Reflections on ALTA Conference 2013

ALTA2013Overall I enjoyed this year’s ALTA conference at ANU (my third), interacting with familiar faces and making several new acquaintances. Personally, this was my most socially engaging ALTA conference so far.

Day One

First Keynote – Professor Carrie Menkel-Meadow

I developed a serious intellectual crush on Professor Carrie Menkel-Meadow (Georgetown Law, Washington DC) during her keynote address on the first day. Summarising the keynote here would be inadequate and many of her papers are freely available on SSRN, but one of the more recent, ‘Doing Good Instead of Doing Well? What Lawyers Could be Doing in a World of ‘Too Many’ Lawyers’ seems especially indicative, speaking to the idea that ‘lawyers and legal educators need to proactively reframe what is considered to be legal work and legal education for new ways of legal and human problem solving to be studied and learned’.


Melissa Castan (Monash Uni) and I co-presented a paper developed with Kate Galloway (James Cook Uni), ‘The Matrix as the Gatekeeper: Effective integration of online technologies in maximising research impact and engagement’. We hope to publish a full paper later, but in essence we spoke to our experience following the publication of our earlier article, ‘Interconnectedness, Multiplexity and the Global Student: The Role of Blogging and Micro Blogging in Opening Students’ Horizons’ The paper was picked up by the Australian Financial Review and enjoyed a substantial increase in abstract views and downloads. The experience caused us to reflect on how social media might be incorporated into considerations of quality, engagement and impact in research. The presentation was generally well received and hopefully we can develop this line of inquiry further.

Dr Noeleen McNamara (University of Southern Queensland) presented ‘Engagement of Distance Law Students Through the Learning Management System: Core and elective courses’. Noeleen reported a detailed statistical study that compared student access to online tutorials (downloadable mp3 files) with their subject grades. Interestingly, several ‘fail’ students had accessed all or most tutorials whereas at least one HD student had accessed none at all. There were some differences between results for LLB and JD students. Following this presentation I personally reflected how valuable a qualitative study of participants’ narratives about how they engaged with the online tutorials might be for informing future use of online tutorials.

Dr Helen Sungaila (James Cook University) presented a paper jointly developed with Peter Boulot, ‘The MOOCS Have Arrived: But where does the real challenge lie?’ This was a very entertaining account of Helen’s experience in grappling with the scripting and design of an online simulation project, and her interactions with those advising her, including a scriptwriter and a virtual reality engineer. For me, this presentation highlighted how interactions between lawyers and non-lawyers in legal education can be puzzling, frustrating but ultimately instructive and generative.

Elen Seymour and Assoc Prof Michael Blissenden (both from University of Western Sydney) jointly presented ‘Gatekeeper of Learning in the Digital Age’, which was an account of their experience in working with an arrange of digital applications to create and deliver online instruction. A key takeaway message for me is that a plethora of cheap or free applications are available, but one needs to think carefully about how to incorporate such applications into instruction so they best serve the purpose of student learning. Conference technology inhibited their ability to provide a ‘live’ demonstration of the applications, but did not diminish their message. I think, however, conference organisers need to incorporate robust presentation technology as resources for presenters, with ICT increasingly a subject in presentations.

After lunch I attended a presentation by Dr Leonie Kelleher and Mr Hubert Algie (both of Kellehers Australia) ‘The Gatekeepers of the Law: Revisiting the roles of academics, students and the profession’, in which each presented a case study. Hubert’s case study involved engaging the profession to help young lawyers learn and improve advocacy skills. Leonie’s case study involved students engaging with a remote aboriginal community, mediated by an aboriginal elder. Both case studies provide examples of taking learning outside of the classroom and interacting with (what I call) ‘actuals’ to generate insights that promote and enrich student learning.

Dr Chris Trevitt (Australia National University) presented a paper jointly developed with Lynn Du Moulin (ANU), ‘Gatekeepers Meet Stakeholder Interests: Managing the tensions arising from the changing nature of professional dialogues in legal education’. The paper explored the gatekeeping role legal educators experience through dialogues with various stakeholders, involving attributes of power, legitimacy and urgency. Stakeholders identified include teachers, learners, learning institution, professional regulators, the profession and its clients, and the wider higher education milieu. They examined student assessment and teacher evaluation as ‘two particular settings where tensions and opportunities for dialogue arise.’ I am very interested in this work and I see intersections with my own research concerning PLT practitioners’ engagement with scholarship of teaching.

