NewLaw NewLegalEducation

By Justine Rogers

I was lucky to be part of an invigorating panel discussion hosted by The Australian recently, as part of their Legal Week initiative. I joined two colleagues, our Dean, Professor George Williams, and Associate Professor Michael Legg, as well as Gilbert+Tobin lawyer, Sam Nickless.

It was a wide, free-flowing discussion of the current and future changes to the profession, what Williams called ‘a once-in-a-century process of disruption in the legal market’, and the meanings these have for practice and for legal education. I thought I’d share here some of the main changes discussed and their significance for legal education and the law school.

The Changes:

1. Automation of legal services and its integration with services delivered by people.
2. The possibility for technology to increase access to justice.
2. Unbundling of legal services and flexible, ad hoc and assorted teams brought together for certain projects.
3. Professional ethics centred less and less in the profession and professional association and more in organisations and even the mode of legal service delivery itself.
4. Ethics of introducing new technology to clients or helping them with their artificial intelligence.
5. The globalisation of law – where clients, for instance, are from other jurisdictions.
6. The changes to law firms and their business arrangements, specialisations and recruitment practices, including firms coming from overseas to recruit UNSW Law (or Australian) students.
7. Cross-border disputes and the extent to which Australian courts can remain forums for litigation.

What They Mean for Legal Education and the Law School:

1. Urgent need to answer questions about the value that a person adds as a lawyer.
2. Law schools may need to focus on the ‘professional’ things computers can’t do (or can’t do as well): certain forms of problem solving and analysis, integrity, ethics, professional relationships, creativity and imagination.
3. Law combined with computer science, maths or engineering will add to classic combinations.
4. All law students must understand technology (coding and programming, for instance) regardless of their other degree.
5. Law students must develop capacities in team work and project management.
6. Law students need to be able to identify and address ethics and accountability issues in a range of contexts, when working with external lawyers, non-lawyer professionals and, crucially, with technology.
7. Law students need to understand not just other, non-Australian legal systems but also the cultures in which law operates.
8. Law schools need to help their students appreciate the range of different firms in Australia and the region in making their career decisions.

Without wanting to sound too home-team-y, we’re already doing some pretty fabulous stuff at UNSW Law to support each of these and, through a mini curriculum review, we’re about to do a whole lot more.

(The full video and an edited transcript of the discussion is here.)

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Student evaluations and innovative teaching

STUDENT EVALUATIONS OF TEACHER PERFORMANCE MAY HINDER INNOVATIVE ‘GOOD TEACHING’ PRACTICE: SOME OBSERVATIONS FROM RECENT RESEARCH

Julian Laurens

Recent research on student evaluations of teacher performance suggest, I argue, that assessing teacher performance via narrowly constructed student evaluation surveys designed to produce a quantifiable indicator of ‘good teaching’ may in fact have the indirect consequence of hindering innovation in ‘good’ teaching approaches. The May 2017 study [1] findings are consistent with a growing body of research [2] that shows university students are simply unable to recognise ‘good teaching’ or ‘what is best for their own learning’. The research identifies that students do not reward ‘good’ or ‘innovative’ teaching in the sense of an improved student evaluation mark for that teacher. Indeed, the evidence suggests the biggest factor informing a positive evaluation from a student is the grade the student is given.

On the other hand, as the studies show, student ignorance of ‘good teaching’ exists alongside evidence demonstrating that quality teaching has a positive impact on a student’s grades and learning outcomes. Moreover, when exposed to quality teaching the improved learning outcomes are transferred to subsequent subjects. This effect is consistent with findings from educational psychology: the work of Albert Bandura and other social-cognitive theorists on the development of student self-efficacy is particularly relevant. Worryingly, the research suggests that students who rated their teachers based on marks they received actually did worse on subsequent courses.

The research thus far raises implications for legal education. A specific and immediate issue raised by the findings is that given student evaluations of teaching are used by University and Faculty management when considering an academic’s career progress, there is a real risk that teachers may choose to ‘play it safe’. What incentive is there for a teacher to actually try something new in their teaching given that they will potentially not receive improved evaluation scores, and in fact may be penalised by students for being ‘innovative’?

A limitation is that much of the research so far is from non-law disciplines. There is yet to be a systematic look at how this particular problem with student evaluations does (if at all) apply to an Australian law school. This should not preclude us from taking note though.  Issues surrounding student evaluations generally have long been recognised in law schools. As Roth said (back in 1984), “[e]veryone agrees that evaluations ought to be done, but few are satisfied that it is now being done properly, or meaningfully” [3]. This remains the wider challenge. Elsewhere on this blog, colleagues Justine Rogers and Carolyn Penfold have also begun examining issues surrounding student’s evaluations.

