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JILT 1999 (1) - David Grantham

 


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IOLISplus - Extending the Electronic Learning Environment

David Grantham
School of International Studies and Law
Coventry University
d.grantham@coventry.ac.uk

Abstract

In 1997 Coventry University set up aTeaching and Learning Task Forceas a response to the Dearing Report.IOLISplusis one of the ongoing Task Force projects and this article is a report on the progress made to date.

IOLISplus is an attempt to build an electronic environment with the following features:

  • tutor's own questions online to supplement those inIOLIS

  • questions designed to promote 'deep' learning

  • law student access to a vast array of hyperlinked resources

  • an interactive discussion forum between learners and the tutor

  • students more in control of their own learning

This article describes the context within which the project is being conducted, the experimental design processes involved and the early piloting of the package. Some preliminary suggestions are made for how such a resource might be used in the learning milieu. Student reaction is briefly explained, though a full evaluation will take place later in the year. A copy of the first Web pages to be piloted in the area of study selected ispsychiatric injury.

Keywords: C&IT, IOLISplus Project, Creating Webs, Piloting Project, Online Discussions, Advantages of IOLISplus


This is a Refereed Article published on 26 February 1999.

Citation: Grantham D, 'IOLISplus - Extending the Electronic Learning Environment',1999 (1)The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/99-1/grantham.html>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1999_1/grantham/>



1. Introduction

The IOLISplus project began life in the autumn of 1997 as a proposed Coventry University Teaching and Learning Task Force project in the wake of the Dearing Report (Dearing, 1997). There were two main driving forces behind the project. The first was the changing context within which higher education was being delivered. The second was to test the belief that developing communications and information technology (C&IT) could provide an important vehicle for more successful and autonomous learning. Others have said that technology on its own would not be enough to deliver more effective learning (Paliwala, 1998,Laurillard, 1993). In the context of this concern, the IOLISplus project is an ongoing experiment in just how far C&IT can presently go in creating a worthwhile electronic learning experience for law students.

Anyone familiar with the past decade in higher education will be only too aware of the increasing numbers of students, the shrinking unit of resource and the increasing emphasis on the quality of learning and teaching. However, there are other factors which are also impacting upon how the service operates. These include intrinsic factors such as a discernible trend towards distance learning, especially with mature students, as well as an increasing number of full-time students undertaking regular part-time work during their undergraduate studies. Extrinsic factors, including the globalisation of learning and the present Government's commitment to lifelong learning, herald important changes in the culture and practice of higher education institutions. At the same time there is an ongoing expansion of global learning resources through the Internet and the technology to deliver this resource is becoming ever more widely available.

Arguments in respect of student autonomy have been well rehearsed elsewhere (Boud, 1988) but two particular features are relevant to the IOLISplus project. First, IOLIS itself provides a platform from which students can work independently, at their own pace, and with regular self-checks on their own learning. The other feature is that legal studies should arguably allow students to take a critical perspective of the law whenever and wherever this is appropriate (Grantham, 1985). Certainly, in my own field of tort law there is ample opportunity for such a perspective. Indeed, ignoring it would be to miss an important dimension of this dynamic area of legal study.

2. The Changing Face of Legal Education

In parallel with the C&IT revolution there is a more quiet change going on in legal education. The Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Education (ACLEC) put a clear emphasis on a 'liberal' education in the discipline of law. More recently, the Society of Public Teachers of Law (SPTL, 1998) has produced a consultation paper on Benchmark standards which includes generic and transferable skills. It is proposed that graduating law students should achieve Benchmark standards in these more general skills as well as in those competencies specifically connected with the skills of the lawyer. The rapidly changing jobs market and the fact that fewer law graduates are entering the legal profession means that transferable skills are of increasing importance. As law teachers we are currently wrestling with the question of how we can best prepare our students for an increasingly uncertain career future. If, as seems more and more likely, tomorrow's law graduates are to be numbered among Charles Handy's 'portfolio people' (Handy, 1994) then they will need a portfolio of skills. Though legal and other skills can be taught they can only be fully learned, tested and developed through experience. One of the questions for the project is the role that C&IT might play, not just in terms of C&IT skills themselves but also in advancing other student abilities such as problem-solving, critical thinking and evaluation of argument.

Uncertainty about future prospects and the skills required to make the best of those prospects is not the only matter engaging the thoughts of both students and teachers.

