-class discussion of how land law allows control over time and space (Daleks made an appearance here, in audio form). Another example was a song that he performed (and reprised for our benefit) as a summary of material covered to date, to the tune of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

A very Interesting point was made by Smith, that land law presents a particular challenge, as students of college age unlikely to have experience of land ownership – and find it hard to relate? I agree – and it is much easier, for example, to discuss principles of consumer contracts, when most students engage in this sort of interaction every weekend. (I’m quite lucky with the technology law elements of my teaching, as the Internet is just made for real case studies!). Their response was, through the virtual learning environment (I think they said they used WebCT, but it’s not relevant), where a ‘real life’ soap-style story was told about a group of second year undergraduate students dealing with a landlady and even considering the purchase of a house between them.

What do the learners have to say? Feedback – some students think drama/music has helped in understanding. Some less positive though. Davys concluded that he was surprised at some resistance by students to teaching not aimed at their own learning preferences, and noted with some amusement that one student found the use of music and drama “inappropriate for a university” – he (Davys) wondered whether lecturing and notetaking is itself appropriate?

Parallel Session 3

PodLaw – Chris Hull (St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham).

I didn’t even know there is a St. Mary’s University College in England – there is an institution (teacher training etc) with the exact same name in Belfast. You learn something new and unusual every day….

Hull spoke about expanding flexible learning and study options to portable learning devices, arguing that this does not represent a significant jump from VLEs, PowerPoint, etc, it’s just that a lot of educators are not aware of how easy it is to make this possible.

His institution uses Blackboard – initially for slides, additional notes, links, submission of assignments – and then a discussion forum. But there were problems – students don’t always access it (they don’t necessarily want to do more than the basic), time is a problem, access to a machine at home (with Net connection) too. Commuting a particular issue for this institution, not to mention students working while studying. (Hull gave the particular example of company policies of no computers for personal use that prevent students from accessing higher education material from office computers during breaks etc – perhaps something for IBEC and ICTU to consider the next time they are promoting part-time studies). I was delighted that the speaker also raised the issue of students with learning difficulties – dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia – ADHD, etc.

Various solutions and applications were discussed, including straightforward podcasting (noting the use of iTalk to record lectures without fuss), converting slides to JPEG and promoting mobile phone use, converting notes to .txt for use on phones, iPods, etc, breaking up audio files (with Audacity or similar) for ease of use, iPod Notes Packer, iWriter, and the very interesting-sounding iQuiz Maker. Another thing that cheered me was a reference in questions and answers to students sharing downloads, notes etc via Bluetooth (phone to phone, no costs incurred). (I’ve written my own things about slides and podcasting here).

That’s all the notes I have, although I did attend a couple of other sessions that I didn’t take as detailed notes on (which is no reflection on their quality). I’ll return to the topic with a more general post tomorrow where I add my own reflections/responses to some of the issues raised.

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