Digitally Building Firm Foundations: Embedding Digital Literacy onto a Front-Loaded Delivery Model

Updated: Oct 21, 2020

by Dr Emma Roberts, Senior Lecturer in Law, Law School, University of Chester, United Kingdom


Introduction

This paper reflects on the implementation of an intense front-loaded delivery model on an undergraduate Law degree programme’s foundational module in 2019-20 in Chester Law School in the United Kingdom. The module introduced the English Legal System whilst embedding legal study skills – particularly, information literacy - onto the curriculum.


Students acquired base knowledge of the mechanics of the machinery of justice before studying substantive areas of English law, allowing the substantive elements to be contextually understood. This intervention was designed to bridge the gap between entry-level study experiences and First Year study, seeking to even the playing-field across the whole cohort, irrespective of prior academic qualifications or familiarity with the legal system.

The combined lectures, workshops and seminar activities engendered opportunities for students to engage in a shared learning experience which strengthened their sense of belonging to the Law School and to their cohort, thus instilling a sense of learning community.

The challenge posed by the current post-Covid Higher Education climate will be to digitally achieve these same ends with students who, whatever their prior studies, are likely to have experienced a significant hiatus in their learning since the global lockdown.

This paper considers the evaluation exercise which measured the success of this delivery model and draws upon pedagogical responses to the current crisis to inform the module’s future enhancement. The module’s latest iteration will adopt online delivery and seek to embed digital skills onto the curriculum.

Rationale for intervention

Following a systematic review of the Law School’s retention, progression and success strategies, it was decided last year that the first-year curriculum design be overhauled, such that students be immersed in the intense delivery of this foundational module for the first six weeks of term before commencing studies in areas of substantive law.

This would mean that the first year’s assessment schedule could accommodate a far earlier summative assessment point. Students would accrue academic credit far earlier in the year, meaning students would be invested earlier in their studies (Jones, 2008; Thomas, 2012). Students would gain feedback on their attainment, and assessment results would be fed into the pastoral system, meaning opportunities for tailored support could be sooner identified.

The pedagogical objective of this curriculum redesign was to provide students with base knowledge of the machinery of justice before studying substantive areas of English law, thus allowing the substantive elements to be taught and understood in their real-world context.

Underpinning the module’s substantive content, teaching and learning activities were designed to develop information literacy in collaboration with the Law library team and assessment literacy, helping students to make sense of the assessment criteria and their feedback. This intervention was further designed to bridge the gap between entry-level study experiences and First Year study. It achieved an even playing-field across the whole cohort, irrespective of prior academic qualifications or previous familiarity with the legal system and the study of law.


Curriculum Design

The module was structured such that eight lectures were delivered per week, with some such sessions used for mass workshops, breaking students down to small groups within the lecture theatre to work through exercises and moving individuals from group to group in liquid café (Farr, 2013). This method of collaborative working has as its premise the fact that peers act as rich resources of information and that new ideas are generated as individuals move from group to group. It challenges the group dynamic and avoids the dialogue becoming stagnant as new members join the group’s discussion periodically throughout the scheduled session. Additionally, students attended 2 seminars per week, which was likened to their prior study experience, in that they grew familiar and comfortable in their allocated group.

Assessment was by Multiple Choice Test, which is not conventional in Law (McNamara and Barnett, 2012) and naturally raised concerns among the team over random choice, this prompted critical reflection and any such concerns were overcome with strategic question creation. Concerns were further tempered by an additional essay assessment component which allowed for the student’s information literacy to be assessed.

The intensity of having as many sessions in a week, each one developing on the previous, was difficult at times, but there was a real sense of the students and staff being in it together – and it felt like a sprint rather than a marathon. The fast pace naturally lent itself to strong engagement.


Evaluation

Students were aware throughout that they were the first year to have experienced this model of delivery and the rationale for every element of the module’s course was explained at every stage. This meant that the students were invested (Vernon, 2012). The module team would ask for feedback throughout the module’s delivery, therefore, the model’s success was garnered from both anecdotal evidence and mid-module and end of module evaluation surveys.

The overwhelming feedback was that the module’s delivery had, in addition to developing subject knowledge, resulting in the module’s highest pass rate in its 10 years. It raised individuals’ confidence in their ability to learn the law, confirming their worthy place on the course. This was largely due to the scaffolded learning design which meant that the module’s outcomes also made the students information and assessment literate.

