Delivering Blended Legal Learning by Open Source Methods

Article excerpt

Abstract

E-learning in legal education has increased substantially in recent years, leading to concerns that traditional teaching is being phased out. This paper proposes a blended approach, combining appropriate e-learning with traditional methods to achieve a coherent and effective approach.

The use of e-learning has been associated with high costs and high levels of specialised support. The Oxford Institute of Legal Practice (OXILP) has made extensive use of Moodle, an open source virtual learning environment (VLE) which delivers high quality facilities at low cost. The software is free to download and is now used by over 8,000 registered sites worldwide. MoodleMoot, the annual conference for Moodle, was founded by OXILP's IT Systems Manager in 2003, with assistance from the author. The MoodleMoot conference was hosted by the Open University in 2006. The Open University has recently adopted Moodle as its e-learning software, an endorsement of its quality and its ability to compete with commercial packages.

The paper considers the use of e-learning to support traditional lectures and interactive group work by means of preparatory and follow up exercises, web and podcasting. The paper also considers the use of multiple-choice questions which can be marked by the software, providing instant, detailed feedback to learners. The paper also reflects on the possible use of portfolios in legal education and training in the light of issues considered by the Law Society of England and Wales in its recent training framework review.

Keywords: Virtual learning environment, blended learning, Moodle, e-portfolio, webcasting, podcasting, legal education, Legal Practice Course, multiple choice questions, MCQs, discussion boards, chatrooms

1. Introduction

The use of IT in all levels of education is becoming more and more common. Nursery classes have learning games on computers, schools use computers and interactive whiteboards as part of their normal day (Department for Education and Skills, 'Harnessing Technology: Transforming learning and children's services' 2005). It is hardly surprising that legal education makes more use of IT than ever before. There is a trend towards including significant amounts of IT as a replacement for traditional and face to face teaching. This may be the way things will go in the future, but some contact time will always be required, even if it is only to address particular issues for individual learners.

The trend towards increased use of IT can cause tremendous anxiety among teaching staff. What needs to be remembered is that whatever material students use, and in whatever form, there must be a teaching professional behind it. Just as books need someone to write them, so too with e-learning material. Also, although a lot of interactive material runs more or less on its own once it is set up, (for example, computer marked multiple choice questions 'MCQs'), the tutor needs to edit and update materials in response to changes in the law and amendments to the syllabus or assessment requirements.

2. Blended learning

The approach taken by many institutions generally is to integrate IT into their courses, rather than replacing traditional elements wholesale. Some types of activity can be carried out more effectively using IT, others benefit from a more traditional approach. Individual study can be made more effective by the use of interactive material, reinforcing what has been read. In many cases, a blend of different teaching and learning methods is used to achieve a unified course which presents learners with opportunities to deepen their learning.

The use of the term 'blended learning' has become the subject of some controversy. Trigwell and Oliver (2005) state that 'there is little merit in keeping the term blended learning as it is currently understood. It is either inconsistent ... or redundant'. Although there may be some academic and semantic conflict over the use of the term, the use of a variety of different methods working together in a seamless way appears to be accepted in many institutions. …