Blending the First-Year Legal Classroom

Introduction to our Contracts Pilot
With all the talk about blended learning, flipped classrooms, and the like, we wanted to visualize what that might look like in the legal classroom, but first lets take a peek at a situation that could be a catalyst for blending a legal classroom.

The first-year courses are widely taught using the Socratic method. This method is a very useful and effective way to teach content to learners. This method works really well in smaller groups, so all students have an opportunity to “test” their knowledge on a topic in class. I like to think of this dialogue as a mini formative assessment, where the teacher can probe the knowledge of the student and foster an environment where that student can scaffold their knowledge and build it up to a level the professor deems satisfactory, causing the student to consider all sides of a particular issue.

In today’s world, class sizes of 50+ can often dampen the effect of the Socratic method. As Schwartz said in his 2001 paper titled Teaching Law by Design, students are asked to learn vicariously when they aren’t “on call”. Vicarious learning happens when the students in the class imagine themselves in the shoes of the student engaged in Socratic dialogue with the professor.

Many students in class do not take advantage of this “watch and imitate” environment (Schwartz, 2001). In doing so, they miss out an opportunity to engage with the content and imagine how they might answer the questions posed by the instructor. Further, with computers, iPhones, and iPads entering the classroom in droves, its likely the student is anywhere but imagining themselves in the shoes of their peer.

In-class time becomes an issue. Though it is nearly impossible to hit all fifty students each day in class, if the faculty member had more time, more students would have an opportunity to be tested, quizzed, and in turn, tested on their understanding of the topic. With so much content to cover over the course of the semester, faculty find it difficult to “find more time” in class to create more opportunities for dialog, assessment – or even better – create activities for the students to put their knowledge into play.

This is where the concept of blended learning can come into play. By taking some of the more rote or routine information that is usually conveyed by lecture or PowerPoint, we can save some time in class that can be used to engage more students, be filled with active learning opportunities, or anything else.

Implementing a “Blended” Legal Classroom
We aimed high.  We wanted to try this out in a first year class and chose contracts – because two professors (as opposed to four) were teaching the class. They had larger sections (50+ students), and it was easier to implement this pedagogical change with two professors. In all, our first year student body is approximately 101 students.

Instead of trying to cover all possible areas of content, we chose one specific area that typically lends itself to lecture – the Restatements. Jointly, the two professors reviewed their syllabus and identified roughly 40 videos that could convey the information in the Restatement that’s typically delivered by presentation/lecture in class. The senior faculty members were granted course release time to develop these videos.

The faculty members partnered with an instructional designer (me) who would facilitate development of the multimedia. The process went like this. The faculty members would write a script that would articulate the information to be conveyed. This process typically took 3-4 hours per script. Upon completion and approval of the script, it was given to the instructional designer. The instructional designer would then review the script (as a novice learner) and came up with a rough sketch for the content. If there were any revisions to be made, they were done after this point.  If the instructional designer had a difficult time understanding the information, the faculty member would work to clarify the script.

This was actually a serendipitous occurance… many times expert teachers have difficulty viewing their content from the perspective of a novice.  Since the majority of the learners are novices, my preview of the script was a good test for comprehensibility. If I couldn’t figure out what they were saying, I was either: not trying hard enough, or it truly was worded incorrectly.

After final, final approval, the script was read and recorded by the instructional designer. The audio was married with the multimedia and produced as a video.  This video was then uploaded to YouTube.  The process from start to finish could take anywhere up to 15 hours per video. In comparison, we aimed to have the individual videos no longer than 10 minutes in total viewable length.

The original aim was to have the modules complete one week prior to when they would be relevant in class. Though we originally stuck to this timeline, the time burden of creating the videos caught up to us and we wound up delivering them a day or two before they were to be covered. Fortunately, this only occurred the last two weeks of the semester

We wanted the students to watch the videos prior to class. Instead of spending 30 minutes lecturing about the Restatements and then discussing them, the students came to class prepared to do the discussion. This reduced the time necessary in class and also facilitated a deeper discussion.  The time savings was used throughout the semester for more in-class group work. In class time was constructed assuming the students had watched the videos.

At the conclusion of the course, we administered a survey that covered four primary areas of interest: questions about the videos themselves, questions about their use in class, questions about student satisfaction and motivation, and general study habit questions.

Wanna check ’em out? You can see the playlist of Contracts videos on YouTube.

How were they made?
All of the videos were made using Keynote – an Apple presentation product.  Surprisingly (or not) Keynote is a powerful tool for making animations like this. I don’t like to add a lot of extraneous movement to the slides… like those you’ll find in crazy transitions. The ease of use and availability make this an ideal tool for making multimedia presentations. Also, these could be used live, in class to achieve the same effect.

I plan on applying for a CALI slot to walk people through the steps in making their own, from script generation to export of the final movie. It would be catered to a non-technical audience – there are plenty of programs like iMovie, Vegas, and Final Cut that could be used to achieve the same outcome for the power users.

Survey Results
Of the 101 students that took the class, 69 of them responded to the survey. They were split virtually even with 34 females and 35 males replying. Here are some very interesting results that came out of the survey:

Regarding video questions

  • Roughly 97% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the modules made the Restatement content easy to understand.
  • 10% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the length (8:30 on average) was too long.  40% were neutral. This answered our hypothesis that most students would be ok with a length lower than 10 minutes. A few students noted in their qualitative feedback that some of them were too long.
  • Students were mostly neutral (37%) or agreed (36.2%) when we asked if there was desire to have a way to clarify questions after watching the module.  We asked this in anticipation of a message board or discussion forum or something. This conflicts a little bit with a more direct question later.

