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Professor Paul Maharg: Online Learning Communities in Legal Education

Updated: May 27, 2020

This is the second post of the blog series based on our conversation with Professor Paul Maharg during his visit to Hong Kong in September 2017. In the first blog post, Professor Maharg talked about the potentially transformative effect of the move to an online problem based teaching and learning environment. We went on to talk about the idea of an online learning community.


How do you create a genuine learning community online?

That’s a really important question. First, I don’t think that teachers can directly create the community – they can help to set it up, supply the tools and help to sustain the community, but students must do it for themselves. There are lots of ways it can come about. Sometimes the online tools just don’t work and that too can help create community. An example – some students on the ANU programme decided that the learning management system didn’t suit the way they wanted to learn. So they basically adapted the pieces of software that they used day in and day out, Facebook for example, to create their own suite of learning applications. Their learning community grew organically out of their use of these technologies in their learning. It became their space. I think we should encourage that a lot more than we do in universities.

What is your definition of an ideal community?

In my view, the best community is one that forms organically with trust as the foundation. At Strathclyde, we had students working in ‘virtual firms’ of four students. This meant that we had to bring small groups of students together to form communities. Trust then becomes an important issue, because trust and learning are intimately connected in lots of ways. Students trust the institution, they trust us, but they also needed to trust each other, and in their prior law degrees there hadn’t been much opportunity to do that. Law students often go through highly competitive, very individualistic, alienated forms of learning, where the students are pitted against each other in examinations and so on. So we were trying to bring the students together in community.

How do you bring students together and build trust amongst them?

We designed a face to face course, called the Foundation Course. This was a ten-day course in which we focused on legal skills and group working skills and getting members of the virtual firm to trust each other. The activities moved them through cycles of skill-sets of negotiation, interviews and writing document drafts and so on.

It was here that they developed these skills. Moving through each of those skill sets, on a kind of tell, show, do, tell, show, do rhythm, as it were, brought the small groups of students together. It gave them a good platform to trust each other, to be able to work with each other and get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Then they could begin to cohere as a learning team to us.

So in a sense what we were trying to do there was emotional, social and intellectual. Our message to the students was that ‘this is the first step in the process to become professionals’. In the legal community that you are about to join, these things matter.

Who are the stakeholders in online learning environment creation?

You need to get educationalists, technologists, teachers and students working together. When you have transmedia groups forming, things can happen really fast. Getting all the stakeholders involved is incredibly important.

How important is students’ involvement in the online course creation process?

I will give you an example of that. When I was directing the Diploma in Legal Practice program at Strathclyde, I realized there were things going wrong in the program but I wasn’t too sure what and how. I asked a student to write me a journal of the course as he saw it ‘when was he busy and when he was not?’ I was blinded as it were. I didn’t see things from the students’ perspective, but I wanted to see. I wanted to get the student’s perspective on the experience of working through that course.

When I read that student’s journal, it was a revelation to me because it was almost as if the student was working in a course different from the one that I had designed. It was quite a shock to me in a lot of ways. I thought the students had lots of time but it wasn’t true. There were pinch points. Tasks that I thought were easy were difficult because things hadn’t been learned in the order that I had anticipated.

That is when I realized how important it is to have constant feedback and feed forward from students fitting into the process of design with technologists, educationalists and academics. So it’s not enough just to have students attending the occasional staff meetings. Students have to be involved right at the start of the design process and continuing as it develops.

It’s like somebody coming to an architect and saying ‘build me a house’ with no input from the client at all. The chances are that the client will say ‘this is awful; this is not what I asked for at all.’ The architect needs to be constantly going back to the client and getting feedback.

Does this constant involvement of students in feedback system make them customers?

Now you may think that that make students customers but far from it! What it does do is to generate partnership based learning. Staffs are working with students saying ‘you need to learn this, but is this the best way for you to learn?’; ‘We want you to achieve this standard in essay writing, this standard in examinations, in knowledge acquisition and skills and so on. But we are working with you to find out the best way of doing that.’

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