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Nadolski , R; Woretshofer, J --- "Use of ICT in the Training of Legal Skills" [2005] LegEdDig 42; (2005) 14(1) Legal Education Digest 12

Use of ICT in the Training of Legal Skills

R Nadolski & J Woretshofer

[2005] LegEdDig 42; (2005) 14(1) Legal Education Digest 12

39 Law Teacher 1, 2005, pp 29–42

Flexible problem-solving behaviour based upon applying complex cognitive skills is now regarded as a desirable attribute of law graduates. Acquiring these complex cognitive skills can only be accomplished through a complex learning process where knowledge, skill, and attitudes are acquired and integrated and where these are co-ordinated during task execution.

Modern instructional theories focus increasingly on authentic learning tasks based on real-life tasks as the paramount condition for learning. A common solution for this problem is to provide support that segments the problem-solving process of whole learning tasks into smaller phases and helps learners to carry out those phases. Providing support is inextricably bound up with learning and can be made operational via process worksheets, ‘driving’ questions, and feedback. Using authentic learning tasks is a challenging experience for instructional designers, especially in distance education.

A multimedia practical is a self-contained electronic learning environment which provides context-relevant practice to students for acquiring complex skills, such as diagnosing a particular disease, selecting a suitable job applicant, modelling stress-factors that cause mental overload in workers, or preparing a plea to be heard in court.

The essence of a complex cognitive skill is that its mastery involves co-ordination and integration of its constituent skills and not simply the mastery of those separate constituent skills. In the past, it has been distance universities which have been traditionally forced to implement the ‘situated learning paradigm’ in ICT settings. More recently this approach has also been followed by other institutions in higher education because of the cost of face-to-face tutoring.

The present study was conducted in an ecologically valid setting and employed a randomised design to examine the effects of support on the performance of legal interviewing tasks and on the efficiency of that performance. The first hypothesis was that students solving a legal interviewing task with support will show higher performance and be more efficient learners than students withdrawn from support. The second hypothesis was that universities’ students will be more efficient learners than college students because of their differences in academic skills. Task efficiency is defined as task performance in relation to perceived mental effort. Although efficiency can be operationalised in many different ways, higher efficiency always indicates equivalent results with lower investments, higher results with the same investments, or, ideally, higher results with lower investments. In this study, ‘prior knowledge’ refers to prior legal interviewing skills. These skills might be influenced by prior domain knowledge with respect to the law and by academic skills.

Legally Speaking consisted of a textbook and a competency-based practical on CD-ROM. The goal of the practical was to introduce law students as well as students of social work services to performances of a legal interview. During the general introduction, the trainee receives several assignments to guide the study of general interviewing theory, as well as support from a senior employee of the firm, the coach. Supportive information in this course consists of a general section and a section devoted to the specific three interview models, which also contains a method for preparing a legal interview, segmented in various steps. This information is also included in the textbook containing the material.

The experiment was restricted to the tasks of fact-finding and legal advice. The participants in the ‘support’ condition or experimental group received all the aforementioned course materials for both types of interview that students needed to carry out. Finally, the participants conducted the prepared legal interviews outside the multimedia practical. Final performances on the whole learning task outside the multimedia practical were considered proof of skill acquisition.

Prospective participants were canvassed at all four institutions that were involved in the development of the materials. Prospective participants were asked to fill in and return the background questionnaire. Participants working with the multimedia practical were strongly advised to work phase-by-phase because the program offered the possibility of skipping consecutive phases. After six weeks, participants were required to carry out their prepared legal interviews at two different time slots during a one-day face-to-face session.

This study examined the effect of support on both task performance and task efficiency. The results have shown that in the legal advice interviewing task, the experimental group outperformed the control group and was also more efficient. There were no differences between the two groups in their performance and efficiency with respect to the legal fact-finding interviewing task.

The finding that performance and efficiency in the legal fact-finding interview did not differ between the groups probably stems from the fact that, oddly enough, it was a disadvantage for the participants of the experimental group to be prepared on this interview. As a result, they had to ‘act’ as if it was the first time they were confronted with the content. University students were more efficient than college students on the legal advice interview. As there is no significant difference in content complexity between university and college students as it was perceived by the students, the difference is probably rooted in differences of academic skills. A straightforward practical implication of this study is that the kind of support offered within multimedia practicals is essential and sufficient for acquiring complex cognitive skills. The multimedia practical Legally Speaking can be used for both distance learning and face-to-face learning. It can be followed as an independent small course in itself, but then it will be no more than an introduction to the world of legal interviewing, because frequent practice is essential for skills learning.

The big advantage of such a multimedia practical is that students can prepare the practical individually, without the support of a teacher, at their own speed and their own place and time. A multimedia practical helps to minimise the support of a teacher in face-to-face training and reduces the costs of such training. However, for really effective learning in this domain, it is necessary for students to experience a real-time interview, for three reasons: first, additional training in a face-to-face setting involves students more than a multimedia practical can do; second, such situations allow for personalised feedback to individual students, which is not feasible within a multimedia practical; and, third, assessment of the mastery of such a complex skill is not easy and involves natural persons in carrying it out.

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