In conclusion, for present purposes, the research may support the argument that over reliance on current narrow neo-liberal/managerialist inspired approaches to student evaluations of teachers at law schools in Australia may actually hinder innovative ‘good’ teaching practice. Current iterations of such practices can indeed appear as mechanisms of academic control, rather than tools that promote mutually collaborative learning environments. The research calls into question more broadly claims by universities to be dedicated to ‘good teaching’ and ‘innovation in learning’. There is a need to explore this issue further in the context of Australian legal education, situating it alongside continuing conversations around what actual good teaching looks like in law for example. I would like to make three brief practical observations at this stage derived from analysis of the research that may assist us to address some of the negative challengeS posed by the findings:

  • Firstly, we should always strive to improve our teaching, and we should be uncompromising in that. We should communicate this commitment to our students;
  • Secondly, we need to do a better job of explaining to students our teaching approach and rationales and how something relates to the learning experience;
  • Thirdly, we need to give students more opportunities to practice and reflect on what they have achieved along the way. Students need to see how they are progressing. They need to be regularly reminded of the value of learning. Royce Sadler’s work on the importance of feedback is worth reflecting on here.

[1] Brian A Jacob et al, ‘Measuring Up: Assessing instructor effectiveness in higher education’ (2017) 17(3) Education Next 68.

[2] See e.g. Michela Bragga et al, ‘Evaluating students’ evaluations of professors’ (2014) 41 Economics of Education Review 71; Arthur Poropat, ‘Students don’t know what’s best for their own learning’ (The Conversation, November 19, 2014) (online: http://theconversation.com/students-dont-know-whats-best-for-their-own-learning-33835 )

[3] William Roth, ‘Student Evaluation of Law Teaching’ (1984) 17(4) Akron Law Review 609, 610.

Big Data Analytics on student surveys

It’s the new “thing” – analytics applied to student responses to courses. And it is really quite scary.

To give an example, I will share my own results from a recently taught course of 22 students of which 10 filled out the survey. This is “small data”. It takes about 5-10 minutes (generously) to read and reflect upon the student feedback. Since I am sharing, they generally liked the course including guest lectures and excursions, but felt that one topic didn’t need as much time and that my Moodle page wasn’t well organised. All very helpful for the next time I run the course (note to self to start my Moodle page earlier and tweak the class schedule).

The problem is no longer the feedback, it is the “analytics” which now accompany it. The worst is the “word clouds”. I look at the word cloud for my course and see big words (these generally reflect the feedback, subject to an exception discussed below) and then smaller words and phrases. Now the smaller ones in a word cloud are obviously meant to be “less” important but these are really quite concerning, so much so that I initially panicked. They include “disrespectful/rude”, “unapproachable”, “not worthwhile”, “superficial” and “unpleasant”. Bear in mind the word cloud precedes the actual comments in my report. None of these terms (nor their synonyms) were used by ANY of the students (unless an organised Moodle page could count as “unapproachable”). And they are really horrible things to say about someone, especially when there is no basis for these kinds of assertions in the actual feedback received.

The problem here is applying a “big data” tool to (very) small data. It doesn’t work, and it can be actively misleading. One of the word clouds (there are different ones for different “topics”) had the word “organised”. That came up because students were telling me my Moodle page was NOT well organised, but it would be easy to think at a quick glance that this was praise.

So what is the point of this exercise? One imagines it might be useful if you have a course with hundreds of students (so that reading the comments would take an hour, say). But the fact that the comments can be actively misleading (as in “organised” above) demonstrates, you still need to read the comments to understand the context. Further, students often make subtle observations in comments (like the fact that too much time was spent on a particular topic) that are difficult to interpret in a word cloud where the phrases are aggregated and sprinkled around the place. So, it doesn’t really save time. The comments still need to be read and reflected on.

Big Data tools always sound very exciting. So much buzz! Imagine if we could predict flu epidemics from Google searches (that no longer works, by the way) or predict crime before it happens (lots of jurisdictions are trying this, particularly in the US). But the truth is more like the word cloud on student feedback – inappropriately applied, error prone, poorly understood by those deploying the tool, and thus often unhelpful. Data analytics CAN be good tool – but it is a bit like a hammer in the hands of those who don’t understand its function and limitations, everything looks like a nail.

Lyria Bennett Moses

Smart Casual teaching development modules now available

An innovative resource for specifically developed for sessional law teachers (but able to support permanent staff as well!) is now online.

The Modules

The first five modules of the Smart Casual suite of online modules to support sessional colleagues with law specific teaching strategies are now available at https://smartlawteacher.org/modules.  They are:

  • Reading Law
  • Critical Thinking
  • Legal Problem Solving
  • Student Engagement
  • Feedback

They are supported by an introductory module that highlights four themes that run through the modules and are key to legal education: diversity, internationalisation, digital literacy and gender.

