Legal Education Digest
18 Legal Educ Rev, 2008, pp139–161
In contemporary times, blended learning usually refers to models that involve elements of online learning blended with traditional classroom teaching.
This practice article reflects on a trial of blended learning conducted in an elective law subject, Intellectual Property, at the University of Western Sydney (UWS) in the Summer Session of 2008.
Since the advent of podcasting in late 2005, its use as a component of blended learning has become increasingly popular. The blended learning model used in the Intellectual Property trial involved blending classroom seminars with podcasts. These podcasts replaced approximately half of the face-to-face class time in the offering. The method evaluated in this paper is therefore what is sometimes referred to as a ‘replacement’ model of blended learning and references to ‘blended learning’ in the reflections that follow carry a corresponding meaning.
Face-to-face teaching is an important component of blended learning for a range of reasons. The benefits of this mode include opportunities for synchronous advice and responses to students’ questions, providing a forum for presentations and discussion, building community between students and even improving retention rates. The classroom setting also provides important opportunities for placing the content in context. Seminars, rather than lectures, were chosen for the face-to-face component of this blend as, in addition to the generic benefits described above, they have particular benefits for law students. These benefits include the opportunity to practise oral and aural skills and to engage in class exercises involving the application of principles and authorities to problem questions. Seminars also allow much greater emphasis to be placed on the interactive features of face-to-face teaching identified above, particularly class discussions of difficult aspects of the content.
Although learning content through the traditional lecture format is a passive and usually ‘rigidly teacher-centred’ form of learning, it appears that law students can, and do, benefit from detailed explanation of the content as an aid to acquiring this ‘basic disciplinary knowledge’.
Earlier iterations of Intellectual Property had adopted an essentially ‘lecture-style’ mode of delivery. However, it was also clear that what the students valued was not the lecture format per se, but the explanations of black-letter content contained within those lectures. Whereas, in the past, lectures were probably the only practical way to deliver this type of instruction to a group, podcasting technology has provided important new options for this delivery, as the trial undertaken in this subject demonstrates.
Seminars or tutorials are undoubtedly much more interactive and therefore usually also more engaging for students than traditional lectures. However, really good seminars do rely for their effectiveness on all, or at least most, of the students being thoroughly prepared before classes and having understood the material correctly.
Where preparatory work, supported by podcasts and online learning guides, allows students to acquire sound declarative knowledge of the central content, class time is freed up for more productive uses than simply covering content, and much more discussion and work on problems is possible. For law students, a thorough understanding of the content acquired prior to attending classes should engender this type of approach to face-to-face seminars. Division of the content into small podcast segments interspersed with online questions and other activities can also help students acquire that prior knowledge in a significantly more active, learner-centred manner than the traditional lecture format.
Intellectual Property’s broad appeal derives from the diverse and familiar areas it covers, including the music, literary and visual arts industries, computer programming, aspects of internet regulation, pharmaceutical, scientific and engineering patents, character merchandising and protection for celebrity images and famous brand names. However, despite the popularity of the underlying subject matter with students, the law involved is conceptually at the more difficult end of the spectrum for an undergraduate subject.
As a result, and despite the many excellent texts and other resources available on the topic, the content of this subject requires careful explanation to students in order to get the central concepts correctly bedded down before moving into the more advanced, current or controversial aspects. As a direct result, most face-to-face teaching time in this subject has, in the past, been absorbed by explanations of the legislation and cases in a traditional lecture-style of delivery.
Issues such as music piracy; the new time, space and format-shifting provisions in the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth); the new protection for parody and satire involving copyright material; protection for reality program formats; whether celebrity images should be protected per se in Australia; patent evergreening; the impact of pharmaceutical patents on developing nations or the impact on agriculture of patents over genetically modified plants could all provide great discussion triggers for much more interactive classes that would really engage students with the content of this subject.
Unfortunately, in the traditional lecture mode of delivery, there was little, if any, time to explore these issues in detail.
The UWS School of Law conducted an extensive curriculum review during 2007. One of the key outcomes was the decision taken by the school, corresponding with broader UWS initiatives, to embark upon a staged introduction of blended and e-learning into some of the school’s subjects.
As part of implementing the recommendations of the curriculum review, the decision was made to trial a replacement model of blended learning in the intensive offering of Intellectual Property planned for Summer Session 2008.
Having settled on the elements of the model to be trialled in this subject, the next step was to set about redesigning the subject’s content and delivery. Simply converting existing materials into electronic formats or replacing part of a subject online does not represent quality in the absence of a careful redesign of the subject’s curriculum, resources and delivery.
Prior to the Summer Session of 2008, Intellectual Property had been offered in the traditional manner, with 13 weekly lectures of three hours duration during semesters. For the blended delivery, the subject was divided into approximately 21 hours of lecture-style content, delivered via podcasts, and 18 hours of face-to-face seminars. The seminars were offered as four seminars of four hours duration, plus a two hour introductory session.