Furthermore, it had helped shaped aspirations, peer relations had developed as strongly as the staff-student interaction that the module team had witnessed in the seminar groups. Students valued the personalisation of the module – the sense that it had been designed for them. Overall, it was evident that students shared a sense of belonging within their peer group and identified themselves as part of the Law School, thus creating a strong sense of learning community.

Some of the issues identified with this model was that not all students joined on the first day, some had changed courses, others wouldn’t have arrived, etc., some were taken poorly and had to miss class, and the stakes were high such that missing one week’s instruction equated to missing one quarter of the material that was relevant to their summative assessment. So, upon evaluating the success of the model and before the Covid outbreak, it was decided that the next iteration of this delivery module, underpinned by the university’s strategic objectives, would embrace blended learning.

Blended Learning Model

The Covid outbreak and its impact upon the way we design and deliver education brought sharper focus to my visualisation of how the next term’s module would run, and so over the last few months I ran an extra-curricular series of workshops on legal study skills to pilot some of the technology with my students whilst in lockdown. Through student feedback and self-reflection, I have come to learn that blended learning must offer students a personalised online learning experience.

It is important that the original intervention’s success in creating a positive learning community isn’t lost – which means that the module cannot simply be transposed online – it has to now be redesigned for online delivery. Students engaged with the intervention because they could see (and were told) how the module had been tailored to satisfy their learning needs, and therefore its reinvention must take a student-centred approach.

Similarly, to assimilate the learning community, a blended learning model must offer collaborative learning opportunities, which (according to Biggs and Tang, 2011) encourages deeper learning. Students must be encouraged to be open to the prospect of learning as much from their interaction with one another as they do from the lecturer imparting knowledge upon them. Students must be given opportunities to play active roles in their learning as much as they do in the physical classroom.

Such classroom assimilations can take place as synchronous technology-assisted face-to-face learning or asynchronous self-directed learning. Any such model, must reach the students at the level of digital skills that they are comfortable with whilst exposing them to multimodal learning, learning that appeals to all the senses and answers to the full range of learning styles, speaking to every level of one’s intelligence, linguistic, emotional, etc.

Teaching and learning activities must be engaging and memorable – they must appeal to our students and their varying levels of digital capabilities. They must therefore be visually stimulating and accessible to all. The curriculum must offer opportunities to test student’s learning gain, as well actively reflecting upon their learning, offering assessment for learning, not learning for assessment.

Students will need support and training to adopt new technologies. It would be erroneous to assume that students are tech-savvy – socially they may be but we are asking of them to apply those skills in a professional environment. Our student body will represent a full range of digital capabilities, so we must be empathetic to their virtual and physical environments, and we would be right to expect the same from them provided we communicate clearly with them as to what we are doing and why.

Students will need to see the return for their engagement, so the learning activities must offer reward or recognition for their progress and success. The advantage that data analytics brings to us in measuring engagement can be shared with the student in the form of completion trackers to allow them to take control of their learning. The students’ normal digital experience does after all offer instant gratification.


Supporting Social Digital Natives to become Professional Digital Users

Despite its significant social use among today’s student population, students are native only to the digital technologies with which they are familiar. It is our responsibility to harness their digital capabilities and develop them into the subject-specific skills needed to succeed academically and professionally, a critical skillset to their future employability, especially in the wake of Covid.

So in redesigning the module for its blended learning delivery, I have sought to embed digital literacy onto the curriculum by designing teaching and learning activities not too dissimilar to that which was done before, but that the effect now be enhanced due to digitalisation, hence my terming this ‘curricular digital empowerment’.

Examples of some of the teaching and learning opportunities designed for this module in 2020-2021 includes:


  • Co-create multimedia – students will create single presentations slides which will be collated to produce a revision tool;

  • Collaborate on shared whiteboard – imitating the classroom flipchart with the use of applications;

  • Academic reading exercises – following a break in instruction to allow students to read, online activities, such as quizzes, will be used to test their comprehension, and also to critique the work, thus empowering them to think critically – developing their ability to write better;

  • Information curation – depositing documents researched in a shared space;

  • Chat forum – safe space for feedback – peer to peer - engagement in short sharp bursts; can be moderated by staff to encourage cultural respect and sensitivity – also serving as a lesson in online etiquette/ ethical practice and professionalism.

All the collaborative opportunities for social learning further afford an opportunity to develop the vital employability skill of teamworking and to promote the student body’s voice and choice. Building exercises around self-directed study ensures engagement and allows students to articulate their learning gain in creative ways. Social learning also ensures that students do not get isolated whilst studying remotely.