A further four modules will be available in the coming months:

  • Wellness
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility
  • Indigenous Peoples and the Law

Format

The modules are written in Articulate Storyline with links to video clips and are designed to allow viewers to either work through the slides sequentially or skip to areas of interest.    Modules take around an hour to work through, but can be skimmed for relevant content much more quickly.

The modules are designed to have a peer-to-peer approach, recognising the experience that sessional colleagues bring to their teaching.  They feature a range of short videos from sessional staff themselves discussing the issues in the modules.  The use of reflective questions throughout the modules means the modules can also be used a conversation starters for peer discussions.

Background

Smart Casual involves a collaboration of academics from five Australian law schools producing a suite of professional development modules for sessional teachers of law. Half of all teaching in Australian higher education is provided by sessional staff (and possibly more in law schools), so the quality of sessional teaching is critical to student learning, retention and progress. However, national research suggests that support and training for sessional teachers remains inadequate.

In law, this problem is compounded by the need for staff to teach discipline-specific skills and content to students destined for a socially-bounded profession. Yet sessional law teachers are often time-poor full-time practitioners weakly connected to the tertiary sector. The distinct nature of these sessional staff and the discipline-specific learning outcomes required in law demand discipline-specific sessional staff training.

The project was funded by grants from the Australian Government’s Office of Learning and Teaching.  The  project team is:

  • Mary Heath, Associate Professor, Flinders University (Project Leader);
  • Kate Galloway, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, Bond University.
  • Anne Hewitt, Associate Professor, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide;
  • Mark Israel, Adjunct Professor of Law and Criminology, Flinders University; Visiting Academic, School of Social Sciences, University of Western Australia;
  • Natalie Skead, Associate Professor, University of Western Australia;
  • Alex Steel, Professor, University of New South Wales

 

Innovation for the next generation of legal education: student-led video production

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How can legal education be enhanced through student-led video production? How effective is it for class learning? And what are benefits and challenges that this form of blended learning poses for environmental law and legal education more generally?

These questions were explored by Cameron Holley and Amelia Thorpe in a recent UNSW Law Learning & Teaching seminar where they presented the findings from their Learning and Teaching Innovation grant entitled: ‘Updating legal education with blended classrooms: lessons from student-led resource development’.

The premise:

  • Videos are one of most popular form of online media teaching (particularly in MOOCs) 
  • Facilitate thinking and problem solving

–creative challenge of using moving images and sound to communicate a topic

–filmmaking skills, but also research, collaborative working, problem solving, technology, and organisational skills

  • Inspire, engage and foster deep learning

–Videos as part of student-centred learning activities benefit motivation, opportunities for deeper learning, learner autonomy, communication skills,

  • Authentic learning opportunities

–method for students to construct concepts and learning about real life issues relevant to them

  • Assist with mastery learning

–providing learning resources for future cohorts

What did they do?

–students asked to identify a recent development in environmental law that is not already covered in the prescribed text book

–required to produce a short video, no longer than 10 minutes, that portrays the subject matter of a recent environmental law development and reflects thoughtfully on in its implications for achieving ecologically sustainable development

–low risk – 5% for trial (would be more in future)

–outcomes and process assessed

–small teams of 4-6 students

  • to assist: three iPads made available and guide sheets on a suggested timeline, working in small groups, and media production.
  • videos shown to the class as a set late in semester.

–roughly 40% of class already had experience with technology

The Results?

Cameron and Amelia showed examples of videos that demonstrated highly engaged, deep learning among the student groups, with a strikingly high level of production value!

The presentation drew on empirical data collected from student interviews and surveys, as well as teacher and peer reflections. It rounded off by critically examining the strengths and weaknesses of student produced videos as a tool for blended learning, before a lot of us in attendance decided we all want to try it out in our courses!

For those who wish to experiment with similar innovations, view the student data, or track the sources for the above,  their slides are available here: Holley_Thorpe_UNSWLaw_video.

A not so subtle metaphor

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Imagine if a faculty of science in Australia focused its undergraduate/foundational teaching on the science of the local flora and fauna.  Students would learn about kangaroos and eucalyptus tress, about achidnas and banksias, about the funnel-web spider and the Murray cod.  Of course, they would also learn about palm trees and dingos, about the cane toad and about invasive weeds.  While there would occasionally be upper level electives on comparative anatomy or botany or on species not found locally, those courses would be few and far between, perhaps largely left for specialised postgraduate or later studies.

