Using the Internet to Teach Law

November 1, 1998

Academic lawyers have started using the Internet to deliver teachingmaterials, but the practice is far from universal. Indeed it is oftenaccompanied by a degree of scepticism on the part of many law teachers, asizeable percentage of whom much prefer teaching law without the aid of any IT,much less the Internet. Winning over the sceptics is a long-term goal, and itwill only be achieved by answering positively the most common question put bythe sceptical law teacher: will the use of the Internet have clear pedagogicadvantages over existing methods? It may be noted in passing that the scepticalacademic seems to drink from the same well as his practising counterpart in thisregard. If the Internet can do no more than replicate existing working practicesand hard copy material, why bother to use the medium at all?

Most readers of this magazine will know that some law firms have started touse Internet technology as a means of delivering advice to clients andinteracting with them. It is probably less well known that some law schools havealso started to use the same technology equally creatively, as an effectivemeans of communicating with students and enhancing the learning process. Thisone-day seminar gave delegates a chance to see some of the more interestingapplications of Internet technology as well as an opportunity to discuss – andperhaps even find some answers to – the common questions put by the IT sceptics.

Factors to Consider

John Dale, of the Law Courseware Consortium, raised such questions directlyand even rather bravely suggested some answers. John pointed out a number offactors which should be taken into consideration when creating web basedteaching materials: the type of source material to be used, the frequency withwhich the material will have to be updated, the mechanism of communicationbetween staff and students, and the need for interactivity. In a learningcontext, the last two factors are of particular interest. Anything that iscapable of sufficiently engaging learners should be welcomed, especially ifthrough their engagement the learners can acquire a deeper understanding of thesubject being studied. Setting questions, collating answers and communicatingwith students (by one-to-one e-mail or some kind of groupware) are all possiblevia the web, but this usually requires significant computing resources andtechnical expertise somewhat beyond that normally found in law schools. Whileacknowledging the primacy of the web and the likelihood of its increasingimportance, John urged that other media – floppy disks, CD-ROMs, even paper -should be considered carefully as potential alternatives.

Queen’s University, Belfast

Chris Martin explained and demonstrated the intranet used to assist withadministration, teaching and research at Queen’s University of Belfast LawSchool. Notably, Queen’s has taken the opportunity provided by the technology tore-engineer some of its administrative processes, such as the way Queen’sstudents select options and create their own timetable for the next academicyear. Indeed Queen’s Law School seems such a web-centric place that softwareapplications, CD-ROMs and a host of other services are delivered to the clientcomputer via a web browser. This provided a forceful reminder to delegates ofthe flexibility, and therefore power, inherent in web technology.

Lancaster University

Sefton Bloxham, Susan Armitage and Christine Steeples from LancasterUniversity gave presentations focusing on differing aspects of using the web tofacilitate active learning on a law course at Lancaster. The course in questionis named the Common Law of Obligations, which consists of the laws of Tort andContract being taught in combination. Students are divided into groups and aregiven problems to solve. Each group works with another group to tackle the sameproblem from a different perspective. For example, groups may representplaintiffs or defendants, and are charged with reaching `settlements’ with theother side. Most of the inter and intra group communication is done by e-mail,using the groupware capability of Lotus Notes. It was reported that abouttwo-thirds of the students took to the groupware concept with enthusiasm, whilethe remainder exhibited various degrees of apathy. Whether the apathy wasderived from technophobia or laziness of the students is unclear. Nevertheless,it was reported that the general standard of research and written work is higherthan that normally produced by students studying in the more traditional way.

At Lancaster considerable thought has been given to the use of computermediated communications as a means of promoting collaborative learning. Topicsdiscussed electronically, along with the associated problems to be solved, areposted incrementally as the course progresses, with clear time limits forcompletion. Academic staff also monitor and `seed’ the discussion groups withrelevant information as needed. Fewer – if not the complete absence – oftraditional lectures and seminars shift the emphasis onto the students to `learnby doing’, by means of individual and group effort. It was suggested that thisform of learning promotes technological, legal, research and social skillsnecessary for collaborative working in a legal environment.

