Legal Education Digest
Learning in Cyberspace: Succession Law Online
 LegEdDig 16; (2005) 13(3) Legal Education Digest 21
11 Murdoch U Electronic J of L 1, 2004
When given the responsibility by her dean of teaching a new course on Succession Law across campuses using the web, the author started to explore how online courses were being offered. Initially her view was that it was just another way of presenting the material, albeit with the addition of some bells and whistles. However, the more she investigated, the more she found that the truly worthwhile offering is not about the technology per se, but how it is used to enhance learning. So a course designed very carefully to use the tools offered by an online system could be pedagogically sound and, it could be argued, more successful than the traditional methods of lecture and physical tutorial sessions.
Succession Law is all about people making wills and administering the estates of deceased persons. This requires students to understand the Succession Act and its application, particularly in relation to whether or not a claim can be made against an estate where beneficiaries have not been mentioned or have received less than they thought they should in a will.
All the theories have a place in courses but it is the constructivist theory that prompted the design of Succession Law, as it is this theory that aligns well with an online environment. This theory emphasises that: (1) learning and knowledge need to be constructed by a learner — they cannot be instructed or transmitted by a teacher; (2) this learning and knowledge comes from their own experiences; and (3) students develop their own personal interpretation of experiences, i.e. construct their own perspectives of meaning individually or in collaboration with others. According to this theory it can be said that ‘real education does not occur on a campus — it occurs in the minds of the students’. This suggests that it does not matter where the class is. In fact, a virtual classroom fits the definition just as well as a traditional setting. This theory also exemplifies what it means to be student-centred.
So recognising that the learning environment is all-important, there needs to be a consideration of the roles played by the teacher and students; the communication tools; and the assessment. Essentially, in online courses, the roles of the students and teacher are different to those in traditional offerings. Online courses, designed carefully, include constant assessment items that require students to engage with the material. They do have to read and then critically consider what they have read to effectively interact with others. So certain tools available online and assessment that arises naturally from the situation in which the instruction is embedded facilitate this process.
It should first be noted that everything does not have to be presented online. It is quite acceptable to require students to study from a physical text. In fact, for students to have to read huge amounts of text online would be quite tedious.
It is the assessment items conducted with the online tools that are the interesting elements of this course. In a nutshell the assessment consists of: (1) semester-long discussion forums focussing on the text; (2) interviews with a testator and formulation of a will plus a chat with an expert; and (3) construction assignment — advising a client on their chances of challenging a will after Probate has been granted.
Discussion forums, particularly those conducted within small groups of no more than six, are perfect for learning. In this protected place students can share their views on a topic without fear of public humiliation, especially if they know some of the members. The group discussion forums run throughout the semester in two-weekly periods. They focus on the text. Students raising questions about the text cause the other students to have to revisit their understanding and therefore they are constantly constructing their knowledge. They are involved in collaborative learning. The discussion forums rely on asynchronous communication. This method allows students to reflect on what has been written by others about the text.
Over the course of the semester many groups develop a team spirit that equips them well for working together to formulate a common document. In the last couple of weeks of the semester students are required to write a memorandum of advice to a client concerning that client’s prospects in challenging a will. The course also utilises the tool of ‘virtual chat’. This tool allows ‘real time’ meetings.
Since Succession Law is all about people making wills, it is obvious that students need to develop an understanding of the law so that they can aid their clients in this task. To achieve this, the students are required individually to conduct an interview with the teacher as the testator, to extract the information required to formulate a will. After the interviews have taken place, a class virtual chat is arranged giving the students an opportunity to talk directly with a local expert — a senior partner of a law firm — who answers their questions about formulating a will.
On the whole the students’ comments are very positive and the growing numbers who wish to take this course each year attest to the fact that they have heard encouraging things about it. The most important revelation is that students are very happy with this way of learning and the students who participated in the three end-of-semester evaluations attest to the fact that they actually read the material and felt that they concluded the course having a deep understanding of the practicalities involved and the theoretical foundations for the law in this area. An online course is a valuable experience for students and teacher alike. Good student-learning outcomes follow when students are allowed to actively engage with the material and each other. Teachers need carefully to design the course and endeavour to use real-world situations in assessment to create an environment that provides those experiences. The author’s view is that online activities do encourage the students to be the creators of their own learning.