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JILT 2001 (3) - Abdul Paliwala





Discoursing the Virtual Classroom

Professor Abdul Paliwala
Director, ELJ, LCCand
C&IT Director,
University of Warwick

This is a editorial comment published on 7 November 2001.

Citation: Paliwala A, 'Discoursing the Virtual Classroom', 2001 (3)The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT)<>.New citation as at 1/1/04: <>.

1. Introduction

This editorial comment is intended to raise two specific issues in relation to four interesting articles on information technology in legal education. After describing the tenor of the articles by Le Brun, Woods, Byrnesand Poyton, it goes on to add support to Le Brun's deliberately trenchant critique of the way we reward ICT based educational development work. More significantly (to provoke debate - contributions welcome!) I take issue with Robert Wood's suggestion that the economic benefits of online learning are so great that we can afford to dismiss the wider social and cultural changes which may result from such changes.

2. The Value of Academic Development in ICT

Discourse on information and communication technologies (ICT) in legal education has moved from 'How I did IT' technology descriptions to an integrated consideration of technology and pedagogy in the context of social, economic and cultural change (Paliwala, 2001). I would therefore like to fully support Marlene Le Brun'sdeliberately trenchant statement from personal experience on the issue of the value of academic development in the ICT area. Marlene is the co-author of The Quiet (R)evolution: Improving Student Learning in Law. Her argument is appropriately developed in the context of her interesting CD-ROM project on teaching legal ethics. It suggests that law academics involved with ICT are under-valued in respect of their work for tenure, promotion, teaching and research evaluation purposes. This issue is of equal significance in the United Kingdom, inspite of some recent progress. While technology development work is in principle recognised in the UK for the purposes of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which ranks law schools in terms of their research strength, it is left to each panel to determine the value to be given to such work. In the case of law, there was a considerable concern among academics involved with ICT that the definition of research as 'scholarship' would not give sufficient weight to technology development or pedagogical initiatives. We were also concerned that ICT expertise was not represented in the panel membership. This led to special discussions between the British & Irish Law Education Technology Association (BILETA) and the Law Panel. The Panel invited BILETA to indicate a list of national subject experts who could be referred to for assessing ICT applications, pedagogy and law work where appropriate. It will be interesting to observe the extent to which such reference is made.

3. The Virtual Law School

It is commendable that the status of ICT issue has not prevented innovative and pedagogically informed academic development. Robert Woodsin his thorough and careful study 'Order in the Virtual Law Classroom...' provides an optimistic assessment of ways in which effective learning can be delivered. He suggests that this can be best achieved:

'by asking the same key questions one would ask in the traditional setting; namely, what are the critical learning goals and objectives for this course?'

Once this is achieved, the technical approach to undertake is:

'convergence... through a combination of traditional computer assisted learning tools and computer mediated communications - where educational technologies do not operate independently of one another but in concert'.

He suggests that the assessment of success of the strategy can be best done by a variety of research techniques.

4. ICT in a LLM Course in the US

William Byrnesprovides a similarly optimistic pedagogically informed account of online learning - this time from the perspective of a leading practitioner of online learning in a US LLM programme on International Tax and Offshore Financial Centers. Engaging with the US pedagogic debate on the merits of the Socratic approach, he suggests that:

'the grounding of a LLM (masters) level legal education program exclusively using the Socratic method (case study) roots of traditional Juris Doctorate (graduate) legal education may neither meet the goals, nor produce the skills sought by this Program'.

Instead, he proposes 'bridging the gap' as outlined by Davis and Steinglass, Hawkins-Leon and Kerper. He also commends Thiemann's application of:

'inclusive' low-anxiety feminist pedagogy in the classroom to create an environment of diverse discussion'.

5. ICT in a Post-graduate Course in the UK

In a slightly different vein, Poytonin his Work in Progress Report is concerned to explore the way in which students are responding to two different modes of ICT based course delivery. Such comparative assessment will be of great assistance in our assessment of how to integrate ICT in legal education.

From his research so far, Poyton concludes that the use of ICT is beneficial to students' learning but that it cannot wholly replace traditional seminars and human interaction which makes the learning experience so profound. His final research paper will evaluate the various approaches taken in a bid to establish just how much ICT contributes to the student learning experience.

6. Conclusion: The Social, Economic and Political Implications of Virtual Learning

While the infusion of pedagogical considerations in all the three latter articles is particularly welcome, this does not overcome a serious problem of lack of consideration of social, economic and political implications of the development of virtual learning by Woodsand Byrnes. Woods in particular suggests that the 'economic benefits of online education are considerable'. Therefore, we are made to believe that this dominant criterion should allow us to ignore all other issues and considerations - particularly 'inflammatory rhetoric' which points out the dangers of globalisation of legal education.

Firstly, I do not think the economic case for online learning is as simple as roundtable discussion in the US makes out. No less an authority on the subject than Sir John Daniel (1996) of the UK Open University who has warned against the dangers of simplistic economic assumptions in the design of on-line learning programmes. US academic institutions are wary of getting their fingers burnt in virtual distance learning programmes (Blumenstyk, 2001). I also do not think clear consideration has been given as yet to the economics of web and communication based learning development. It is because we tried to do this in the case of the Iolis development that we were able to suggest that quality technology development requires considerable investment and therefore is best done co-operatively (Paliwala, 1998).

Secondly, ignoring the wider social context in which legal education takes place can be pedagogically damaging. Issues such as what are the objectives of legal education require consideration of what types of law and law communities are likely to be served by the educational process. In this context, it is surely important to question the possible implications of globalisation of learning, for example for legal cultures outside the metropolitan countries (Martin, 2000, Paliwala, 2001). Similarly, much of the current economic notion of virtual learning ignores the role of academics researchers. There are serious dangers in the disarticulation of research and teaching for both research and teaching, and especially for academic lawyers. It is important to emphasise that technology based learning can deliver at least as good pedagogy as traditional methods. However, ignoring wider social concerns is as bad as ignoring pedagogical issues.


Blumenstyk, G (2001) Temple U. shuts down for-profit distance-education company, The Chronicle of Higher Education July 20, ppA29-30.

Daniel, Sir J (1996), Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education, London, Kogan Page.

Martin, P (2000), 'Impermanent Boundaries - Imminent Challenges to Professional Identities and Institutional Competence', Commentary 2000 (2)The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <>.

Paliwala, A (1998), 'Co-operative Development of CAL Materials: A Case Study of IOLIS', 1998 (3)The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <>

Paliwala A (2001), 'Learning in Cyberspace', 2001 (1)The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <>




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