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Butler, D --- "Entry into Valhalla: contextualising the learning of legal ethics through the use of Second Life machinima" [2011] LegEdDig 14; (2011) 19(1) Legal Education Digest 48

Entry into Valhalla: contextualising the learning of legal ethics through the use of Second Life machinima

D Butler

Legal Education Review, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2010, pp59-82

Today in law schools around the common law world there is an increasing understanding that, just as an appreciation of legal ethics and professional responsibility is an indispensible part of legal practice, ethics training is an indispensible element of legal training.

Ideally, ethics training should be done in a clinical setting, dealing with the problems of real people. However, by its nature, clinical education can be offered only to a small number of students. Further, clinical programs are so expensive that only a handful of law schools have been able to fund them. Against the background of current national ‘broadening participation’ higher education policy, these circumstances serve only to compound access and equity issues. The relatively low government funding for Australian law schools has been recognised as a significant impediment to innovation in the development of curricula and resources centred on effectively inculcating attributes such as an appreciation of ethics and professional responsibility.

Technology-based learning environments, by their asynchronous nature, heighten potential learning impact by letting the student user determine their timely application, thereby addressing the issue of flexible access to resources.

Effective student learning of ethics requires a practical rather than theoretical approach which engages students, enabling them to appreciate the relevance of what they are learning to the real world and facilitating their transition from study to their working lives. In the absence of funding from government or non-government sources, any approach must be cost-effective and capable of scaling up to cater for the needs of the student body as a whole rather than a fortunate few.

It is now widely acknowledged that technology can provide an alternative to real-life settings such as clinical exercises, without sacrificing the critical authentic context. A blended curriculum drawing on digital media can be an effective means of promoting active student-centred learning activity by setting challenges, seeding ideas and illustrating problems. Nevertheless, for many academics a significant obstacle to introducing multimedia innovations into their curricula is the prohibitive cost of production, including video and computer software programming, which is often required. Other barriers include a lack of academic technical literacy and commitment to learn new technology, a perceived threat to academic freedom and autonomy, and general ‘academic inertia’.

Multimedia involving the use of virtual characters to present tasks and critical information in a simulated environment can be a useful strategy in the creation of more authentic learning environments online. It has been recognised that ‘machinima’, or computer graphics imagery created without the cost of professional software or professional programming, can be a cost-effective means of creating effective learning environments.

A feature of game-based pedagogy including machinima is its ability to teach the curriculum both overtly and covertly. Machinima allows a subject to be dealt with in a more realistic manner than if presented in a decontextualised fashion.

The program sought to address two issues: the need to impart ethical awareness and responsibility more effectively; and staff development to create cost-effective multimedia. The first issue was addressed by developing the Entry into Valhalla program, a narrative-centred learning environment that uses narrative to draw students into the exercise, satisfying pedagogical goals in an enjoyable, authentic, motivating and effective manner. The second involved a number of activities including workshops, presentations and a website, which contains a detailed resources manual and instructional videos on the various cost-effective resources used in making Entry into Valhalla.

Entry into Valhalla adopts elements of a ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ approach to learning including modelling, coaching, scaffolding, reflection and exploration. The five modules of the program address different areas of the legal ethics curriculum; namely, The Legal Profession, Admission to the Profession, Confidentiality and Conflicts of Interest, the Duty to the Administration of Justice and Discipline. Each of the five modules comprises an introductory video filmed in the real world (in which an academic provides an overview of the area to be studied), prescribed readings, self-test quizzes (which provide formative feedback on both correct and incorrect responses), machinima scenarios that depict real-world-type ethical dilemmas, questions based on those scenarios, and further readings.

Entry into Valhalla utilises machinima created using the Second Life online multi-user virtual environment and other cost-effective multimedia.

Under the Second Life End User Agreement, copyright in objects created in the virtual world subsists in the user creator, rather than Linden Lab. Accordingly, when filming takes place at locations owned by others, permission ought to be sought from the owner/creator for its use. Normally, this will be given in return for attribution in the project. Entry into Valhalla utilised both sets designed and created by the author on ‘QUT Island’, the region in Second Life owned by the Queensland University of Technology and, with permission, locations owned and created by other Second Life users.

The machinima scenarios in the modules each follow the format of a legal practitioner in a fictional law firm approaching the male and female senior partners for advice concerning an ethical dilemma which the practitioner is confronting in the course of his or her work. Each scenario ends with the practitioner positing the question ‘What do you think?’, or a variation thereof, to facilitate in-class discussions in which students role-play as either the male or female partner in providing advice that recognises and attempts to resolve the ethical dilemmas. Two of the machinima scenarios (concerning Admission and Discipline) are capable of facilitating a different form of role-play, their design allowing one student to argue in favour of admission/discipline, one opposing admission/discipline, and another playing the role of the arbiter.