In my own University a number of areas of work, including law, are being asked to manage an ever increasing student population without any commensurate increase in resources. For example, in 1997 we enrolled 68% more new LLB students than in 1995 (191 compared with 114). Although first year enrolments have fallen to 170 in 1998 the educational impact has been considerable:

  • lectures, and particularly workshops, in core modules have had to address the needs of increasing numbers of students

  • average numbers of students in seminar groups have risen from 12 to 16

  • student representatives regularly report that key library materials cannot be accessed by all the students who need them to meet assignment deadlines

Not only have student numbers increased but new enrolees are from a wider variety of backgrounds and with a wider range of abilities. The University's open-access policy encourages applications from non-standard entrants (i.e. entrants with non-traditional qualifications) and these have tended to increase in number from year to year. There were, for example, 62 non-standard entrants in 1997, representing 32% of the total student intake for that year. A very recent internal survey was conducted comparing the 1999 mid-sessional examination results of students with and without traditional academic qualifications (normally 'A' levels). This revealed that of the 109 students who sat the examinations, 27 were students who had entered the University with non-standard qualifications and all were amongst the weakest performers. This raises a number of issues connected to learning and teaching, including the effectiveness of the traditional lecture, the level at which lectures and seminars are to be pitched and how we might help those students who find the study of law unfamiliar and difficult. C&IT applied to a carefully designed online learning package can address this in a way which could enable these students to tackle some of their difficulties. Being able to go over exercises several times and at their own pace can be of particular help to students who find the sheer pace of lectures and seminars too demanding. Similarly, good curriculum design should also address the needs of even the brightest law undergraduate. Thus, thoughtful integration of online learning into a programme of study could provide a tighter 'fit' of resources to the wide spectrum of student need.

3. Building on IOLIS

IOLIS was introduced in 1995. It is a computer assisted learning package, commonly referred to as 'courseware' and authored by leading academics under the auspices of the Law Courseware Consortium, based at the University of Warwick. Initially it was funded through the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (HEFCE, 1996) but is now supported mainly by subscription from both the Higher and Further education sectors. Features of IOLIS have been well described elsewhere (Widdison, 1995,Moodie 1997) but can be summarised as follows:

a) an easy to use and powerful navigation system

b) self-test questions with feedback

c) excellent resource books with leading case reports and some leading articles

d) self-paced learning

e) an increasingly wide range of subjects or modules

f) a scrapbook and copying/printing facility

g) annotation facility

h) twice yearly updates

i) recently introduced direct link with some Web resources

At the beginning of the IOLISplus project, despite being a very flexible resource, IOLIS was generally very much underused by colleagues in my own institution. This was not through any lack of initiative on their part but was the result of very inadequate computer hardware that tended to be so slow that frustration would set in and defeat attempts to properly explore what was on offer. It is only in the last year that better C&IT facilities have been available to the students, though much investment in the next two years will see resources improve for both students and staff. Coventry University plans to meet the Dearing medium term benchmark of a 5:1 ratio for networked desk top computers by 2001 (Dearing Report Chapter 13.51). No doubt an increasing number of students will provide their own C&IT facilities but Paliwala (1998) reminds us of the continuing need for on-campus provision:

'However, while many students are equipping themselves, the burden of computer provision at a time in which the government is imposing fees on students is not an easy one for the less well off.'

In order to make better use of the growing investment in hardware it will be necessary to build staff and student confidence in good software packages. This is starting to happen in my own institution where, over the past twelve months, IOLIS has become more popular, with an increasing number of students buying their own copies of the courseware. Also, some colleagues have begun to express an interest in being coached in Web page creation and are looking afresh at how they might link with IOLIS. Building upon this growing confidence in IOLIS so that it could be even more useful and flexible became a focus for the IOLISplus development. There were several matters to be addressed, including how to:

a) encourage deeper learning of some matters already introduced in IOLIS

b) introduce more contextual matters

c) make links with previous learning

d) link with other online resources

e) enable an ongoing online dialogue with and between students

f) achieve all this and make the whole package 'user-friendly'

Attention has been drawn by others to a possible shortcoming of IOLIS in that by excluding 'context' it is too 'black letter' (Alldridge and Mumford, 1998). Attempts have been made to address this in IOLISplus both by suitably worded questions and carefully selected hyperlinked resources. These attempt to give context and provide links with previous learning. A clear focus on concepts and argument further encourages the student to learn more than the mere facts of cases and statutes. Such knowledge, it is said, 'keeps no better than fish' (Parker and Rubin, 1966). There will be a number of tort law tutors who can testify to the ephemeral nature of knowledge in this area. Indeed, some important learning in the area chosen for the first Web pages (psychiatric injury) changed before the published pages were electronically dry!

