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Professor Paul Maharg: Online Problem Based Learning and the Transformation of Legal Education

Updated: May 27, 2020

Professor Paul Maharg is Distinguished Professor of Practice – Legal Education at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Ontario and Honorary Professor, ANU College of Law and a Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Professor Maharg was in Hong Kong in September 2017 to deliver two seminars at the Faculty of Law of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (for details please click here).

We took advantage of the opportunity to interview him on his years of frontline experience in the development of innovative pedagogies and as a leading researcher in the field of legal education. Our interview covered topics such as the creation of online problem based courses and online learning communities and developing student agency. This is the first of a series of posts based on the interview.


How is an online problem based learning degree different from the traditional model of legal education?

A law degree such as the online problem based learning degree at ANU has the potential to be transformative. Whether this potential is realized depends on how it’s designed and how it’s implemented.

What we are doing effectively is to clear away a lot of the normal academic furniture in a law degree. For example, the usual idea of lectures and seminars are transformed; they are significantly different. It’s not a case of re-creating the lecture; instead we have something different that is designed for the online environment and for the students’ requirements within that online environment.

The Strathclyde experience

At Strathclyde, we had a professor who was really interested in this concept of webcasting. We videotaped him and did post-production work on his videos, we combined his video recordings with the resources that he had around his course. There were online resources and there were videos which the students were delighted with. But they also wanted face to face time with the lecturer.

Our response was to redesign the course, we asked the students to watch the webcasts and then arranged a face to face section with the professor. He didn’t lecture them but instead took questions based on their understanding or misunderstanding or confusions after listening to the webcasts.

I remember attending the first section and thinking that the students probably wouldn’t be interested. I was wrong. There was nearly 100% attendance by students. The lecture theatre was pretty full and, after some awkwardness, the questions began to flow and the conversation began. It was a conversation because the professor was elaborating on the points that were raised by the students. The students loved it; it was win - win for everybody.

This made me realize that we can have an online environment which is transformational. The webcast can be used to put the information out there, but it also needs to engage with the students and draw them in. That is really important. So, at various points, you are going to need to have a tutor answering questions, and those questions can be opened to the entire group. The entire group can be, as it were, vicarious learners, watching the questions and the discussions that they generate.

A conversation develops and this conversation gives rise to an online community which is focused not on personalities but on the intellectual inquiry that lies at the heart of what the discipline is about. That was quite a profound learning experience for me.

How disruptive is the online model of the traditional face to face law degree?

In a sense these things are disruptive of traditional or conventional legal education but just because they are disruptive doesn’t mean to say that they are new. This kind of disruption has been going on in education for centuries. It is a disruption that takes us back to the origins of the university as a community of scholars engaged in collaborative inquiry.

When John Dewey formed his laboratory schools in the 1890s in the University of Chicago, that form of experiential learning for school children was profoundly disruptive. Before then, the model of education in the majority of US schools was an industrialized education. Early in the 19th century, Maria Montessori started doing the same thing for kindergartens.

These sorts of disruptions have been going on for a very long time. What we are doing is to design a form of education which takes account of the whole person and that person’s experience. It would be easy simply to replicate the 19th century teacher-centered classroom. That is exactly what we have in lectures these days.

Moving from that traditional face-to-face degree to the problem-based learning degree allows us to reconfigure and transform education. Whether we do that is completely up to us because online spaces can be just as oppressive and just as dull as normal lectures.

It has been said that you should ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’. The development of an online learning programme is a crisis; it is also a potential turning point and an opportunity for profound change for the better.

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