Implementing the communities of inquiry approach in a Land Law course
I have been engaged in an action research project to implement a simple design to create classroom communities of inquiry in an undergraduate law course. The context is a third year course (Land Law I). In 2016 – 17, for example, there were sixty seven students. Teaching involved thirteen lectures of an hour and three quarters and thirteen tutorials. The cohort was divided into four smaller groups for the tutorial sessions. The course was supported by the University’s learning management system (Blackboard). The lectures took place in a traditional lecture theatre in which students sit in rows facing the teacher.
One of the major themes in the course is the law of the ownership of the family home. This looks at the law concerning the rights that family members might have in the family home. To some extent, this subject is about the law’s attempts to deal with ownership rights given the increasing prevalence of unmarried cohabitation. It is an interesting, unsettled and dynamic area of the law of great practical and social relevance.
I decided to work to create classroom communities of inquiry centred on this theme. The vehicle for the work of the communities of inquiry was a mini-project that would count for ten per cent of the student’s overall mark for the course and that would be assessed on a pass / fail basis; the students had simply to produce a piece of work meeting a simple set of specifications. This created a low-risk environment for everyone involved. The students were also told that they could build on this work for their individual research courseworks which counted for a further thirty per cent of their mark.
The student mini-project
For the mini-project, students were told that they had to produce work on a topic of their choice relating to the overall themes of the law of the ownership of the family home. They were given some further choices to make about the mini-project:
to produce a blog post, a video or a podcast;
to work alone or in groups of two or three;
to publish their work to a blog created on the course Blackboard site (or not).
What the students said about the experience of working collaboratively
Around forty per cent of the students decided to work in groups and submitted a group blog post, podcast or video. Some of these students responded to a survey distributed after completion of the course and the release of grades. The survey included some questions addressed specifically to those who chose to work in groups. All of the respondents who had worked in groups would do so again.
The respondents perceived a range of benefits from working in groups:
the experience of team work and discussion;
sharing of ideas to create a more succinct answer;
contributing ideas that others had not considered;
confusions were clarified;
the groups managed to reach an end point despite the fact that there were disagreements between group members on some issues.
The groups also had ideas as to how they would work differently if they were to engage in collaborative work again: they would pay more attention to time management; ‘add more creativity into the mix’; and spend less time on physical meetings.
The simplicity of design of the mini-project is a strength in that it is easy to explain the idea to others and easy for them to adopt it or tweak it for their own use. The fact that the mini-project carried only ten per cent of the marks for the course and was marked on a pass / fail basis also made it a low risk opportunity to innovate both for the teacher and the students.
Clearly, there is room for differences of view as to the design chosen. It was experimental, as practitioner research always is. It does seem, however, to be a step forward in the sense that the students did engage actively with the subject. Learning is presented as inquiry and not information transmission.
On the other hand, the simplicity of the design means that there were gaps and that more work is needed to offer students the opportunity to learn to work in communities of inquiry. The fact that group work was optional means that not everyone in the cohort experienced the idea of working in a community of inquiry to the same degree. I did not explain the Practical Inquiry Model to the students which is a clear omission given that the aim was to help students to become familiar with the process of collaborative, critical inquiry.
In 2018 – 19, the Faculty will offer a new final year elective (Issues in Property Law which builds on the design of the mini-project but enhances it considerably. Students who choose to take the course will work, with the support of a facilitator, in groups of three to five on a research project of their own choosing in the property law field. The groups will produce a blog post and make an oral presentation of their work. Students will then work on individual research projects which can draw on the work that they carried out in their groups.
Working with a colleague, I have established a public Issues in Property Law blog. This blog is student-edited and hosts the work produced by the Land Law I students. Students taking part in the Issues in Property Law elective might choose to publish their work on the blog. This makes a reality of the idea that student work can be an authentic contribution to public knowledge.
My colleague, Vivian Chen, and I will also produce a set of videos about working in communities of inquiry and about collaborative work generally to support students in understanding and learning to work in communities of inquiry.