A further concern about electronic forms of learning is the contention that only personal contact can promote 'deep' learning (Jones and Scully 1996,Jones and Scully 1998). This was going to be a more difficult matter to address. It was a major challenge to me that the design for IOLISplus should promote a level of learning that is located in the higher reaches of the cognitive domain (Bloom, 1956,Marton and Saljo, 1976,Ramsden, 1992). These include analysis, synthesis and evaluation. While it is true that questions and resources encouraging students to engage at these levels are usually to be found in the personal exchanges in seminars and tutorials it is also true that these are not the only situations where such learning takes place. Such personal, face-to-face, contact is absent in the electronic environment but that does not necessarily mean that 'quality' learning through other interactive means is similarly absent. Although it was not known at the start of the project, the advent of online discussion linked to Web pages was the way forward in coping with the 'contact' issue.

Another design issue concerns the argument of Ausubel et al (1978) and Entwistle and Entwistle (1992) that the most important factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Although the theory might seem self-evident it is sometimes ignored in curriculum development in higher education. Experienced tutors often have first hand experience of the inability of students to make the necessary link between one piece of learning and another. IOLISplus directly confronts this matter by including questions and materials that require the student to 'connect' with prior learning - relating the unknown to the known.

4. A Rookie Spider

For a number of years prior to the project I had been developing interactive lectures by the use of written questions contained in outline notes. Students would work on these at various points during a lecture by discussing the question in groups of four or five and then I would get feedback on their reaction to the legal issues involved. Predictably, student reaction to this process was mixed. Extremes of responses ranged from 'I really learn the stuff this way' to 'This is supposed to be a lecture - why do we have to answer questions?' However, as students became more familiar with the interactive approach they began to participate more and more in the process. Indeed, as time went on the 'lectures' took on more of the nature of 'workshops'. The first stage in the IOLISplus project was to develop more of these written questions and test them with the students. This was done in the autumn of 1997. At about the same time 'Microsoft Front Page 97', a software package for the creation of Web pages, became available. Workshop questions that had worked well with the students were going to form the backbone of the Web pages that were to be linked to IOLIS.

It was the versatility and flexibility of 'Front Page 97' that allowed IOLIS to be augmented in a variety of ways. However, to become a rookie spider it was first necessary to learn how to create a web or two. After creating a 'Home Page', the linking of this to further pages ('About IOLISplus', 'Getting Started', and 'Tort') was relatively straightforward. 'About IOLISplus' was a single page explaining the background to the development and asking for understanding whilst the project was still in the experimental phase. 'Getting Started' explained to students how to use the whole package and was a very difficult page to compile since it meant taking the student step-by-step through the processes for navigating, minimising pages, following hyper links to external Web sites and switching between IOLIS and IOLISplus. A number of would-be users were likely to have little or no experience of the technology or of the skills required and would need careful and user-friendly guidance. Several versions of this page were tried and tested before it really worked. Concern for new users also prompted IOLISplus tutorials to be added to the project design. These would be made available either during induction of new students or at the beginning of the first term.

First attempts at linking Web pages to IOLIS involved having a split screen, with IOLIS in the top segment of the screen and Web pages in the bottom segment. Early experiments revealed that this was a clumsy arrangement and, especially where IOLIS interactive questions appeared, it was potentially confusing for students trying to respond to those questions. The solution was to use the whole screen, navigating between IOLIS and IOLISplus. Students would now need instruction in 'maximising' and 'minimising' what was on the screen. An unexpected problem occurred when a student wished to go back to an earlier page of IOLIS. Page numbers on the task bar did not follow the student's mouse clicks - IOLIS pages only number forward! This can be overcome only by navigating back to the full list of work books on IOLIS and starting again at the beginning of the relevant section or file. With experience, this will take a student but a few seconds.

Just when it seemed safe to consider myself as something less than a rookie in 'Front Page 97', along came 'Front Page 98'. This later version was much more sophisticated and added the potential for 'themes', to give Web pages an attractive and consistent look, and a much more user-friendly navigation interface. Pages were created in 'Front Page Explorer' which also allowed the designer (spider) to create and monitor how the whole Web was taking shape. Editing of pages was done in a 'Front Page Editor' where a number of the usual word processing editorial functions could be found. Hyperlinks from pages to external Web sites were also created in the 'Front Page Editor', as were graphics, including animated graphics to add interest to the pages.

5. Selecting Content

Finding a suitable first area of tort law for the pilot Web pages of IOLISplus was not too difficult. Something of interest, even to non-lawyers, was required since IOLISplus would be on view at a general exhibition of Task Force projects on the 1st April 1998. Psychiatric injury appeared to be an appropriate study since the legal issues involved were very much in the public consciousness, mainly because of the Hillsborough tragedy. Some useful links to articles in external Web sites as well as the dynamic nature of this area of study persuaded me that the subject lent itself well to this kind of development.

