Law, teaching and technology

Call me a bit of an idealist, but I like to know what I am doing. This is the kind of unfortunate trait that made me want to become English law qualified a few years ago when, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact I was working in the projects team of an Edinburgh law firm, I was advising on predominantly English law matters. When I flitted over to higher education, this trait made me sign up for a postgraduate certificate in learning and teaching. I am now halfway to being a Fellow of the Higher Education Authority (HEA). In addition to getting to know teachers from other disciplines, which is a fantastic learning experience in itself, the course has exposed me to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Schön’s reflective practitioner and Kolb’s learning cycle. The course even moved me to write a piece on reflective learning, which is not something I imagined would form part of my portfolio even a year ago, but I am delighted it now does.

Our most recent session was entitled “Frontiers of Technology”, after which we were set a formative assessment broadly asking us to select a “technology” from the workshop and discuss (in about 1,000 words) what impact it might have on education in a particular discipline and wider society in the near future. (If any learning and teaching snobs happen to read this and wish to heckle about whether this assignment was in constructive alignment with the UK HEA’s PSF, feel free to post a comment!) My thoughts, complete with some feedback from my tutor, are set out below.

The impact of digital doppelgängers/game-based learning

The prescribed reading for the session included a New Scientist article on “digital doppelgangers”. In true student kop out style, I chose to write about the subject matter in the prescribed reading. In theory, such technology might just allow a version of a legal judge, mediator or client that is a “smart, animated, digital doppelgänger – mimicking everything from his professional knowledge to the way he moves his eyebrows” as a counterpoint to a lawyer in training at some point in the not-so-distant future. If that future does seem a long way off (which is a matter of debate for more qualified people than me), the ready substitute of game-based learning might be transposed into a skills-centric legal course. By game-based learning, I mean the application of (computer) games to cognitive development. If Stanford University can create “Septris,” which is an HTML5 mobile simulation game where learners have to manage patients as their health deteriorates, it would seem eminently feasible to have a game where learners have to manage clients as their marriage deteriorates (with all the implications that might have for any children) or deal with the crises management that a commercial arrangement unwinding will throw up, whilst smoothing over any legal issues before they become contentious and a court action is needed. There may even be a move towards such programmes in a courtroom context.

Before looking specifically at law, how might society change in five years’ time with such technology? I suspect it will have no more of an effect (or at least no more visible effect) than flight simulators for trainee pilots. Budding town planners might even have engaged with older game like Sim City in their youth. (And yes, Sim City has been cited in learned articles.) More up to date programmes can hopefully spare us the gridlock caused by a poorly planned street layout, but (beyond a cost-saving) such simulations would very much be a background rather than foreground revolution. Perhaps the only change the public might see would be in a situation where they have easy access to such training materials and have a go themselves, thus working out some of the tricks of the trade. No bad thing in itself, perhaps, although it might be a bad thing if it causes people to pick up bad habits or misconceptions.

The impact of digital doppelgängers/game-based learning on legal education

Returning to legal education, the cut in costs benefit would continue to be relevant, as indeed might the comprehension issues for society, assuming they could engage with such programmes and generally allow improved “access to justice” in the broadest sense of that term.

The real benefit to legal training would be in the context of a mock court environment or mock client interview. Of course, there may be credibility issues when a student feels unable or unwilling to engage with an inanimate programme, but those credibility issues also occur when students interact as part of a role-play with a student colleague or perhaps even a volunteer (who might be too young or too old, or too sophisticated or too feckless, to be credible in that role).

How might this look in five years’ time? That is a very good question. It seems progress from 2007 to 2012 has actually been quite limited in the sphere of Scots legal skills education, per the experience of the now defunct Glasgow Graduate School of Law (which, as it happens, has split into its constituent parts of Glasgow and Strathclyde universities). That said, it may be too bold to say students were really put into a bona fide game-based learning environment. Rather, they were based in a virtual village (which was given a suitably twee “Take The High Road” name of Ardcalloch) and teams were paired off against opposing teams then had to “solve” certain problem constellations (say a personal injury claim or house purchase). Here, the game was more a conduit than an active learning experience. What a digital doppelgänger (in an optimal situation) or a suitably intelligent computer “client” could do is provide an instant critique of advocacy, dispute resolution or client management. Legal “problems” can be so varied, and there can be a number of ways to reach a suitable end point, so getting feedback quickly, and indeed being able to tailor an electronic game to react in a certain way, all seems preferable to a game as a simple conduit or indeed an old style “adventure” book (which tell you to choose between paragraph 811 or 125 to proceed, where one of those options kills your character without a particularly clear reason why).

Will it lead to complete revolution in legal skills teaching? Perhaps not, given the key lesson that can be learned from playing the client or a witness, namely the insight as to what you (don’t) want the other person to ask you, which dynamic can only be replicated in a human to human environment. That being so, there is certainly room for innovation in legal teaching. Some commentators have noted that law has already dropped behind, but there are parts of the legal curriculum that will be suited to this kind of innovative pedagogy.


So that was my assessment, as amended to make it a bit more bloggy. What did my supervisor make of it? My feedback (from a non-lawyer) was that whilst there might be no outwardly visible effect of this technology for society, one implicit outward effect would be a certain democratisation of learning about law. There was also a note that this kind of democratisation may have an impact in bringing about competition that would give pause for considering the focus of law schools, which I confess I had not initially considered and the point is one that could be debated.

With regard to simulations as applied to the teaching of law, I was directed to medical simulations that are being experimented with at Imperial College London (using SecondLife) that might be applied to mock courts and mock interviews. Further possibilities of avatars in simulations being controlled realistically by real people (perhaps being superimposed on the real world using augmented reality), interacting with animated characters using X-Box Kinect or, heck, even using a robot in a legal training situation were all put to me. I confess some, if not all, of these technologies are outwith my comfort zone and may indeed seem a little far-fetched, but I thought it was important to include these thoughts as a way of introducing fresh ideas and challenges to a profession that can be just a little dusty at times.

If these “fed-back” ideas catch your eye more than the preceding content of my blog, you can always check out my colleague Phil Marston’s own blog here. (He may not have posted in a wee while, but maybe this link will encourage him to post again!)

I love the idea of learning whilst having fun. I know a fair amount about early British intervention in India and the Peninsular War because of Bernard Cornwell’s rip-roaring Sharpe books and the associated ITV spin-off. Admittedly I need to know to discount the bits about Sharpe almost always getting the girl and being at the centre of the action in every campaign from Assaye to Waterloo, but I hope my point is clear enough. Although the word has its critics, “edutainment” can and does capture a learner’s attention and imagination in a different way to “chalk and talk” teaching. Can law use technology to be at the forefront of this? Or, to paraphrase Windeyer J in Mount lsa Mines Ltd v Pusey (1970) 125 CLR 383, will it be marching with technology, but “in the rear and limping a little”?

Update: This site shows how game-based learning can be used in the teaching of a language. Although there are clear differences to teaching languages to a youth and teaching law to a young (or not-so-young) adult student, there are also some interesting parallels. On a personal note, I wonder if there might be a lesson for the Scots Gaels to learn from their Irish cousins in terms of keeping a minority language in as fit a shape as possible.

About basedrones

Bachelor of Laws. Scots lawyer working at the University of Aberdeen. English law qualified. Took far too long to write this bio. Blogs on legal issues, with occasional veering into other purportedly intellectual stuff from time to time. Tweets about legal issues, education, law clinics, fitba, music, rogue cell division and not at all about politics at @MalcolmCombe.
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2 Responses to Law, teaching and technology

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