Posted by: MandyS | February 20, 2014

A theory for elearning?

And your authority for this supposition is Mrs Smith?” …immortal words which every lawyer lives by. Based on Dicey’s theory of the Rule of Law, that ‘no man shall be made to suffer in body or goods unless there is a distinct breach of the law’, legal principle (theory), is the bedrock of any legal system. But it is not without change; the law evolves with different ways of thinking about how those principles might be applied in practice, brought about largely by changes in society. To that end, legal principle can only ever ‘guide’ the application of law in practice.

Therefore, it is no great surprise that Nichols (2003) advocates theories with his ‘ten hypotheses’ to underpin the application of elearning in practice.

1. Elearning is a means of education that can be ‘applied to different educational models’ (face-to-face, distance learning) rather than it being a ‘distinctive educational system itself’. There are many definitions of elearning but essentially it appears to be ‘learning conducted using computers and technology’ either wholly or in part. I would argue that it depends on the context of the learning i.e. ‘wholly or in part’ which determines whether it is ‘applied’ or a ‘system in itself’. H817 is delivered ‘wholly’ online; one has to use a computer and technology to access the module; elearning in this context is a ‘distinct educational system in itself’. Conversely, W201 primarily uses printed manuals to deliver the learning but students have the option to incorporate technology into their learning by viewing and listening to i-tutorials and podcasts and conversing via online forums; elearning in this context is ‘applied’.

2. Elearning enables new forms of education. With this I have to agree. Students on W201 are told from the outset that they only need to study the manuals to pass. Everything else is optional, including support from the tutor. But to be an effective lawyer one has to develop a number of skills, not least being able to develop arguments and communicate with others. Admittedly, the manuals allow students to develop their own views but not challenge them. Here technology, in the guise of forums, has been introduced to facilitate argument.

3. Choice of elearning tools should reflect rather than determine the pedagogy i.e. how technology is used is more important than which. At first I thought I agreed wholeheartedly with this but then it occurred to me that for certain things, which is actually more important than how. For example, ‘mooting’ is a means be which law students can develop those all important advocacy skills. For distance learners, technology is key to facilitating this but it is the which that determines the effectiveness as per Yule et. al’s (2010) findings.

4. Elearning advances via pedagogical rather than technological innovation. This sounds a bit like the ‘chicken and the egg’ argument. Arguably, without technology there would be no elearning and on that basis, surely pedagogy has developed as a result of the introduction of technology into education. Current pedagogical thinking places the learner at the heart of their learning i.e. the ‘sage on the stage’ has become the ‘guide on the side’ (Haythornthwaite, 2008). Arguably, technology itself is not the sole catalyst for this way of thinking (one has always been able to take responsibility for ones own learning) but it has certainly made learning more accessible so that learners can achieve this goal.

5. Elearning can be used for presentation (distribution of materials) and facilitation (discussion of materials), which rather goes without saying.

6. Elearning tools are best made to operate within a carefully selected and optimally integrated course design model i.e. a ‘seamless component’ rather than an ‘add-on’. But then again, one can ‘lead a horse to water…’. The fact that the tools are ‘carefully integrated’ does not make elearning any more effective than any other type of learning; it very much depends on the learner and what they are hoping to achieve.

7. Elearning tools and techniques should be used only after consideration has been given to online vs. offline trade-offs. There is always going to be a need for materials to be provided both digitally and manually. What I have found ironic studying the MAODE and tutoring W201 is that students learning wholly online want to print materials and students learning wholly offline want the materials made available electronically. In the words of a fellow lawyer…”go figure”.

8. Effective eLearning practice considers the ways in which end-users will engage with the learning opportunities provided to them. To me, this is linked with 6 & 7. ‘End user behaviour’ surely determines course design and the online/offline trade-off as opposed to being a separate hypothesise?

9. The overall aim of education does not change when eLearning is applied. I agree that it is how the students measure against the  learning objectives that is key. Law students have to demonstrate various skills e.g. knowledge and understanding, cognitive and professional skills. This does not change whether they use technology or they don’t. All technology can do is facilitate learning in different formats with the hope that learners will be encouraged to take control of their own learning. Having said that, I am not convinced by the assertion that it is ‘not whether or not they can use the technology that will  determine their success in the workplace.’ I think one would be hard pressed to find an organisation that does not use technology in the workplace. Even law firms and barristers use social media as a networking medium and to that end, law students must also be conversant in its use. Does education today not encompass the use of technology?

10. Only pedagogical advantages will provide a lasting rationale for implementing eLearning approaches i.e. technological tools have to be seen to ‘improve’ teaching and learning. But how does one measure improvement in learning and teaching? Better results, increased employment? Is this attributable to the learner, the tutor, the use of technology or a combination? Given that the article is now 11 years old, I wonder if  Nichols would still proffer this hypotheses. Are there likely to be institutions today who are still waiting to see what the benefits of elearning are before implementing change?

When I first read the article, I agreed with most of what was said, but having analysed the hypotheses further I can see that there are only 2 & 5 I don’t take issue with. This may be because of the age of the article or my own context (or both) but I am now intrigued to read others views.

 

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