The Collaborate Dispute Game

Similar schemes are being worked on by others, most notably Professor JohnBlackie of the University of Strathclyde Law School. At first blush thisparticular scheme seems the very antithesis of collaborative learning, as it ispromoted as `learning through disputing over the Internet’, although in factthere is a lot of collaborative working involved. The project itself, named theDelict game, is a collaborative endeavour between Strathclyde and GlasgowCaledonian Universities. Professor Blackie argued that the Scottish law ofDelict (Tort) can be viewed as a particular type of game, especially a card gamesuch as bridge. Each of the disputants, persuers (plaintiffs) and defenders(defendants), must play the hand they have been dealt as best they can in orderto secure a favourable outcome. The `cards’ are `suits’ of `is it a product’,`what types of `defect” etc. The game can be played at three (ultimately four)levels of difficulty, by students working in groups (back to collaborativelearning again) who communicate with each other by e-mail. The entire game isaccessible by a web browser and all online activity takes place across theInternet.

Recent Developments at Wolverhampton

Martin Cartwright of the University of Wolverhampton, producers of the wellknown Medico-Legal library on CD-ROM, explained the more recent developments ofusing the Internet to assist law teaching at his School. Some courses now issuestudents with floppy disks of course materials – consisting of items such as thefull text of important cases, legislation and staff-prepared study text. Allfiles are saved as HTML format with hyperlinks between documents so that, ineffect, each floppy disk is a small portable intranet which can be run on anycomputer with a web browser installed. Wolverhampton have found this to be arelatively cheap way of distributing course materials. At the other end of thecosts scale is Wolverhampton’s involvement in the `Broadnet’ scheme. This schemegrew out of a European Union initiative aimed at stimulating the small andmedium sized enterprise sector in the West Midlands. The project is very largein scope and ambition, with the School of Legal Studies at Wolverhamptoncontributing a number of online modules covering aspects of labour law. Eachmodule contains not only relevant text, but also video lectures, casere-enactments and online assessments which are delivered to end-users over afast broad-band network.

Internet in the Toolbox

Professor Abdul Paliwala of the CTI Law Technology Centre then remindeddelegates not to be seduced by the promise the technology holds, but to considercarefully how it can be best integrated into legal education. After pointing outthat legal education is, or should be, something more than a bare digestion offacts, exams and the production of practising lawyers, Professor Paliwala wenton to speak of legal education consisting of life-time learning with increasingemphasis on the acquisition of skills through active learning. Usedintelligently, the Internet has an important role to play in this cumulativeprocess, but it should be used as only one of many tools from the legalteacher’s toolbox.

Facilitating Distance Learning

The seminar was rounded off by Professor David McConnell of the University ofSheffield, who gave his view, based on experience, of how the Internet can beused to facilitate distance learning. Once again the notion of collaborativelearning was discussed, as was the idea of fully utilising the flexibility ofInternet technology. For example, the technology could be used to help reflectthe learning interests and concerns of the students rather than simplypresenting the knowledge possessed by the course tutor. Another point raised,and taken up during the panel discussion later, was that while collaborativelearning is becoming more feasible and popular, at the end of the academic yearstudents are invariably assessed on an individual basis reflecting performancein written exams. This is clearly something of a mismatch between the learningand assessment phases, and some doubt was expressed about the extent to whichmore traditional approaches can co-exist along side newer ones.

This last point illustrates one of the more interesting effects of IT when itis applied effectively: often it does not just automate existing processes, butchanges (or at the very least presents the opportunity to change) an originalprocess itself. This is true of both legal learning and legal practice, andlawyers are not alone in feeling rather uncomfortable about such changes.


This seminar provided delegates with an understanding of the technology andits potential for changing the way law is taught. While there are as yet nounequivocally positive answers to the IT sceptics, the way ahead is becomingclearer and I suspect that most delegates left the seminar feeling morecomfortable about using the Internet to teach law.


The Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998, which received Royal Assent on 4 September, includes repeals of ss7(1) and (2), 8(2) and 6(b), 9(2)(b) and 16(5)(b) and 8(a) of the Computer Misuse Act 1990. Since the press coverage surrounding the Act has concentrated almost exclusively on its terrorism provisions, its wider implications in the context of transnational computer crime are easily overlooked. The new Act took effect on Royal Assent.