Further, imagine if the science faculties around the world followed the same model and also focused their undergraduate/foundational degree programs on their own local flora and fauna. Such a situation of university science education might arise around the world if the primary jobs for science graduates were in managing and developing the local flora and fauna, with only occasional work involving foreign or trans-regional species (despite an increasingly interconnected world of flora and fauna).  It might be perpetuated by the senior people in the field, who set the employment regulations, and who believe such an intense grounding in local science is necessary for the successful work of the scientist and the country.

Such an approach to science education around the world would mean that it would be difficult for science graduates to move to other countries for work in their field – as they may lack the local knowledge demanded of them by employers and by the regulators of their field.  Further (local) studies would be required to then secure employment in that foreign country. If the flora and fauna were too radically different it might even be the case that the newly arrived science graduate would have to start over again, enrolling in the local foundational science degree.

In such a situation we should expect there to be little science student international mobility, especially into the undergraduate/foundational level. After all, why go to the trouble and expense to study the flora and fauna of another country – especially for three to four years when that knowledge will be unlikely to help secure a job back home.  Though, if the home has similar flora and fauna it may be that the undergraduate/foundational degree would be acceptable, providing enough substantive knowledge to permit successful work back home. Thus, science studies in California may be suitable for Mexico, or studies in Vietnam would be applicable in Cambodia.  But a degree in such a localised science course in Australia would not be of much use in Norway.

Perhaps another approach to science teaching might be to push for an undergraduate/foundational degree in world/comparative flora and fauna, focusing on holistic concepts and transferable skills, perhaps with a few upper level electives or specialized post graduate courses in the local flora and fauna that would then provide the detailed knowledge to work locally (though the basic courses should be sufficient to provide the ability to assimilate and understand the science of the local flora and fauna).  Such an approach might reflect an understanding that science is best taught by starting at an holistic and conceptual level, and then moving to the specific if necessary.  Such an approach accepts and understands that science  is more similar than different across the world.  Imagine if that is how science faculties actually taught.

By Colin Picker

The Legal Ethics of Better Call Saul

BCSaul

One of my students sent me this resource, a blog written by a New York ethics lawyer on the legal ethics of Better Call Saul. Better Call Saul is the spin-off and prequel to Breaking Bad – and is, in my view, a better show (get on it – you needn’t have watched Breaking Bad!).

The phrase “Better Call Saul” is the grubby slogan of Saul Goodman, the ethically depraved lawyer in Breaking Bad. In the prequel, he’s struggling public defender and elder-lawyer, Jimmy McGill – and hasn’t yet transformed into his badder-self. The show raises a bunch of legal ethics and procedural issues, which the blog analyses. Of course, it’s also, and perhaps more importantly, about the personalities, pressures and rationalisations that shape ethical behaviour, and how we judge that behaviour in ourselves and others.

Well worth watching, if not incorporating into the law classroom.

Justine Rogers

Positive Professional Identities for Law Students

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Our own Anna Huggins (soon to be QUT’s Anna Huggins) has made a big contribution to a very important book in legal education. Co-written with Rachael Field and James Duffy, Lawyering and Positive Professional Identities (Lexis Nexis Butterworths 2014) is a book I think all teaching legal academics could useful study. Here at UNSW Law it is worth noting that the curriculum Theme ‘Personal and Professional Development’ is perfectly on point with this book which is aimed at students primarily but I think would be a useful read for most legal people.

In our first year program we have been targeting personal and professional development through attempting to enhance students’ understanding of themselves, and their ability to reflect on themselves whether through mindfulness activities or in other ways. One thing the literature emphasises is that ethical issues often are the tipping point before someone drops out of law school or the profession; and in Introducing Law and Justice we try to introduce the idea that you need to be able to articulate your own values and then be able to assess legal ethics and practice in that light. The latter is then very much developed by the later subject Law Ethics and Justice which Justine Rogers convenes.

So, as always, we like it when someone agrees with us!

Prue Vines

Continue reading “Positive Professional Identities for Law Students”

The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom

The case for banning laptops in the classroom’ is an interesting article that looks at whether students’ use of laptops in the classroom has any real benefits. It includes a study by Princeton University on whether writing notes longhand, on paper in a classroom is more beneficial than using a laptop. The study suggests that typing notes on a laptop is actually impairing learning as it is a much shallower process decreasing effective modes of recall. The article also points out that laptops are hugely distracting both for the student and teacher alike. When the teacher looks up from the front of the class and sees faces down behind screens it gives a physical barrier between the students and the teacher. The students have a great temptation to check emails/facebook/surf the web in class and so their ability to concentrate on learning is greatly diminished. In a law context where the optimum learning environment is one where students are engaging in conversation and debate, should the laptop be banned?

The link to the article is here http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/the-case-for-banning-laptops-in-the-classroom
The link to the Princeton study is here http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/04/22/0956797614524581.abstract

Thomas Molloy

 

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