In the first version of the Web pages students were asked to work through the appropriate IOLIS pages and then prepare responses to the IOLISplus questions for a seminar. This task was identified on the Web page by a graphic symbol placed underneath the relevant question.

Following the initial stage of the project, Web pages for public and private nuisance have been designed and there is a site under construction for remoteness of damage.

6. Online Discussion Forum

A most significant development was the creation of a 'legal forum' linked directly to IOLISplus questions. Included as a facility in 'Front Page 98' this automatically produces an online discussion area where tutors and students can communicate with each other. This particular way of extending the value of IOLIS was recognised by Moodie (1997):

'However, it would be good to see in a future version the possibility for a student to send her answer directly to a lecturer or supervisor for comment.'

Stringing together a discussion on a question or topic is also embedded in the software so that a student or tutor can follow the development of an argument or response. Students or tutor can post an article (or message), much as they would send an email, either by responding to an existing 'string' (or topic) or by starting a new 'string' of their own. Development of discussion on a topic can be traced through to the very latest posting. It is even possible to keep part of the forum screen open while working in another part of the package so that any new postings can be monitored and read.

It may be that, until students and tutors become confident with it, discussion in the forum, might lack that personal touch and real understanding that can exude from a quality seminar. The tutor cannot observe any non-verbal communication, ('body language'), for example. Similarly, there exists the danger of students wandering away from the objectives of the discussion; suitable comments and an input of fresh perspectives from the tutor will help to re-focus the discussion. One of the real potential virtues of the online forum is that it can encourage the reluctant student to make contributions which they may not have made in a traditional seminar. Nor is the communication bound by time or place. Students only need access to the network or some other C&IT facility to be able to communicate with each other and with the tutor. Very recent studies of collaborative learning by law students indicate that carefully facilitated student interaction can be very effective, particularly in terms of personal development and promoting good teamwork (Prince and Dunne, 1998). Another study (Holmes, 1999) supports this view but also warns of the resource implications for this kind of innovation in learning and teaching.

7. The Pilot Crash

Piloting and evaluation by students of the psychiatric injury Web pages took place in November, 1998. Some estimated ten-twelve hours of study time was needed for students to complete the relevant IOLIS courseware and the psychiatric injury Web pages. Dedicated computer facilities capable of running IOLIS and IOLISplus were, at the time of the pilot, available for only 16 students. It is planned that such technology will be available campus wide by the year 2000. Two sessions each with full-time and part-time LLB students were planned. This meant that only a proportion of the necessary work could be completed. To ensure that the topic was fully covered, students in the pilot had been issued with a hard copy of similar questions and materials. All students registered on the module had been given these resources so that 'pilot' students were in no way disadvantaged by being involved in the IOLISplus evaluation. There would be a few pilot students who could complete the ten-twelve hours of electronic study since they had already purchased their own copy of IOLIS, and had the necessary technology to run both this and IOLISplus.

Partial technical disaster struck the first sessions with both groups. The file server could not cope with the traffic and soon we were working on stored cache copies of IOLIS plus, the server having succumbed to the demands made upon it. We were forced back upon the primitive communication system of the tutor visiting each workstation in turn to check on progress. However, there was an undoubted 'buzz' about the groups, especially with the part-time (mature) students which indicated that, at an educational level, all was well. First time users had been paired with confident surfers to provide help to those with navigational difficulties and those suffering from a general lack of 'techno-confidence'. You might say that the 'techno-warriors' had been matched with the 'techno-worriers'! Shouts of glee from those who quickly navigated to the appropriate links were mingled with half-muttered oaths from those who, by a wrong mouse click or too many mouse clicks, had slipped from the navigation map and had found themselves in a totally different programme to the one they started with. It was the overcoming of these navigation problems that proved to be something of an initial distraction from the academic work. Despite this, by the end of the first session many students had progressed through at least half of the IOLIS pages and one-third of the IOLISplus questions and links.

An investigation of possible reasons for file server failure revealed that my over-enthusiasm with Web page design had probably been the main cause. There were simply too many active hyperlink graphics ('hotspots') on a single page! Some drastic redesign of the IOLIS plus Web was needed so that 'hotspots' were reduced to a minimum. Nevertheless, the second pilot session was awaited with some trepidation.

8. A Second Chance

The second sessions was mercifully free of technical problems. Even the less confident students of the first session set about their electronic learning with a new found fervour. Indeed, a handful of these had already been working in the computer room for 15 minutes before the official start time. This time the 'legal forum' was in operation so that the students could communicate both with each other and with me online.

