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Legal Education Goes Digital

For the past few years, Queen’s Law has been exploring new teaching and learning tools in the classroom and beyond. “Blended” learning has been a growing component in our teaching: providing more course materials and videos online, so instructors can use more of the classroom time for discussion, problem solving and the application of the materials – and less time in a traditional top-down lecture format. And, while that approach is not new, it has led to other educational initiatives at Queen’s.

We are currently participating in a pilot project to explore Echo 360, a remarkable program developed by one of our graduates, Fred Singer, Law ’88. Echo 360 does a variety of things that can enhance classroom teaching and learning. Using a special device, it records the lecture and posts it on the course webpage, tying the lecture directly to a student’s notes and the instructor’s slides, so that when reviewing their notes and the slides, students can have immediate and easy access to the recording of the related classroom discussion.

But Echo 360 is much more than simple lecture-capture software. Students can ask questions online during the lecture, encouraging more classroom exchange. Students can indicate any confusion by pushing a button in real time, letting the instructor know when a student – or several students – could benefit from some review of that slide. It helps to eliminate some of the bias toward extroversion that is seen in the traditional classroom – students who are not disposed toward drawing attention to themselves can still put their “hands up,” virtually speaking.

Instructors can also embed polls in their slides, tracking student participation and success with the polling questions. Echo 360 generates individual reports for each student (or for the class as a whole), tracking participation and engagement in the class and in the course. Are students attending? Taking notes? Participating in the polls? Getting the right answers? Asking questions? If engagement is low, either for an individual student or the class, an instructor can intervene earlier, offering individual support or implementing changes in the classroom with the goal of encouraging more engagement.

In a somewhat simpler approach, the Faculty has also had some interesting results using polling software to enhance student engagement. Poll Everywhere is being used in many classrooms, allowing instructors to turn classrooms into live participation sessions. Being able to ask students questions about hypotheticals, or gauge a class’s understanding of a concept or premise, has been valuable – as well as letting students see how they’re performing relative to their peers, or being encouraged in knowing that they’re not alone in getting a question wrong.

In another foray into digital learning, we are also exploring how students can learn through “intelligent” simulation. In 2016, we partnered with Toronto’s Ametros Learning to pilot the use of simulation in legal education.

Aided by a $250,000 grant from the Ontario Centres of Excellence, Ametros will create the virtual interactive platform built using IBM’s Watson, while the law faculty provides legal expertise. Students will interact with artificially intelligent characters, acting as junior associates and working through scenarios with computer-created ‘clients’. Client interviewing skills, file management, and legal ethics are all part of the simulation, with Watson powering natural-language recognition that will guide the students through real-seeming interactions as a file evolves.

Digital technology is also behind our new online Undergraduate Certificate in Law program. The program is the hallmark of a new frontier for the law school – one that will make knowledge of the law more accessible to undergraduate students and working professionals across Canada. The Certificate was developed with the view that enhanced legal literacy is of great value to a wide variety of career paths, from business to engineering, from the public to the private sector.

The Certificate in Law currently consists of four courses: Introduction to Canadian Law, Aboriginal Law, Workplace Law, and Corporate Law. Additional courses in Public and Constitutional Law, and Intellectual Property are under development. Students who complete four of the courses will earn a Certificate in Law from Queen’s.

Given the rise of online courses and the possibility of teaching through AI simulations, what will Queen’s Law look like in a few decades?

I don’t think it will look too terribly different from what it is today.

A significant part of the value of law school can only be attained face-to-face, with students and professors gathered together and exchanging ideas, a model that goes back to ancient Greece and beyond. I’m confident it will remain. This type of exchange and engagement will always be of unique value to our students and to the legal profession.

But we are also committed to investigating every avenue that can improve how we educate and prepare our students. Classroom technologies, intelligent simulation, and online teaching – all of these things are part of our mission to lead the way as educators.

We’re open to and exploring new technologies and new approaches, preparing our JD students to become lawyers who can not only practice, but also thrive in a changing profession, and our Certificate students to expand their career opportunities with enhanced legal literacy.

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