Building Community Through Innovative Approaches to Experiential Learning: The Case of the Rights Resource Network SA

I am not sure how everyone else is feeling but to us it feels very sad and strange to not have seen many of you at our conference. At this time of year we are used to returning full of ideas and thoughts having had the chance to hear and chat about fantastic legal education research across the globe. In an attempt to still share some of that research with you, we are bringing you a series of blog posts from people who would have presented their work at our annual conference in Stirling this year. Our first post comes from the other side of the world from Dr Sarah Moulds who is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the  Law School, University of South Australia. Please enjoy the blog and leave any feedback or questions for Sarah in the comments. 

Dr Sarah Moulds Profile PictureBuilding Community Through Innovative Approaches to Experiential Learning: The Case of the Rights Resource Network SA

I often start my Foundations of Law class by asking students why they have chosen to study law.  I always get a large cohort that say that they want to ‘make a difference’, to help people to achieve justice, navigate government systems or sort out their complicated lives.  For these students, the law is in the community.  For all students, there is a need to understand and experience how the law relates to their community, from both a pedagogical perspective and to develop a sense of professional identity and wellbeing.  In my view, this makes ‘building communities’ within and outside of Law School a central task for teachers and academics.

In this blog, I briefly outline some of the benefits associated with providing law students with the opportunity to develop their own autonomous, responsive networks around local rights issues affecting their community, through the example of the Rights Resource Network SA (the Network).

Before describing exactly what the Network does, it is useful to revisit the idea behind ‘experiential learning’.  This is the idea that a student gains knowledge by doing rather than passively observing: that the knowledge or skills seeking to be transferred are experienced by the student. When employed in Law Schools, experiential learning can include participation in university-supported legal advice or law reform clinics, supervised student placements and in class simulations of practical legal skills. The benefits of experiential learning include pedagogical and skills-development benefits, improved graduate employment outcomes and improved student wellbeing.  There are also clear limits to the benefits associated with these types experiences particularly when they are tightly controlled by the University. These include temporal limitations (short periods for internships or research projects); supervisory and resource limitations (which may be dependent on subject matter expertise within a faculty or numbers of students); and output limitations (which can be prescribed by assessment criteria). This has led some to call for more ‘innovative’ approaches to experiential learning that are student-led or student designed or courses that situate students directly within the community rather than the classroom. These innovative approaches recognise that many of the benefits to be gained from experiential learning arise from the relationships and networks students develop with individuals and groups that are located outside of the University.

I argue that involving students in informal networks like the Rights Resource Network SA is one such innovative approach to experiential learning.  Key to my argument is the distinction between engagement in a ‘network’ and engagement in a University controlled ‘placement’.  A ‘network’ has a fluid, dynamic quality rather than a lineal or legally defined status.  Networks can also be (but are not always) effective at building a sense of community, particularly if they involve a genuine exchange of information among members, a shared commitment to at least some common goals or a shared identity and an openness to sharing ideas, contacts and potential collaboration

These features of networks can be contrasted with the more formal, rigid relationships between intern and placement host, or between student and clinic, or between lawyer and law society.  Networks can allow individuals to ‘duck in and out’ or to form close bonds for short periods of time without demanding formal ‘membership’ or establishing hierarchical power relationships. This makes networks a potentially fertile ground for building relationships between students, law schools and the community.  It also gives students and community organisations opportunities to interact directly, and on their own terms, without the oversight or control of the University.

Of course, not all networks have these qualities. Many challenges arise from the very fact that the key features or qualities of a ‘network’ are difficult to control or define, and therefore give rise to risks when it comes to predicting the behaviour or impact of ‘networks’ on either the experiences of individuals members of the network, or on the achievement of any common goals. For this reason, I am not suggesting that networks are the only or even best way to build communities for law students or around law schools – but they may be a beneficial supplement to other forms of experiential learning techniques available in modern law schools, with flow on positive benefits for community building.

Rights Resource Network South Australia Logo

So what is the Rights Resource Network SA?  Basically, it’s a fluid group of local non-government organisations, academics and students founded in May 2019 in response to a shared view that there were significant gaps in the information available to non-government bodies about laws and policies that impacted individual rights in South Australia, and serious shortcomings in the capacity of non-government organisations to effectively engage with policy makers and law makers on rights issues in South Australia.

The Network is designed to fill these gaps by sharing legal analysis, lived experience  and research about laws, policies or practices that breach people’s rights and freedoms in this State – and to provide the chance for people to get together and make positive change.  For example, the Network provides a regular ‘inquiries update’ listing all rights-relate inquiries or consultations occurring in South Australia and around the country that may be of interest to Network members. It also provides briefing material to other Network members and to parliamentarians and the media about current or emerging rights issues in South Australia and holds community workshops to share information and advocacy skills on rights issues in South Australia.

Students at UniSA Law School are involved in each of these activities as Network members, and free to develop relationships with other Network members that can be formalised into academically recognised internships or placements, or other paid and unpaid roles within community organisations.  Students have also been proactive in developing their own profiles as experts within the Network, leading forums and discussions and generating new ideas of advocacy priorities and strategies.

It is clear that a rigorous qualitative evaluation of the Network is needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn as to its overall impact on student learning, student wellbeing or community outcomes.  However, my experience to date suggests that engaging with informal Networks such as this one offer new opportunities for students, teachers and the community to engage around real-world issues, with flow-on positive implications for the way the next generation perceives the role of the legal profession of the future.  As the illustrious Honourable Michael Kirby QC AC has observed “young law students above all should be joiners … they should be involved, they should get to know the victims of suppression and injustices and should speak up for those victims because the law is about values and values of human rights are universal and lawyers have to be in the lead.” I believe building communities through Networks like the Rights Resource Network SA could be one helpful step towards this goal.

Network Forum on Protesting, Advocacy and the Law

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