The spacing of seminars within the overall schedule for the subject required particular attention in order to allow students enough time to absorb the content of the prescribed readings and podcasts before attending each class.
In response to a much higher than expected enrolment, a second evening class was added in order to keep class numbers to a reasonable level in each group. The reduced amount of face-to-face time in the replacement blended mode made the extra group possible, allowing more students to be accommodated while also taking the pressure off class numbers.
In view of the objectives described above, the decision was taken that the podcasts would cover the central concepts and principles of intellectual property law, with a particular focus on the structure and content of the legislation, combined with explanations of most of the prescribed cases.
The seminars were then designed to cover the more complex aspects of intellectual property, with a focus on current developments and new applications of the law, recent or proposed statutory amendments and new cases, in addition to working on problems and questions. In this way, the principles and authorities already learned from the podcasts and other online materials could be further developed and applied in the seminars. The content of each seminar was specifically designed to leverage off the foundation provided by the online materials on that topic.
A central part of redesigning Intellectual Property for a blended delivery was the redesign of the online seminar guide.
Accordingly, the seminar guide was redesigned to interact closely with the content of the podcasts, drawing students’ attention to the central points and principles to be taken out of each podcast through a series of questions and problems on each podcast or group of podcasts. A particular design feature of the online seminar guide was that each module contained the relevant podcasts embedded within it. The subject’s content was divided into 10 modules containing 53 sub-modules between them, with the online version of each sub-module typically containing several embedded podcasts. The embedded podcasts opened with the default media player on each student’s computer (including Windows Media Player, Quicktime and Macintosh applications). This online version of the seminar guide was designed to allow students to listen to the podcasts in the correct order while looking over the related seminar questions and other materials on the topic.
Students were instructed to use these materials by first reading the prescribed primary and secondary sources, ideally noting down their own initial understanding of that material, then listening to the podcast explanation of that content to compare and check their understanding of the concepts, then working through the seminar guide questions to review the central concepts. Students were also encouraged to use class time and the online discussion board, or to contact the coordinator directly, to raise any remaining questions about the content.
The podcasts used in Intellectual Property were a mix of podcasts that had been recorded and edited specifically for this iteration, interspersed with some selections from lecture content recorded during the previous offering of the subject. Lecture content of the subject was divided into short segments, and 96 separate podcasts were prepared for use in and with the seminar guide. Each of the 96 podcasts was kept fairly short. The aim was to keep the average length of podcasts around 10 minutes and the content was divided so that one podcast would typically cover one case, one aspect of the legislation or one principle. The main, practical imperative for keeping the podcasts short was download times. Smaller files can be accessed online without having to wait too long for them to open or, if they are being downloaded, this can be done within a reasonable time. Short podcasts also allow the verbal explanations of content to be interwoven with the questions and other materials within the seminar guide.
The approach to redesigning the seminar guide described above, in particular embedding the podcasts, was founded on the assumption that students would sit at their computers when using the interactive seminar guide and would listen to the podcasts online, with the guide and the other materials available to them on the subject’s website while they listened. However, as the session progressed, it became clear that not all students were studying this way, and that many were listening to the podcasts separately, using iPods or similar portable media players. Later feedback from students also indicated that many of them had been printing the pages of the seminar guide for separate use, away from the computer.
Requests for the podcasts to be made available separately, as well as being embedded in the guide, were easily accommodated by placing the podcasts in a new folder on the website. Design of future subjects using blended learning will provide the podcasts separately, in addition to any embedded use of the podcasts within seminar guides. A separate printable version of the seminar guide will also be available.
Assessment consisted of a research essay and an exam involving theory and problem questions. Students’ knowledge of the core principles and authorities, learned primarily through the podcasts, and their ability to apply these in a practical context, were tested primarily by the problem questions in the exam. The online seminar guide and the face-to-face seminars were both designed to help students prepare for the exam by providing them with plenty of practice on problem questions, while the face-to-face seminars also introduced the types of policy aspects that might be addressed in a theory problem in the exam.
To establish whether the students saw the blend, and the various features trialled in the subject, as beneficial to their learning, they were invited to complete a voluntary, anonymous online survey. The survey was available for several weeks after conclusion of classes and after the exam was taken. Almost two-thirds of the cohort responded to the survey. Student perceptions as to the overall success of this trial of blended learning were almost entirely positive.
Flexibility for students in time, place and pace of listening to the core content of the subject is a benefit of e-learning that students almost universally identify, particularly evening students and those with family responsibilities or work obligations.
Breaking the audio content up into shorter podcasts, rather than longer lecture-length recordings, had several benefits. Presenting content in ‘manageable chunks’ can help to maintain students’ attention and interest. Providing lecture-style explanations of content in much shorter sections is possible through podcasting in ways that are not possible in a traditional lecture setting.