Perhaps it was a little odd that online communication should go on when we were all together in the same room but it was necessary to test this way of conducting a dialogue. Early hesitancy was overcome when I sent out a general message 'please talk to me'. Soon there was much online traffic into the forum, quickly increasing to the rate of one posted message every minute. Not only were there responses to IOLIS plus questions but also general comments about the law on psychiatric injury generally. There was pleasing evidence of creative learning. For example, one student had surfed the Internet and found a useful site on the medical aspects of the topic. Another, recently in this country from Australia, posted a comment on the comparison with the law in New South Wales. Most importantly, one or two students who had been reluctant and/or shy to contribute in traditional seminars were perfectly happy to communicate online and make valuable contributions to the learning of the group. There was even more 'buzz' at these sessions than at the first - a 'buzz' similar to that found in the most effective seminars.

All the students wanted to continue beyond the set time for the session, though this may have been partly due to the novelty of the learning situation. It appeared that this second chance in an electronic learning environment, at least if measured by the quality of the interactions, had been a success. Students were learning at their own pace, from various electronic sources, from each other and from the tutor. We happened to be in the same place at the same time but it wouldn't have mattered if we had been in different continents and time zones.

9. Advantages of IOLISplus

What has been learned from the initial phase of the IOLISplus project? Apart from the obvious staff development benefits, i.e. having to think very seriously about the way in which a subject is learned, there are a number of potential benefits from designing Web pages to link to IOLIS. These can be summarised as follows:

a) 'deep learning' could be encouraged through question design and links to thought- provoking sources ('developed learning')

b) student learning could be self-paced to suit the individual needs of each student ('individualised learning')

c) student autonomy could be encouraged since the student is in charge of his or her own learning ('autonomous learning')

d) students are given the opportunity to study various other points of view via online resources, including Web sites that they can seek out for themselves ('empowered learning')

e) online discussions (like 'legal forum') lend themselves contributions from all participants, especially from those who would otherwise be reluctant to speak in traditional settings ('participative learning')

f) tutors could take advantage of new electronic sources by linking them directly to Web pages ('adaptable learning')

g) material is easily revised by editing the relevant Web pages ('flexible learning')

h) learning is not limited in time or place ('unrestricted learning')

Initial response from students indicates that these possible benefits could be realised. Early evaluation, particularly of c), d) and e) [above] tend to confirm this but a more structured and detailed evaluation is currently in progress.

10. Conclusion

My first tentative steps into cyberspace appeared daunting and, indeed, were accompanied by a healthy scepticism and much uncertainty. However, although this report is very much one of work-in-progress I am now confident that a carefully designed electronic learning environment has much to offer. It has the potential to address a number of the current pedagogical and resource issues facing higher education. Clients of the service (students) are likely to be demanding more for their increasing investment in their education. In particular, many of those who have their own hardware will expect to see some modern C&IT methods designed into their courses. More and more students will arrive at higher education institutions with a working knowledge of personal computers, software packages and the Internet. Chances are that, unless they are blessed with very gifted tutors, they will become less content with chalk and talk, or even overhead transparencies and talk!

It is much too early in the IOLISplus project to be confident about how the fully developed package might finally be best integrated into a law undergraduate programme. However, a few initial ideas might be suggested. IOLISplus could be used in any combination of the following:

  • as a substitute for some lectures or seminars, particularly where the topic is well covered electronically both in breadth and depth (Laurillard, 1997)

  • as effective preparation for seminars enabling the group to engage more quickly with complex issues or matters of particular interest

  • as a structured, comprehensive programme of study of particular value to those students who find it difficult to plan their work or for those who need to study at a distance

  • as a highly focused programme of revision for examinations

  • as a resource for students writing assignments

  • as an aid for those students who need learner support, e.g. dyslexic students or those whose mother-tongue is not English

IOLISplus is an attempt to use current technology to create an electronic environment that meets certain pedagogical objectives and provides a worthwhile experience for students. It also 'keys' students into the kind of learning that should produce the transferable skills, including C&IT skills, that are likely to be in demand in the career market place. Already much has been learned. The next phase of the project is to collect more evaluation data and to coach interested colleagues in Web page design.

Reporting on this evaluation data and the implications of electronic learning for the role of the higher education tutor will be the subject of future papers.

IOLISplus was presented at the inaugural conference of the Learning in Law Initiative (LILI) held at the University of Warwick on 8th January 1999. Since then the Web pages have been redesigned to include checks on what the student should already know and 'frequently occurring misunderstanding' (FOM's). 'Introduction to Tort' pages have also been constructed.

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