The final plenary on Day 1 was entitled ‘Law Teachers as Gatekeepers—How effectively are legal educators teaching students about the role of lawyers and the nature of legal practice’. The panel included Prof Kim Economides, Tim Bugg, Jemima Roe, and Bradley Chenoweth. One comment that stood out for me and elicited questions from the floor seemed to indicate innovations in legal education might be inhibited by conservative regulators. This is an important topic I hope to follow up in my own research.

Day Two

Unfortunately, I missed the first keynote on Day 2 – Professor Frank Brennan SJ AO, (Australian Catholic University and ANU). His topic was ‘Law Teachers as Gatekeepers of Law, Public Morality and Human Rights: equipping our students for moral argument in a pluralistic legal environment. I understand that specific mention was made of land rights, native title, and the law concerning asylum seekers.

First presentation I attended on Day 2 was Michael McShane’s ‘Should Law School Focus on the Discipline or the Profession of Law?’. Michael explored intersections with between learner theory (e.g. Vygotsky), themes in the Carnegie Report (‘Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law’), documents produced by the ALTC and the threshold learning outcomes. One of the ideas that resonated with me was the connection between notions of ‘metacognition’ (how learners manage their own learning) and the ‘market’. There wasn’t time for Michael to fully develop this in the presentation. My understanding is that metacognition might be appropriated as part of an industrialised approach in which the learner ‘bears the cost’ through learner-centred approaches. This reminded me of Foucault’s concept of governmentality and self-government as a way of shifting the management burdens in power relations. Interesting area.

Oyiela Litaba (Monash) presented ‘(Ab)using the Court System: Helping our students to get it right’ and described a learning task involving role play. Students were ‘cast’ for roles in a civil litigation fact situation involving ethical dilemmas, including a junior solicitor charged with carriage of a commercial litigation matter apparently lacking merit. Oyiela described the difficulty of resolving a dilemma in which a junior lawyer is directed to do something they perceive as breaching professional ethics. Very interesting discussion about how to manage this in a teaching situation.

Katherine Curnow (University of Queensland) presented ‘Putting Civil Procedure into Action: Investigating the effects of implementing an experiential learning tutorial program’. This was an interesting report on an innovation involving face-to-face experiential learning components with some online components.

Dr Brendan Gogarty (University of Tasmania) presented ‘Practicing the Study of Public Law. A skills based teaching and learning model for undergraduate law students’. Brendan’s model was evolved after considerable experimentation and combines online and face-to-face experiential components that include interactions with members of the profession and fact situations drawn from live High Court matters. A great example of how to incorporate public online materials from the High Court into learning content. It is also clear that Brendan is carefully evaluating each stage of development and each component of this model. Ambitious and demanding and worth watching over time.

Assoc Prof Gary Tamsitt (ANU) examined and compared data from the USA and Australia  in his presentation, ‘South Sea Bubble: Will law enrolments peak in Australia?’ At present law school enrolments are rising in Australia (falling in the USA), but it appears that graduate positions are diminishing in Australia. Several aspects complicate comparisons (career trajectories for law graduates in the USA might differ from those in Australia), and it is difficult to get good national data concerning graduate employment in Australia. Interesting empirical study that I will follow for my own research.

In his presentation, ‘‘If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them’: Appropriating vocationalism in the law school’, Prof Nick James (Bond University) spoke about the rise of vocationalism in law schools and the need to preserve academic spaces that are not focused on producing practising lawyers. Nick suggested that one strategy is for academics to ‘appropriate’ the notion of ‘professionalism’ by showing ways in which insights produced by the academy are integral to a holistic notion of professionalism.

Final keynote – Professor Paul Maharg, ANU
Paul spoke to his theme of ‘Space, absence, silence: learning and the regulation of legal education’. Drawing on concepts from the arts, reader-response theory, relational perspective, knowledge objects, affective socio-linguistics, Paul demonstrated how concepts of space and absence can inform approaches to teaching and learning, and regulation of legal education too. He suggests that ‘shared space is an approach that can improve regulation and  the quality of legal education. This could involve ‘participative regulation’ where the regulator acts as a quality enhancer rather than a quality assurer, focusing on ‘culture shifts towards innovation, imagination, change for a democratic society’.

I thought that was a pretty good note on which to end the conference.