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JILT 2009 (3) - Coles

The Role of New Technology in Improving Engagement among Law Students in Higher Education

Caroline Coles
Leicester Institute of Legal Practice,
De Montfort University,


The aim of this article is to review the pedagogic benefits of the Web 2.0 tool, the wiki, and recorded lectures for the purpose of improving engagement among post graduate students in higher education. It reviews key educational theories, features of the modern student community and recent reports on the use of technology in education. It summarises research into student perceptions of the use of the wiki and recorded lecture. The conclusions are that students value the flexibility of these tools but their technological skill is still low, their contributions are restricted by emotive issues but where these are overcome a higher level of evaluative skill is demonstrated.

This is a Refereed Article published on 22nd December 2009.

Citation: Coles, Caroline, 'The Role of New Technology in Improving Engagement among Law Students in Higher Education', 2009(3) Journal of Information, Law & Technology (JILT), <>


engagement, wiki, information literacy, critical thinking, Web 2.0.

1. Introduction

The issues of engagement and critical thinking of law students in higher education are well recognised by tutors. These issues may not be new ones but the features of the modern student community and the modern tools for learning and teaching provide different aspects to these challenges, and some possible solutions. I propose that the tools of the modern age, if married to educational pedagogy, can create learning and teaching methods that are more effective for the diverse community of higher education law students. This article reviews pedagogic themes, features of the modern student community and recent reports on the use of technology in education. It takes an interpretative approach in summarising research into the perceptions of the students on the use of the wiki and the recorded lecture.

2. Developments in Educational theory

Key writers have described the vital role of engagement and collaboration in higher education (Marton (1984), Biggs (2003), Ramsden (2003)).The theories explore how a student engages with the material in order to learn with the development of critical thought.

They describe the greater depth of learning and engagement achieved by a student who analyses the views of his peers, works with the material in problem solving tasks and thereby constructs his own knowledge through his evaluation of that material.

Marton 's initial work (1975), pursued later in conjunction with Saljo, asserts that what is learnt depends upon the student's intentions. An approach to research termed " phenomenology" developed whereby the learning process is studied from the experience of students rather than from external or physical factors. Marton's work inspired the work of Entwistle, with Ramsden, and also the work of Biggs, to develop the theories of surface and deep learning that a student can demonstrate different degrees of learning whether via a surface approach featuring rote learning of mere facts or via a deeper approach that engages with and challenges the material. Biggs' work also discussed the role of collaboration in encouraging deeper learning. Commenting upon the work of Abercrombie (1969), Biggs emphasized how students become more aware of how to learn from collaborating with their peers than from listening to a tutor. Added to this is the debate sparked by Gardner's work on multiple intelligences (1983) positing that learners' have several intelligences, for example linguistic and spatial, that can lead individuals to perform highly in one area, such as factual memory but poorly in others, such as empathising with other people. Such intrapersonal intelligence would have significant importance in vocational legal education. Entwistle's recent work (2009) uses his own strong base in psychology to build on his key earlier works to contend that the value of collaboration comes from the involvement of the short term memory. Here information is received, meaning is interpreted and processing strategies developed, thus leading to a deeper understanding of complex ideas. Entwistle describes how the size of the short term memory is extremely limited. With traditional lectures, the student only gets one chance to store and keep under review any received information.

Developing alongside this was the theory of social constructivism (Vygotsky (1962)) coming from the substantial heritage of Piaget's constructivism (1950) describing the student's role in the creation of knowledge. Constructivism suggests that we learn by examining existing knowledge and understanding, some of which we bring with us unconsciously, and from our own work we change that knowledge as well as ourselves.

In legal education, these elements combine in a pedagogic clash between the definition of what is learning in a sense of knowing a fixed bundle of legal knowledge establishing an "intelligence quotient" that Gardner, rather ironically, said was only suitable for law professors or, in the constructivist sense, as comment upon and skilful use of pre-existing material that creates new knowledge.

A theory that has become more acceptable within post graduate vocational legal education is experiential learning (Kolb, 1984). This theory describes learning as a cycle involving the receipt of a body of knowledge and its consideration by the learner. The learner engages with this material by adding their own evaluation, including by using it in their employment, and from this engagement, creates new experiences which feed into the body of knowledge and starts the process anew.

