Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Let's Get Ready To Teach With Virtual Learning Environments!

Law has been taught in the same way for several generations, since Christopher Columbus Langdell pioneered the case method to mimic the scientific method for law. Law professors expect the students to read massive amounts of material -- mostly edited case reports, and brief them (more or less formally) for class. Then in class, they will ask a student to identify the material facts of the case being discussed -- that is, the facts that made a difference to the court's decision. The professor will also ask a student (either a different one, or sometimes the same miserable specimen), to identify the holding of the court -- what was the court's decision, and the ratio decidendi, the reason for the decision.

The class may then play with hypotheticals. What would happen if you changed the facts -- what would make the court change the decision? That exercise is intended to help the students understand the process of legal decision-making and of the evolution of the law in common-law countries like the United States. Courts make decisions based upon statutes (if there are any that apply), and the existing decisions of earlier courts on similar matters. The art comes in finding the statutes and cases, deciding how to read the language of the law you find, and deciding which of the previous decisions in your jurisdiction really are similar enough to apply, and which you can distinguish on the facts. That is where the hypotheticals come into play -- what is similar enough, and what is too different.

There is a lot to recommend this type of teaching, when it is done well. It is called Socratic Method, and harks back to the ancient Greek philosopher and teacher of youth, Socrates. He believed that people really knew what he was trying to teach them, they just had to have their knowledge revealed to them through clever questions. That is what a good Socratic teacher does -- through clever, leading questions, the professor leads the student and the class to the conclusions on their own. They learn it better when it is an AHA! experience than when it came in a lecture. But it is difficult to teach well this way -- too often, it comes off as frightening or bullying, or "hiding the ball" from the students. It's just plain confusing and irritating. And it's hard work for both the professor and the students. Nothing wrong with hard work when it is worth the effort, though.

However, there are some exciting options coming along to add to our teaching arsenals. Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) are coming. They are going to be richer, more social and real-seeming than ever. That means they will be worth learning from. If you are interested in this concept, you can read some white papers at the link in the title of this blog entry. The Croquet Project, where these papers are posted is simply an open source software and network architecture, but it is designed to allow the shared collaboration and simultaneous use of large numbers of people. This means it encourages massively multi-player games and virtual reality environments with rich social contexts. That is, it's more like real-life, and people learn better in life-like situations. We seem to be built to learn in such contexts. There are two white papers in particular that seem apposite:

Lombardi, J. and M. P. McCahill (2004) Enabling Social Dimensions of Learning Through a Persistent, Unified, Massively Multi-User, and Self-Organizing Virtual Environment


Existing online learning experiences lack the social dimension that characterizes learning in the real world. This social dimension extends beyond the traditional classroom into the university's common areas where learners build knowledge and understanding through serendipitous and collaborative exchanges both within and across traditional subject area boundaries. A next generation Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) can address the limitations of current online systems by providing a richer social context for online learning. (snip)


McCahill, M. P. and J. Lombardi (2004) Design for an Extensible Croquet-Based Framework to Deliver a Persistent, Unified, Massively Multi-User, and Self-Organizing Virtual Environment


We describe a design for a collaborative Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) to support massively multi-user and multi-institutional learning communities. This architecture extends Croquet to encompass a tier of distributed cache servers that allow intelligent caching and pre-fetching of objects, scene definitions, and textures. The design also provides for Interactivity servers tied to specific regions in the VLE. Interactivity servers provide persistence for neighborhoods, coordinate modification and transient phenomena for locales in the virtual space, and ensure trust relations by managing user identification, authentication, and authorization via integration with existing institutional authentication infrastructure. This system supports real-time interactions that promote a self-organizing, interdisciplinary knowledge sharing system within a scalable VLE in a manner that ensures accountability and trust relations.

Think about the interesting developments in the existing virtual reality games where the avatar-players are creating their own statements of rights and laws and constitutions (see blog entry here). What an interesting discussion for a class in Constitutional Law or Human Rights Law or and theory of law! The full text of both papers and more are available by download as PDFs at the link in the title of this blog entry.

I have longed to be able to construct a complex video game that would allow students to hone their legal research skills in a competitive environment. A student could play the part of a summer associate competing for a permanent slot against Snidely Perfect, the annoyingly excellent opponent from Arrogant U. I can imagine that the game could be played over and over for different results. I would like to see the student who is stumped be able to click for help on any of a number of helpers -- from the firm librarian, to a friendly junior associate, to a friend at another firm across town. They should be able to link out to use their own Lexis and Westlaw passwords, but the printing and time spent on either will be logged and "charged" as if billed to a client. The student can also log off and save the game to go to the library stacks and get books, or go to the web, or anywhere else. They can just pause the game.

The students have to fill out a sheet at the end with answers for the partner, and add time spent, including any Westlaw/Lexis time/printing. The final score to compare with Snidely combines the completeness and correctness of the answer with the least time and money spent. So it's a combination of complete, and cost-effective, efficient research. This would just be one way to use the Virtual Learning Enviroments that are being constructed. I know I don't have the programming chops, but I would love to see this or something like it brought to fruition. I think students would enjoy playing it and would learn in ways about being efficient and cost-effective that they never think about until it is too late. I think (I hope) it would encourage them to try more different ways of research than the same old, same old since you could rig questions to try to force them out of online research or into new databases or whatever you wanted to push them into trying by setting up the questions and Snidely. If they really want to learn and beat Snidely, I think they will experiment outside their usual resources -- especially if you have these helpers to click on who will lead them there and explain the new resources.

The charming croquet image is from the Croquet Project website.

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