The machinima scenarios combine both video and still images, the latter used mostly to depict the particular dilemma in flashback, as recounted by the practitioner.

After determining the concept and course material to be addressed in the project, the first stage was writing all scripts and other content, followed by storyboarding of video components. After the scripts and quizzes were completed, they were settled in conjunction with members of the project’s reference group. The machinima scenarios were then filmed with the author speaking all dialogue, the FRAPS capture program being configured to record only vision and not audio. Dialogue using the voice talents of Faculty colleagues and students was later recorded using the Audacity program. Video and audio were then mixed and edited using Microsoft Movie Maker 2.1, a video-editing program that is part of the Windows XP package. This process allowed the actors’ voices to be synchronised with their corresponding avatars’ lip movements. Movie Maker was also used to edit the introductory videos, which were filmed on locations around the Faculty using a camcorder and tripod. Videos were given an additional professional finish by using music obtained via Creative Commons Search.

The resulting videos were then packaged using the Xerte eLearning system, a template program developed by the University of Nottingham and free for download. The final step in the process involved uploading the Xerte modules to a Blackboard Learning Management System site. An image map was ‘hotspotted’ so that when hotspots were clicked they would launch the various Xerte modules.

In addition, a separate folder within the Blackboard site was added and linked to the image map, which contained 340kbps broadband and dial-up versions of all videos forming part of Entry into Valhalla, and the relevant questions. Even where the approach to learning and teaching legal ethics includes small class discussions, these areas are often examined on the basis of theory questions or text-based problems.

By contrast, the machinima scenarios in Entry into Valhalla enable the same material to be covered in a rich, multi-layered real-world context that is more engaging and which more closely resembles situations students may encounter when they enter legal practice. Each machinima scenario only lasts for between four and seven minutes, but within that short time presents complex situations that, as often occurs in practice, do not yield to simple or peremptory answers.

Evaluation was a critical element embedded throughout the project cycle. Entry into Valhalla went online from semester two, 2010 at the Queensland University of Technology and should be available to other Australian universities before the end of 2010 under Creative Commons Licence. Prior to its implementation, the program was evaluated by three key groups of stakeholders: prospective students, academics and members of the legal profession. All three groups enthusiastically endorsed the program. The students highlighted the ease of use, the visuals, the transcripts that accompany all videos in the program and the summary of issues by one or other of the two senior partners at the end of each machinima scenario. They also liked the realism of the machinima scenarios.

Academics saw greater potential for enhanced engagement of their students than current approaches involving theory questions and text-based problems discussed in small groups. They liked the great detail and multiple layers in Entry into Valhalla and believed that the scenarios would be a better reflection of real-world dilemmas than single-issue theory and text-based problems.

The third stakeholder group, which included officers from the ethics department of the Queensland Law Society, liked the modelling of junior practitioners who were confronting ethical dilemmas seeking advice from more senior members in the firm, which was implicit in the program. They also expressed approval of the multilayered nature of the dilemmas presented in the machinima scenarios, noting that real-world ethical dilemmas rarely if ever involved single issues. Student response to Entry into Valhalla was evaluated by way of a paper survey rendered in class after completion of the program. The survey asked students to rate their responses to a number of statements on a 5–1 Likert scale (with 5 representing ‘strongly agree’ and 1 representing ‘strongly disagree’) and a number of open-ended questions. Responses were received from 106 students out of a total enrolment of 346 in the subject, representing a 31 per cent response rate.

A total of 82 per cent of students agreed or strongly agreed that the program helped them to understand ethics in a real world context. Indeed the relating of legal ethics to the real world was identified as being the best aspect of the program by the greatest number of students.

A total of 81 per cent of students agreed or strongly agreed that the law firm storyline assisted their learning. This is reflected by the fact that the characters/storylines in the program received the second-highest number of votes as the best aspect of the program. For some, it helped to put ethical issues into a real-world context when they had difficulty connecting theory to practical examples on their own.

A real-world storyline based in the context of a law firm also facilitated a greater degree of discussion in class than may have been possible with simple text-based problems. Students who found multimedia difficult to use or who have trouble navigating a multimedia program may be distracted from the content of the program and instead became fixated on their difficulties. Research has also identified that a small proportion of students (and academics) will resist technology, in particular game-based design, for a complex mix of personal and societal ideologies around play and learning.