There are also benefits to academics to be gained from division of materials, and particularly podcast content, into shorter sections. Where lecture-length recordings may require extensive editing, or in some cases even wholesale re-recording, which can be extremely time consuming, shorter podcasts may much more easily be replaced or edited for future iterations.
Students’ ability to revise the material is also frequently identified as a benefit of blended learning, particularly for any models that involve podcasting. The benefits law students derive from lecture-style explanations of content, discussed earlier in this paper, are further enhanced by being able to revise that material as many times as they choose. This is particularly so for international students and those for whom English is a second language.
Overall, the seminar classes in this subject were much more interactive than they had been in previous offerings. The quality of discussion and the spontaneous way in which it developed in the seminars was particularly pleasing. The podcasts and other online materials had therefore performed their intended function of laying a foundation for more advanced discussion and problem work in seminars very well. In response to survey questions on this aspect of the subject, students almost uniformly agreed that there was a high level of interaction in the face-to-face seminar component. Further, almost all students agreed that the availability of podcasts prior to classes had driven this, by allowing and encouraging them to be better prepared for discussion and interaction in the seminars.
Redesigning this subject took around 350 hours, including recording and editing all the podcasts, building the website and producing the new seminar guide and problems. Needless to say, it therefore has significant workload and potentially also staffing implications for the tertiary education sector overall. Indeed, as in many other sectors, new technologies appear to have created more rather than less work to be done. It is therefore important for academic staff, who may be less comfortable with the technology than their students and are often already time-poor, to give careful consideration to whether it is realistic to take on all aspects of this type of innovation without the support of specialist development staff.
One of the most common concerns about teaching methods that involve any element of podcasting is that students will stop attending classes.
In the blended model trialled in Intellectual Property, the face-to-face content differed from the podcast content and the seminars were not recorded for later podcasting. It was made clear in the subject outline for Intellectual Property, and in the early classes, that the material covered in live classes built and expanded upon the podcast content and that the live classes contained examinable material as well as exam practice in the form of problem-based work on both seen and unseen problems.
Although attendance at seminars was not compulsory for this subject, classes were well attended and little, if any, reduction in class sizes was apparent compared with previous iterations. In response to a survey question aimed at identifying which of the blended elements students had made most use of in the subject, almost all indicated that they had attended the seminars, with most indicating that they had also listened to the podcasts in addition to attending the seminars. Concerns that students would rely on the podcast content and would not do the prescribed reading were also not supported by the survey responses.
Technical challenges the author encountered in this subject primarily involved learning to record and edit the podcasts. This was not as difficult as one might first expect, given a moderate level of existing technical competence. That said, however, the time taken to pre-prepare podcasts was really quite extensive and is not to be underestimated. The recommendation here is that podcasts should all be prepared and ready well in advance of the subject offering, particularly if it is an intensive offering.
The students in this subject reported hardly any technical problems during the trial. One technical issue that was raised by a few students in this subject was download time for some of the longer podcasts. The most straightforward solution to this issue is to make sure no podcasts are significantly over 10 minutes in duration.
Replacing the lecture component of larger subjects with podcasts would allow the time saved to be redirected to more, and consequently smaller, seminar or tutorial groups. This would be of particular benefit to students in larger subjects, such as core subjects, allowing them to have more personalised attention from the lecturer in those smaller classes. Alternatively, teaching loads could be reduced by adopting a model that did not introduce additional classes.
Re-use of podcasts may be equated to re-use and ongoing development of seminar guides and other hard-copy materials, and is perfectly valid in that sense. It should not be viewed as giving the students less. In fact, it can allow greater quality control over the audio material provided to students than is possible in a traditional lecture setting or through lecture-capture systems. Further, in terms of workflow, it should allow academics more time to focus on research and maintaining currency in their areas of specialisation. At the same time, academics can be available to their students outside the classroom more often, in what is sometimes referred to as a ‘pastoral’ role, and also in terms of time spent on quality feedback to students. While academics may benefit from re-use of resources in future iterations, students should therefore be the ultimate beneficiaries of the time freed up while still receiving the high quality ‘lecture’ content and the associated benefits that flow from the blended model.
Following the positive outcomes of this trial, further controlled trials will be conducted within larger core subjects in the undergraduate law program at UWS. It also appears that blended learning, particularly the replacement model discussed in this paper, has real potential for service and interdisciplinary law subjects, particularly in order to ensure consistency across what are often very large cohorts.
Students in this subject returned particularly positive responses to survey questions about the use of blended learning, indicating that they also felt the model had enhanced their overall learning experience. The central objective of the trial was therefore achieved and future iterations of Intellectual Property will certainly use this replacement model of blended learning.