This week’s Connecting Legal Ed session continues last week’s theme of digital teaching, with our guests Annelie Gunnerstad, Christine Storr, Åsa Örnberg and Cormac McGrath from Stockholm University reflecting upon their ‘Virtual Law Cases’ (VLC) as a way for students to learn how to apply the theoretical knowledge gained during their Law degree to real-life decisions they might take in their future careers.
Virtual patients and virtual cases
The inspiration for the VLC came from Cormac’s previous experience of developing virtual patients for student nurses and doctors to work with: although it is crucial for such students to be able to work with minimal information provided by patients and to establish how to diagnose and treat them, in reality it is not always possible or desirable to put the students into direct contact with patients in their early years of training. As the name suggests, virtual patients mimic real patients by providing the students with symptoms which could relate to a number of possible issues, with the students then having options in terms of test requests, treatment etc. This helps the students to practice decision-making in handling and responding to a patient.
The VLC team wondered: if this could work in the medical context, might it work in Law Schools, with students gaining experience of making decisions in a legal context? Although we might say that problem questions do this already, they don’t typically test the ability of students to respond to information which is released in stages (after a course of action has been chosen) for example: VLCs provide more flexibility and more opportunities to test the reasoning of students in different contexts.
Bringing VLC to life
After deciding upon the desired learning outcomes, the legal issues they wanted to cover and considering what could realistically happen in a real-life legal scenario, Annelie, Christine, Åsa and Cormac transferred the cases and the questions they had developed to the online platform Open Labyrinth, where the students access them. Students have to work their way through scenarios by reading information and then clicking on the ‘option’ i.e. the course of action which they think it would be best to choose. If their choice is the ‘wrong’ one, they are given feedback as to why this is so and asked to go back and make another choice. Annelie, Christine, Åsa and Cormac emphasised the importance of these scenarios being realistic, a point which chimed with many of the hangout participants (whose reflections on absurd problem question scenarios is a reminder of this tweet).
During the testing phase of the project, volunteer students worked through the VLC using the ‘think aloud’ method, a really interesting approach which meant they verbalised their reactions and responses to the questions, what they thought the purpose of the question was, which legal sources they needed to use to get to the answer, and why they were choosing the options they were, when they were ‘clicking through’ the VLC. This allowed Annelie, Christine, Åsa and Cormac – who were present – to establish whether the questions were testing what they wanted to and were rigorous enough, for example. This also allowed the team to answer any objections to the use of MCQs as an assessment method: they could see the students were critically reflecting and reasoning when working their way through the questions.
Time and money…
The VLC was developed within an impressively short period of time (an internal pedagogical development grant was applied for in Spring 2018, and the system was tested on Administrative Law students in Autumn 2019), although the presenters were keen to emphasise that – certainly for this level of detail within the project – time needs to be given to staff to develop it properly. This was achieved through the successful award of the aforementioned development grant, which bought staff some time out of other activities: the team said the project took 350 hours of actual work in total, which encompassed their time as well as that of colleagues and students. They translated this into around £25000, which also covered the IT consultant who helped them with the server and the software, and professional recording and editing of videos that they used in the case. All of this detail serves as an important reminder that pedagogical developments have to be given the necessary time and space if they are to be developed to full capacity.
It’s important to note, though, that this isn’t a one size fits all project: during the discussion phase after the presentation, the presenters explained that a smaller scale version of the project could be developed in a much smaller piece of time, drawing upon existing materials used with seminars.
Comments and suggestions
As ever, the comments flooded in during and after the presentation, so just to pick up on a few: a recurring theme in those chat discussions was the question of how aspects from the VLC project could be used in our more ‘traditional’ use of the problem question format in our day to day teaching (not all of us are able to access the size of development grant that the VLC project team had to support their work, although remember the ALT currently have a call out for their ‘Innovation in Teaching Practice Small Grant Scheme’, offering up to £750). ‘Think aloud’ processes, using decision trees and MCQ’s are all really transferable.
In addition to Open Labyrinth, hangout participants referenced Twine and MyLegalExperience as potentially of interest to participants, and simulation in other contexts was discussed by Liz Curran, one of our previous #ConnectingLegalEd presenters. The articles she helpfully referred us to are Creating practice ready, well and professional law graduates (Anneka Ferguson) and Social Justice – Making It Come Alive and A Reality for Students, And Enabling Them to Become Engaged Future Ethical Practitioners (Liz Curran).
If you want to know more about the VLC, you can access the VLC team’s recent presentations on the project here. The VLC team also have a forthcoming academic paper that will be published by ‘The Law Teacher’ in the coming months.
Future #ConnectingLegalEd sessions
Next time (16.06) we will be hosting another ECR session, with our guests Arwen Joyce, Charlotte Mills and Vicki Ball from Leicester (hosted by Kat Langley (Leeds Beckett)), and the week after (23.06) we’re welcoming Amy Wells from Leeds University Union and Liz Park from Cumbria, who will be sharing the hopes and fears of the 2020/21 cohort with us. All sessions are at 1100BST and are on MS Teams; as ever, if you wish to join the Teams space for future #ConnectLegalEd hangouts, please drop Michael Doherty (firstname.lastname@example.org), Lydia Bleasdale (email@example.com), or Emma Flint (E.E.Flint@bham.ac.uk) a line.
This blog was written by Emma, Michael and Lydia, with the help of Annelie Gunnerstad, Christine Storr, Åsa Örnberg and Cormac McGrath