Module use in class

  • Students typically watched the modules before class time (49%). Unfortunately, due to unforeseen scheduling (one professor was ahead of the other), the modules were sometimes released very closely to class, if not after.
  • The previous point was supported by the fact that nearly 85% of the students reported wanting more time with the modules prior to class.
  • Students also reported using the modules as a review after class (70%)
  • Not surprisingly, 42% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they would rather watch the videos than read about the restatements. 29% were neutral.
  • 50% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that the videos allowed them to pay better attention in class. 31% were neutral. We were very satisfied with this response, because it speaks to the idea that moving the non-interactive content outside of the classroom can facilitate a better learning experience in the classroom.
  • Nearly 60% of the students wish they had a way to assess their knowledge after watching the videos. This question was asked in anticipation of administering the videos with a formative assessment to allow students some idea of their comprehension.
  • Interestingly, over half of the students reported that they wouldn’t have used an online discussion board to talk about the content in the videos.
  • Several questions asked the students if they used the videos as a substitute for outlines or note taking in class, overwhelmingly the students replied. “No.”
  • Finally, students would choose a class that implemented videos over one that does not (85%)

Qualitative Feedback
There were a few common threads through all of these:

  • Contrary to what multimedia theory says, the students wanted me to read the text of the restatements. They hated the silent time I gave them to read to themselves. Confused?  There’s a multimedia principle called the Redundancy principle.  Basically, it says that if you have a bunch of text on a screen, and you read it to the viewer, they spend more cognitive energy reconciling what you’re reading out loud to what’s printed on screen.  The unfortunate side effect is they aren’t reading to comprehend, they’re reading to reconcile.This was probably the most surprising to me… and I’m willing to admit that I was wrong.  Just proof that what is proved in a “lab” may not be the best thing in real life.  If you’re interested in reading more about it, you can pick up the book on Amazon.  I think anyone who uses technology to create learning environments, especially multimedia ones like videos, animations, or the like, should understand the principles in this book.
  • As stated in the survey, many wanted them far ahead of time. This was strongly emphasized in the feedback. Having already made the videos and a better understanding of their use, etc… this shouldn’t be an issue for future iterations, but this is something to keep in mind if we want to do new courses in the future.  We definitely need more lead time.
  • A funny one: Students were tired of “widgets”. A few feedback statements and some verbal feedback (given to me in Torts class) told me they wanted real examples and not theoretical “widgets” as part of the examples. There must be something too theoretical about a widget… something lacking in their prior knowledge. Next time, we’ll use something like iPhones or paintbrushes. Maybe we can make some money with product placement!  Just kidding…
  • The students really, really liked the videos, and found them extremely helpful. They noticed towards the end of the semester when we were a little rushed to get them all out… but I thought we still stayed on a pretty good release schedule considering the amount of time that went into them.
  • Captioning or script availability – this is a feature on YouTube and might just need to be mentioned in class.

Putting these videos onto YouTube has been one of the best decisions we’ve made so far. Of course, Utah has the most visits and minutes watched, but even more amazing is the use outside of our school – especially because there was no advertising anywhere for it.  Many people found these just by searching around YouTube.

We ended up with 37 videos for a run time of 5:35:28 (335 minutes). Average video length was around 8′ 25″.

Here’s a look at the relevant YouTube statistics for our videos (as of 8/15/2012 – 12/7/2012):

  • 8,373 views; 38,810 minutes watched
  • Top three videos based on views: Promissory Estoppel (618), Unjust Enrichment (598), Statute of Frauds 1 (502)
  • Top three videos based on minutes watched: Unjust Enrichment (3,287), Irrevocable Offers (2,723), Consideration (2,446)
  • Top five countries based on views: U.S. (7,720), U.K. (173), Canada (75), Hong Kong (38), Jamaica (38)
  • Top five countries based on minutes: US (37,446), UK (430), Trinidad (205), Canada (186), H.K. (103)
  • Top four states based on minutes: Utah (21,538), Cali (3,859), Florida (1,906), North Carolina (1,183)

I’m absolutely thrilled that other states had so many views and minutes watched.  Someone in the other states had obviously found these, used them, and potentially shared them.  I don’t anticipate the numbers climbing much higher than this from here on out, but it will be interesting to see after finals are done across the nation.

This does show that certain pieces of blended learning can be repurposed into review sets.  Since this is fundamental knowledge, if it’s designed right, anyone can use it to get the shallow, surface level comprehension of the topic.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Again, I want to thank Profs. Debora Threedy and Terry Kogan for the tremendous amount of work they put into this project over the course of the semester.  After reading the survey, feedback, and checking out the YouTube statistics, the students – here, nationally, and globally – benefited from their hard work and effort into this project. I really do think we’re onto something with it and look forward to the next iteration of the project.


3 responses to “Blending the First-Year Legal Classroom”

  1. […] their professor’s notes. According to a blog post by Aaron Dewald at Law School Ed Tech, Blending the First Year Classroom, they can access YouTube videos created by their own contracts professors, explaining the […]

  2. […] via Law School Ed Tech – Blending the First-Year Legal Classroom. […]

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