In the 1990s interest arose in the role of creativity in the creation of knowledge and understanding. This was spurred on by the NACCCE report All our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education (1999).The report was set up to examine the role of creativity in education and to identify any obstacles to its development. It investigated whether creativity in teaching and learning would encourage engagement and independent thought .It encouraged a debate about the role of technology in stimulating and supporting this creativity. The chapter by Jenny Leach (2001) in Creativity in Education describes some interesting case studies concerning IT and creativity. This topic was explored as it formed the theme for the 2007 annual conference for UKCLE (Learning in Law 2007). There are some useful resources are available from this for encouraging creativity in legal education.

Before leaving this brief review of the theoretical perspectives, a final word should be given to the role of the theories of learning in the affective domain. The work of Krathwohl et al (1964,1973) on the affective domain was meant to develop as the sister work to Bloom's taxonomy in the cognitive domain (1956). However, it never gained the fame of its celebrity relative, although has received some recent attention (Boyle (2007)).The work gives significant importance to feelings, values, beliefs and motivation in the achievement of successful learning and teaching and has led to some interesting studies regarding motivation and engagement. Elements of the affective domain may gain greater significance within learning and teaching online as discussed below. Special attention will be required for the challenges of e-learning here.

3. The Student Community

Socio-political changes since the 1990s, such as the movement for widening participation in higher education and the changing methods of modern communication, have brought new challenges to legal education. Students are entering higher education in greater numbers with a much wider range of skills and attitudes. Today's students bring a greater variety of cultural approaches and prior educational experience than seen before. This variety adds to the mix in the pre-existing debate about the variety of learning styles re visual and kinaesthetic learning et al and the development of the theory of multiple intelligences by Gardner (1983). Improved access and the acceptance of reasonable adjustment in education are bringing more students into higher education with differing needs for learning support. The increase in the numbers of overseas students brings further new elements and accentuates cultural differences far above the practical issues of language. Teachers in legal education are now experiencing different student intentions and understanding of their role in contributing to a lesson.

However, not only are students more culturally diverse but they are also subject to a range of increasingly diverse influences.

The report Digital Britain (2009) and the article Intellectual Property and the Digital Divide (Endeshaw (2008)) highlight the differences that exist in the electronic experience between the haves and the haves nots in their access to the resources of technology. Digital Britain establishes future priorities for the UK government (at a time before the current economic difficulties)to increase the availability of high speed Broadband and wireless services and to provide significant resources to increase public education of information literacy with the aim of the promotion of a sense of citizenship. Endeshaw describes the work of UNESCO in assessing the differences in access to technology across the industrial and developing countries.

In spite of all the current educational practice that strives to connect with the diverse student community, teachers are becoming increasingly concerned about a declining level of engagement from our students. The report Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World (2009) believes that the world of traditional higher education and the modern technology-enhanced world currently co-exist through

" the natural inertia of any established system" [however this is] "unlikely to be sustainable in the long term" p40

Into this mix we add the ever growing economic pressures upon students. In my experience the demand for distance learning or part time post graduate courses is expanding at a faster rate than their full time equivalent not only because of the flexibility of study that they offer in time and place but also because they permit the student to take employed work concurrent with their studies. Most full time students are feeling the pressures of time and finance also so they are taking employment for at least 1 day in a normal working week to supplement their income. When De Montfort post graduate law students were surveyed about hindrances to their learning 32% of first years and 55% of second years stated that lack of time was the biggest single issue.

4. Enhancing Learning through technology

Policy makers are encouraging an increased use of information technology in higher education (The Dearing Review of Higher Education (1997),HEFCE (2009)). Educationalists are recognising that teaching methods need to adapt to the new generation of diverse learners, seeking time and cost efficient education (HEFCE (2009), Web 2.0 World (2009)). The economists are looking towards technology to keep the vital UK service industry of education competitive and provide the soft skills of collaboration and problem solving for all industry (Bradwell (2009)). The advantages offered by technology are recognised by these stakeholders as flexibility and efficiency in time, space and cost, improved access for and retention of a diverse student body and a contemporary approach to meet student expectations for their future education (HEFCE (2009)).

However, these policy statements have concentrated on the acquisition of technology,developing IT skills and increasing access to information. Significant evidence (LLiDa (2009), Web 2.0 World (2009), CIBER (2008)) suggests that improved access to technology has not developed critical skills for information processing, sometimes termed "Information Literacy". Despite an increase in the availability of materials via the use of technology in higher legal education, there remains a gap between the achieved and desirable levels of engagement, of critical skill and of understanding for the ethical and legal issues in their use. The vast task of keeping pace with the required level of IT skill has not been accompanied by a similar level of development of critical skills, including specifically an awareness of the authenticity of available information.

