“Digital Literacy” in #legaled, begins here?

There is an ongoing discussion about digital technologies in education and practice – in legal education, practical legal training and professional practice. It is a discussion that recasts itself from time to time, e.g. as “digital literacy”. My interest in this area involves a couple of prisms – academic and professional legal education, professional and individual practices. I studied flexible, online and distance education (“FODE”) as a subject back in 2009 as part of my Masters in Professional Education and Training at Deakin University. In the context of some recent discussions, e.g. Kate Galloway’s posts at the Curl blog, I reviewed my notes from 2009 and put these online via a YouTube video. (More after the video)

I’m focusing on teaching and learning here, whereas the digital literacy debate is broader, and includes issues such as the legal profession’s engagement with digital technologies in practice. I would argue, however, that some attitudes about digital literacy begin in the formative stages of legal education, and the assumptions of regulators who accredit and approve courses. These notes date from 2009, but some issues are durable. I’ll mention a few of these here.

“Interactions” – some commentators seem to conceptualise FODE interactions as wholly online interactions. Interactions in teaching and learning are important, and there appears to be some anxiety about the nature and quality of interactions in #legaled. See, for example the Roper Report [1] and Gaye Lansdell’s publications on this [2][3]. “Online-ness” is treated as antithetical in #legaled, and particularly in PLT. What is often overlooked is the “blended” nature of existing courses, i.e. a blend of face-to-face and online interactions, and in PLT the work experience and reflective component of the courses. I recall attending a final plenary session at the 2012 APLEC conference in Hobart, in which the panel was manifestly disengaged from the existence of blended learning with FODE as one (multi-dimensional) tool in the instructional design toolbox. The sector suffers from a lack of local empirical research concerning interactions in FODE and teaching and learning in legal education and PLT. We need this research to inform regulators and educators. Also, as the video mentions, FODE and non-FODE “interactions” occur across many dimensions. Interactions are important, and a holistic approach is necessary for effective teaching and learning. This includes recognition of a reflexive-dialectical dimension for interactions, involving reflections in individual and extra-individual aspects of teaching and learning.

“Enablement” and “Social Justice” – FODE has the capacity to overcome restrictions in time and space, and to provide alternative means of communication and engagement. This capacity potentially enables individuals, who might otherwise be denied equal opportunity, to engage in legal education and training. I have personal experience of this as a deaf person, but I’m not just talking about disability. In Australia, overcoming the “tyranny of distance” remains an issue for rural and regional areas. Information and communications technology is increasingly affordable across socio-economic levels. I believe the legal profession would be the better for diversity in its membership – and the equity and parity of opportunity that FODE can contribute in legal education plays its part in this.

“Flexibility and Overload” – It is a double-edged sword. Flexibility can offer equity and parity in opportunities, but there are some institutional and individual issues on the teaching side of things. There seems to me to be a widespread mistaken belief that FODE is a cheap business model. Well, it is, if you’re not really concerned about whether your teaching and learning model is effective and satisfactory. If you do care, then FODE takes substantial investment of planning, funding, time and personnel to realise  good outcomes. There seems to be an increasing tendency of institutions to casualise teaching positions in FODE environments, to use practitioners without adequate training in teaching and learning theory and practice and/or FODE technologies. That tendency, together with inadequate planning or instructional design, undermines the effectiveness of FODE. Also, I believe it places an unfair burden on teachers, particularly those who really care about their effectiveness, because they must often compensate for inadequacies in planning, design and training by contributing substantial hours of unpaid work.

“Industrialisation” of #legaled – Otto Peters [4][5] foresaw a situation where industrialised education would involve employing less-qualified instructors to “deliver” instruction to learners, with qualified personnel reserved for planning and policy. If teaching and learning was like the mass production of widgets (“work-ready lawyers”), the industrialised model might work okay. But I contend it isn’t, and it doesn’t. I mentioned above the reflexive-dialectical aspects of teaching and learning. Part of this involves thinking about the teachers and practical legal training practitioners. Individuals with substantial intellectual and practical expertise have self actualisation needs that should be considered, if they are to thrive and remain motivated.[6] To neglect this consideration disrespects and undermines those individuals. This aspect can communicate itself to learners, who might under-rate the relevance and importance of the teaching and so, in turn, undermine the learners’ motivation to engage with learning.

“thinking” – I am an “early adopter” of technologies, and personally believe FODE has enormous potential. I argue that it is important, however, to remember that technologies are extensions or enablers of action. They do not substitute for intellectual engagement, critical thinking, methodologies or planning, on which they depend.

[1] Christopher Roper, ‘Standards for Approving Practical Legal Training Courses and Providers’ (Victoria Council of Legal Education, 2008).
[2] Gaye Lansdell, Have We Forsaken Quality and Professionalism for Technological Convenience in the Training of Lawyers in the 21st Century? The ‘Flexible Learning’Paradigm (2010).
[3] Gaye T Lansdell, ‘Have We ‘Pushed the Boat Out Too Far’ in Providing Online Practical Legal Training? A Guide to Best Practices for Future Programs’ (2009) 19(1 & 2) Legal Education Review 149.
[4] Otto Peters, 1969, ‘New Perspectives in Correspondence Study in Europe’, paper presented to 8th conference of the International Council on Correspondence Education, Paris, May 1969, <http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/33/fb/4c.pdf>.
[5] Otto Peters, ‘Distance education and industrial production: a comparative interpretation in outine’ in D Stewart, D Keegan and B Holmberg (eds), Distance Education: International Perspectives (1983) 95.
[6] Abraham Harold Maslow, ‘A theory of human motivation’ (1943) 50(4) Psychological Review 370.