Conclusions

The implementation of new learning methods and approaches inevitably requires us to be creative and there is much to gained in sharing our creativity with one another for the greater good of the legal education network, forming communities of professional practice. Collaborative relationships are key to the success of implementing blended learning – it is important to harness the richness of cross-institution expertise, working closely with information management and learning technology colleagues.

A student-centred approach, informed by the University’s strategic objectives, prompts that we are mindful of student’s own remote learning environment and that we build resilience into our teaching designs to not disadvantage individuals, exercising flexibility as to the cognitive and time demands of exercises and activities, present diversity and inclusivity in form, adopt different ways of measuring and rewarding engagement and building in breaks to help maintain mental health and wellbeing.

Consistency is important to help students form realistic expectations, and relevance to learning outcomes is more important than variety. Availability and accessibility of resources is paramount, which may mean relying on open platforms and utilising resources and media never before used within our teaching. Students need a connected experience, one that does more than simply deliver online a programme of study designed for physical delivery. To build firm foundations, in knowledge and skill, upon which they can further develop during their degree in readiness for the employment market of the future, we must co-create a positive digital learning community.

What’s different about the class of 2020? As lockdown rules relax, students may have a choice of learning space, but a study-appropriate space will be at a premium whilst our campuses remain socially distanced. Students may not be able to unmute because of noise, distractions, lack of privacy or care responsibilities in their home. They may not even have a suitable learning device, so we must consider the accessibility of our resources on small screens. They may not have unlimited or undisturbed access to the internet.

Their lockdown experience may have brought grief or anxiety, and they will definitely not be experiencing the campus lifestyle they’d imagined. They will have experienced a hiatus in education whatever their entry qualification – resulting in low confidence – and won’t feel they’ve ‘earned’ their place at university in the same way as previous years. In sum, this prompts that we develop a pedagogy of compassion and that our care and empathy is reflected in the tone and character of our teaching design.

We are reliant on joined up thinking across our institutions – only with a strong digital infrastructure can the adoption of blended learning on a wide scale succeed which has both time and cost implications at every level. Staff will need to be supported with their increased workload and an appropriate starting point would be to undertake a digital skills audit for both staff and students to gauge how equipped we are to overcome the challenges ahead.


References

Biggs, J. and Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for Quality Learning at University. SHRE and Open University Press (Available at https://cetl.ppu.edu/sites/default/files/publications/-John_Biggs_and_Catherine_Tang-_Teaching_for_Quali-BookFiorg-.pdf)


Farr, J. (2013). 'Shared listening': using a World cafe approach as a revision tool in a final year undergraduate programme. Compass: Journal Of Learning And Teaching, 4(8). doi: 10.21100/compass.v4i8.78. (Available at https://journals.gre.ac.uk/index.php/compass/article/view/78/147)


Jones, R. (2008) Student retention and success: A synthesis of the research. York: Higher Education Academy. http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/inclusion/wprs/WPRS_retention_synthesis


McNamara, N. and Barnett, E. (2012) 'Learning in Law: Using multiple-choice questions (MCQs) for Summative Assessment in Core Law Courses'. 17 International Journal of Organisational Behaviour 46


Thomas, L. (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation. http://www.phf.org.uk/page.asp?id=762.


Vernon, S. (2012) Something old, something new. Confronting poor retention among first year law students by restructuring aspects of the teaching and learning experience. The Law Teacher, 36:1, 44-62,DOI: 10.1080/03069400.2002.9993096

Author’s biography:

Dr Emma Roberts is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Chester, UK. She is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and leads on matters relating to Learning and Teaching across the University’s Law department. She acts as Deputy-Chair for the University’s Postgraduate Committee, serving also on the Research Ethics Advisory Board, Research Integrity Sub-Group and leads on the Faculty of Social Science’s Digital Citizenship project. Dr. Roberts is a keen researcher in private international law having completed a critical examination of the rules relating to cross-border torts for her PhD. She is currently completing a Masters in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education for which her thesis considers moderation and standardisation praxis. She holds membership with key legal learned organisations, the Association of Law Teachers, the Society of Legal Scholars (SLS) and the Socio-legal Studies Association, and currently serves on the SLS Libraries Committee.

Author’s contact details:

Dr Emma Roberts

University of Chester, United Kingdom

Emma.roberts@chester.ac.uk

Twitter: @DrEmRobs

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