Research by CIBER on students' perception of the internet (2008) found that:

  • a significant minority see the internet as one huge database with little appreciation for the distinctions between private or public ownership of documents or the relative authority of content,

  • the level of satisfaction with the results from a Google search is higher (93%) than a librarian assisted search (84%),

  • despite the growth in available information, most online documents are not read but downloaded to be hidden away, unread, and

  • participation in online networking sites for educational purposes has been slow (6%) despite a high social use.

A further problem from anecdotal evidence gathered from the experiences of De Montfort teachers is that this deficit in the skill level extends into a lack of self-awareness of it. An analysis of some failed assignments requiring information literacy skills showed that the most frequent reasons for the failure involved the use of inappropriate online sources, a lack of progression from the first online source and an inability to identify effective search words.

The CIBER study also highlighted some misconceptions of tutors that:

  • all modern students have a high level of technical skill which is ever increasing,

  • students expect to be entertained by ever present educational resources and

  • students have a zero tolerance to delay in the provision of materials.

The Web 2.0 World report (2009) also found that while students still place a high value on face to face study, they are aware that staff capabilities in technology are largely lagging behind what they experience in their everyday lives.

One of the conclusions of this must be that a vast increase in technology used to date has not kept pace with the need to support engagement or understanding among the student community as it exists today. There may even be a causal link between the explosion of information and this lack of progress. With this in mind, Leicester De Montfort Law School piloted some specific technological tools.

5. Leicester De Montfort Law School Research - the student experience

In 2008/09 the Leicester Institute of Legal Practice within Leicester De Montfort Law School devised a two part strategy for its post graduate legal courses to provide a more effective method of communicating legal knowledge in a more familiar way for the modern student to engage with and contribute to, namely a series of interactive online lectures and a wiki specific to a subject.

The online lectures replaced traditional lectures entirely and consisted of a slide show with an integrated audio recording provided by the lecturers. All lectures contained at least the same content and detail as a traditional lecture and also interactive exercises, active web links and self test questions. The web links were accompanied by a "walk- through" commentary from the tutor explaining what the student should be seeing on a web site for research. The online lectures also had their own wiki acting as a location for urgent questions about the lectures.

The wiki was embedded in the VLE and ran alongside the face to face tutorials and the online lectures. It contained different tasks each month that were aligned to the learning outcomes for analytical legal skills. A variety of tasks was used including diagrams to describe legal concepts and digital media to target different learning styles. The complexity of the tasks increased throughout the year, so that the first task asked for students' opinions about the merits of a strict set of legal rules. This did not require legal knowledge but led into a debate about the common law/equity issue in tutorials. Another early task attached an academic article to the wiki and asked for comments on its persuasiveness and clarity. This produced some high quality results from students as consumers of academic writing which could be carried forward to their role as academic producers. Contribution to the wiki was voluntary as we did not want strategic learning to affect the process and students were informed that the contribution from tutors would be limited, except for the wiki containing urgent questions about the online lectures.

The pedagogic reason for each format was informed by a review of the educational theories above, recent research on wikis ((Cubric, (2007), Maharg (2007a, 2007b)) and e-learning case studies (JISC studies on e-learning (2004, 2007)).

Specifically, the reasons for the online lecture were:

  • to improve legal knowledge, thereby start the engagement process,

  • to have flexibility of time ,place and duration of lectures, encouraging repetition and self directed study and

  • to enliven lectures via a variety of interactive exercises with feedback, live external web links and attached documents.

The reasons for the selection of wiki were:

  • providing an area, not dissimilar to familiar social networking sites like FaceBook, for students to overcome any initial anxiety about expressing an academic view,

  • introducing a variety of tasks with multi media for increased interest,

  • providing a working area that exists over time to allow more time for reflection and is built upon feedback from colleagues and has flexibility of place, and

  • a storage place for work created collaboratively by students.

The students' opinion was sought via a survey of the full time and part time cohorts containing a questionnaire followed by small scale focus groups. In addition, the response rate for each task was analysed quantitatively and a discussion was held with experienced tutors on the course. Due to the requirement for a consistent learning and teaching experience, it was not possible to run a pilot group without these tools. A largely interpretative approach was taken here which was thought appropriate to the aim of gathering the students' perception of the effectiveness of the tools and for the design of future online materials, although some quantitative data is included below.