A total of 85 per cent of respondents thought that the program was easy to use. Ease of use was another factor identified by students as one of the best aspects of the program. This may be taken as a reflection of the design and capability of the Xerte eLearning environment. A total of 72 per cent of students agreed or strongly agreed they enjoyed using Entry into Valhalla. The blending of an online component, with its various elements including the machinima scenarios and self-test quizzes, with traditional text-based questions focusing on theoretical and philosophical issues was preferred by the largest number of students. Legal ethics taught without a coherent philosophical and theoretical basis and with an emphasis only on practical ethical problem-solving is likely to lead students to believe that legal ethics is no more than a gloss on the substantive law. Instead, ethics training should inculcate an understanding that ethics involves a pervasive set of values that underpin the practice of law, and is an integral part of learning the law as a social phenomenon.

At the Queensland University of Technology Law School, Entry into Valhalla forms an important component of a blended learning program in a final-year core subject on professional responsibility, which also includes instruction on, and discussion of, theories underpinning legal ethics. Such understandings provide an essential foundation for addressing the challenges posed by the complex real-world-type scenarios. These scenarios are discussed in small group classes adopting a workshop approach, with participation in these discussions forming part of the assessment for the subject.

Typically, such programs represent the confluence of a number of elements including the concept and the resources required to bring that concept to its fruition. Those resources include the necessary hardware and software; the knowledge, skill and confidence to use them; and time to do so.

Effective and engaging learning experiences no longer require substantial budgets. Machinima and other cost-effective multimedia now enable such programs to be created at little or no cost at an academic’s desktop. Programs such as Second Life, Audacity, Movie Maker and Xerte do not require specialist programming or learning design expertise. Resources such as Creative Commons Search allow projects to be enhanced by music and sound effects for added realism and a professional-looking product for no additional cost. Measured in terms of the tools used in its production, the total cost of the entire Entry into Valhalla project was less than $50.

Time, however, remains perhaps the greatest challenge in the process. Indeed, academics may not be prepared to risk hours of their time in developing technology on the mere chance that it will enhance their students’ learning. Working alone, the author took between one and two weeks to create each of the seven machinima scenarios, this time including the writing of scripts, storyboarding, filming of machinima sequences, recording of the voice tracks and video-editing. Writing the scripts and filming for the real video introductions took no more than two days with a further day spent editing the footage. Compiling all the material in Xerte was done relatively quickly, and is a testament to its designers. This process took no more than one day to complete all five modules. Constructing the Blackboard website occupied no more than two or three days.

However, these 15 or so weeks were complemented by other time commitments that are more difficult to quantify accurately. The machinima sequences in Entry into Valhalla were filmed either on sets created on QUT Island or in locations owned by others. Time was required to design and build these sets and to scout the other locations and to contact their owners for permission to film on their land. Time was required to design and create the avatars that were to play the various characters in the machinima sequences. Time was also required to refine ideas and storylines even before scripts were written. Moreover, while music adds a professional touch, and Creative Commons Search provides an accessible source of music, it can sometimes be a time-consuming process to match the right music with a particular program, or particular aspect of the program.

Such programs are capable of providing the same learning experience for all students in even large cohorts, no matter whether the mode of study is full-time, part-time or at a distance. They facilitate flexible learning, enabling students to undertake them at their own convenience in a place and at a time of their choosing. They are also sustainable: the machinima scenarios in Entry into Valhalla contain no law per se, only fact situations. These fact situations are not time-specific: they could arise today in practice or in 5, 10 or even 20 years’ time. The responses to the situations might change – for example, due to a change in Professional Rules – but this is a matter for discussion in the small group classes. Even where change may be needed, such as in the pretest multiple choice quizzes, this can be done quickly and easily with the Xerte program. Measured against such benefits, the time required to produce programs like Entry into Valhalla is an investment worth making.

Narrative-based learning is nothing new: it has been utilised as an effective approach to learning in many disciplines. In law, it is the basis of the ‘law and literature’ field of study in which connections are drawn between legal theory and literature. In a limited sense, it is also used in the short problem-type questions commonly used by law schools in small group tutorials to enable students to discuss the application of legal principles and rules in the context of fact scenarios.

Narrative-centred learning environments leverage the cognitive and instructional power of stories.

Such environments have significant potential for enhancing students’ learning experiences, potentially reinforcing learning objectives and ingraining subject matter.

When students are engaged in a task for which a story offers appropriate advice, they are more likely to understand the point of the story and make useful connections between information contained in the story and their prior memory structures.

Second Life machinima adds an exciting new dimension to a narrative-centred approach to learning. A virtual environment like Second Life borrows assumptions from real life. Virtual characters can contribute to a larger narrative context which has the potential to establish solid links with pedagogical subject matter, thereby supporting assimilation of new concepts in young learners.

The experiential learning environment plays a significant role in engaging students. Research suggests that simulations enhance learning because greater engagement means improved attention spans. This in turn results in accelerated absorption of key learning outcomes and longer retention. The use of machinima and narrative-centred learning environments is also inclusive of a range of student learning styles and teaching strategies, providing students with the opportunity to visualise ideas and concepts.

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