E-learning in legal services sector

May 1st, 2020

In an interview, Professor of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand, Jonathan Klaaren, sat down with Instructional Designer at Derek Moore and Associates, Derek Moore, to discuss e-learning in the legal services sector.

Jonathan Klaaren (JK): Do I recall correctly that you have recently completed one or two e-learning projects? Projects that use digital and education technologies for legal education? Is that right?

Derek Moore (DM): Yes. I ran a blended learning pilot for vocational level legal educators and introduced a learning management system to support remote continuous professional development of their legal colleagues.

JK: I see, both projects in the legal sector. So, given the urgent demand for online learning caused by COVID-19, we better cover some background to help folks understand things in this space. Why did these projects warrant e-learning? What was the rationale for using this digital approach?

DM: Reading between the lines, I think that it was the combination of growing learning and development needs, and shrinking budgets that pushed them along this route.

JK: Both push and pull factors, then. Can you explain further? Any ‘access to justice’ here?

DM: E-learning is often framed by management as a remedy to address a short-term problem. A set of vitamin pills to address an informational deficiency. I prefer to see e-learning as an opportunity to improve the teaching and learning process. EdTech can be used as a means to build better feedback loops for individuals, teachers, and administrators within a system. It is not a simple remedy. There are no silver bullets here.

JK: It must be right that there are no silver bullets, institutions (and perhaps especially legal institutions) take time to build. (They may be quicker to tear down.) So, what are the actual realistic expectations for e-learning?

DM: Technologies are often sold because they address admin blockages within current systems. They do improve efficiency, manage costs, reduce workloads, and allow for better reporting. I like to take it a bit further and look at the opportunity to revisit current learning and development practices and consider what is now enabled or enhanced with digitisation.

JK: Expressed that way, the introduction of e-learning can be seen as part of monitoring and evaluation. Indeed, it is great that these managers were open to exploring new modes of legal education. What did they want to achieve?

DM: Monitoring and evaluation data can be used to engage a range of people in the organisation. This can lead to insights that will assist students, teachers, subject matter experts (and not only administrators) make better decisions and effect change.

Our first client wanted to standardise the delivery of their vocational training programme nationally. They have schools all over the country and have deployed Sakai, a learning management system (LMS), to support their schools. They wanted to take the next step and blend their training programme with digital materials.

The second client was a central unit of seconded (and seasoned) judicial educators, charged with professional development of colleagues who were distributed right across the county. They wanted assistance with making better use of technology for legal teaching, learning and training.

JK: Sakai, I know that programme well, I have used it in teaching numerous undergraduate and postgraduate courses. How did the pilot go with this first project?

DM: This pilot shifted attention from ‘what tools should we be using?’ to ‘how can we use a digital modality?’ to encourage learning outcomes. Feedback from pilot participants (staff and students) was positive. Data from monitoring and evaluations was used to identify issues. Recommendations were made about the need for a clear course production workflow and ongoing communication about blended learning among all staff. Probably the biggest issue was student readiness for this new approach. Measures to ensure access, computer literacy, digital competency so that the learning experience became more participative were flagged.

JK: What did the second project aim to achieve?

DM: The current judicial educator’s professional development programme is long established and valued, but the mechanics of the existing programme required absence from home and the courts for long periods of time. Senior management had identified e-learning as a strategic priority. They wanted to see whether their educator team could use Moodle, another LMS, to support learning at a distance.

JK: That project seems well-suited for e-learning, as a solution to the problem of nationwide distribution of our magistrates’ courts. Beyond the specifics of these projects, do you think that there is any scope for using digital technologies in legal education?

DM: An unequivocal yes. Digital platforms, such as Sakai and Moodle, allow for knowledge to work across different boundaries. Anytime, anyplace learning allows the student to bridge temporal and spatial boundaries. Students enrolled in vocational training do not have to drive across town to attend night classes. The materials development team (subject matter experts, instructional developers, graphic designers and videographers) could create, edit, manage and publish a coherent body of learning resources and activities and collaborate in new ways. Educators could interact around the creation, management and publishing and presentation from their own offices through a portal. Course administrators could see immediate administration benefits like maintenance of attendance records, quicker and cheaper distribution and collection of course content, and wider range of options to assess for and of learning.

Probably the biggest boundary that digital [learning] offers to bridge is the knowledge/knowing boundary. And it is in this area where I think that there is a lot of scope for further exploration.

JK: The ‘knowledge/knowing boundary’, just remind me what that is?

DM: I am speaking about the boundary between ‘knowing how’ and ‘knowing that’. Maybe I should use the terms procedural/declarative knowledge to describe the knowledge/knowing boundary. Procedural knowledge involves knowing how to do something, for example, drive a car. Declarative knowledge involves knowing that something is the case, for example, that the letter ‘z’ is the 26th letter of the alphabet. Procedural knowledge is hard to express verbally. These skills are best shown by means of performance. Declarative knowledge is conscious; it can often be verbalised. It is easy to use EdTech to measure declarative knowledge.

JK: There is, however, lots of hype with digital going on at the moment, with the fourth industrial revolution and so on and I am not even talking about COVID-19 yet. What are the specific innovations that can result and be used when digital and legal education are combined?

DM: The information technologies associated with law are shifting. Whether it be legal informatics, disruptive innovations or artificial intelligence. I am not sure that innovation is an automatic result of combining legal education and digital, or if this should even be the focus. I prefer to focus on quality improvement, access or agency and how digital can foster this.

Digital replaces, augments or transforms education practices. I call it the RAT acronym. Replace, augment and transform.

Sometimes, when the focus is on the communication of ‘declarative knowledge’, technology can be used to put ‘text-under-glass’. Course participants click their way through pre-arranged interactions. When course participants are allowed to use technologies that allow for mindful engagement with course content and each other, then digital can be used to augment teaching. When course participants can combine technology and knowledge to perform and demonstrate their skills, then digital can be used to transform teaching and learning practices.

JK: Thanks, sounds like I will need another digital coffee chat with you soon. What is the next topic? Could we look at the law firm space? Or shall we tackle the COVID-19 effect?

DM: Let us see what De Rebus readers think. I am pleased that management at legal education institutions (broadly defined) have recognised a need to revisit their current legal education programmes. The challenge is for legal education initiatives to address ‘quality’ challenges that accompany innovations in legal information technologies and do so while also addressing the accessibility needs of their students.

Jonathan Klaaren BA (Harvard) MA (UCT) JD (Columbia) LLB (Wits) PhD (Yale) is a Professor of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand. Derek Moore BA HDE BEd (UNP) MEd (UP) is an Instructional Designer at Derek Moore and Associates in Johannesburg.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2020 (May) DR 8.