From the responses concerning the online lectures, the following conclusions were made:

  • 89% of students are in favour of online lectures,

  • the greatest value came from constant repetition of the substantive law (often they were listened to 3 or 4 times) and the flexibility to study at their own pace; this was valued by the full timers as much as the part timers,

  • most students found them easy to use, and where students did not , most of these liked the idea if they had the skills to access them, and

  • more detail could be included due to number of times that a student listens to a lecture.

From the responses on the wiki, the following conclusions were made:

  • 40% of students made a significant contribution to wiki,

  • the quality of responses showed a much higher level of critical involvement with the task than was seen typically in face to face tutorial, and

  • most respondents agreed that the wiki would help with their learning, even those who did not contribute.

Another issue of note however, was that there was very little comment on the contributions of others. It is believed that the role of the affective domain of learning is significant here. Conclusions from student responses in this area included:

  • a remaining reluctance to comment as many still remained shy about having their comments available for others to see, having a fear of "looking foolish"

  • some express a sense of satisfaction with handling technology and the ability to manage higher education within their lives but a significant highly vocal few felt frustration and anger when it did not operate as they expected. The greater benefits of success available to the mature student mean that there was not a strong correlation with these responses and age of the student, and

  • the use of an on-screen lesson made the part time student feel "in a working environment" ( Questionnaire,student OL4) that facilitated working from home.

The response rate from the different tasks on the wiki was reviewed. It was seen that the type of task had a limited effect on the number of views but the number of contributors did decline as the course progressed. Surprisingly, the task that was most closely linked to the assessment had one of the lowest contributions: however this came at the end of the course indicating that shortage of time is still one of the strongest influences upon student work. It may also suggest that the students accepted that the wiki was not a strategic tool for assessment success. From anecdotal comments on the survey, there appeared to be some residual expectation that the tutor would contribute regularly. This may also have been a contributing factor to the decline in usage. No student was using a wiki in their daily life outside university thus supporting some of the findings of the CIBER study concerning technical expertise.

6. Conclusions and Recommendations

Technology touches a large part of our lives. It is a working tool like the roller ball ink pen and the pocket calculator. Students value the flexibility and improved access to higher education that it brings. Unjustified use of technology may result in frustration and isolation. It certainly forms an increasing part of the learning and teaching in legal education.

The learning and teaching of legal critical thinking, that may be called information literacy, faces greater challenges than ever before, including the increased diversity of the modern student community, growing economic pressures and cultural differences. It is suggested that difficulties with engagement contribute towards the lack of this skill and the causes of limited engagement are varied, some, for example economic pressure, are out of the influence of the teacher.

This research intended to pilot some tools for improving engagement and critical thinking in order to test their effectiveness. It was the further intention to move towards establishing a sound pedagogy appropriate for each tool and each group of students.

It was found that by designing new tasks for the electronic environment, some which would not have been practical in a traditional classroom, a progressive development of skills could be achieved, and engagement increased. A base of reflection was developed that could be expanded in the classroom. The online lecture could include a greater amount of substantive knowledge over a face to face format, allowing rigour to be at least maintained and, it is believed, increased supporting the demand for a high level of rigour in legal education.This is largely due to the ability of the student to take the course at their own pace and listen again to most challenging parts. This format then releases the time of the teacher for the further development of skills in face to face sessions.

The research suggests that there is significant support from the student community, although there are some unresolved issues that require further support.

7. Unresolved issues

7.1 Collaboration

The use of wikis and other Web 2.0 tools for the purposes of collaboration appears to remain within limited areas of the academic community: the student community is still not comfortable with this. It may be that there remains some misunderstanding of the rules relating to private and shared ownership, possibly fuelled by the fear of the boundaries of plagiarism. This has consequences not only for the loss of the educational value of shared ideas but also a loss of the employability skill of effective teamwork. A possible route would be for further exercises to be built in to provide authority for peer collaboration.

7.2 Affective domain

Many experience emotional issues regarding technology, including fear and frustration. More investigation is needed to reduce this and, in the short term, more effort is needed to ensure that instructions are simple and easy to use and that the benefits for the students are valid and clear. This will also require an increase in the capabilities of staff to design tasks for these tools.

7.3 E-pedagogy

The Web 2.0 World report (2009) believes that there is an uncomfortable co-existence between the norms of our social world and that of education that cannot be sustained. Adoption of the new methods in legal education remains as pockets of innovative practice.

Further identification will continue into valid learning outcomes for these new tools in legal education. The elements of what is currently referred to as "e-learning" should be compared to the valid established aims of higher education so that shortly e-learning will lose its "e-" special status and just become part of the varied learning and teaching tools in our portfolio.



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