This blog post is written Pia Rebelo, a lecturer in city’s Law School who recently completed the module EDM122. She writes….
I am pleased to share my thoughts on this topic following the completion of a very exciting module on Digital Literacies and Open Practices. As a Lecturer in The City Law School who also participates in sustainability research (specifically in contract law), the achievement of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals is of immense relevance to my teaching practice in both curriculum design and educating future lawyers. Here are my reflections on how I can use open practices to foster inclusive legal education and tackle sustainaiblity challenges.
The right to education is recognised by a number of international legal instruments, including the EU Charter for Fundamental Rights (Art 14). Education is also prioritised by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), with SDG 4 requiring a commitment by states to, ‘[e]nsure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. Realising this right and working towards the achievement of the 2030 SD Agenda also places a responsibility on institutions to promote inclusivity, particularly since entrenched inequities in education were exacerbated by the Covid-19 Pandemic (SDG Report, 2022). Open Education including open resources and practice have been recognised as major contributors to realising SDG 4 by, inter alia, transforming tertiary education through innovation in distance learning (Lane, 2017). In a special report on supporting SDG4 through open educational resources, it was emphasised that the world economy is digital and that, ‘students must learn to work (and play) in digital environments’ (McGreal, 2017: 293). Within my own institution, City University of London has committed itself to sustainable development as well as to addressing inequalities by embedding Equality, Diversity and Inclusion into everything that it sets out to do (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, 2020 – 2026).
Given the global milieu and my role as an educator within City’s LLB programme, I have started reflecting on how I use open learning in my teaching practice to contribute to the realisation of inclusive education that seeks to address economic, political, and social injustices. This aim is two-fold: 1) to enable students from diverse backgrounds to study the law in a way that is fair and that identifies their individual needs and lived experiences; and 2) to educate lawyers who are cognisant of sustainable development and the present socio-economic problems that will be intensified by climate change. This essay explores what is meant by ‘open practices’ in tertiary education and how open learning solutions can assist with the aforementioned aims.
Open Educational Practices in Tertiary Education: What does “open” mean?
“Open practices” are situated within the broader context of “openness” within the context of higher education (Cronin, 2017). Research evaluating open education has predominantly focused on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) and open educational resources (OER) in achieving wider levels of access and equality (Cronin, 2017). A common understanding of “open” is therefore resource centred and focuses on “open as free” (Moe, 2015). As such, there has been a major focus on licencing and the usage rights, with Wiley et al describing the “5 Rs of Openness: Retain, Reuse, Revise, Remix, and Redistribute” (Wiley et al., 2014).
However, researchers of open educational practices (OEP) have moved beyond a content-centred approaches to pedagogical techniques in empowering learners to both use OERs effectively and to contribute to knowledge creation. The OPAL Report defines OEP as:
‘practices which support the (re)use and production of OER through institutional policies, promote innovative pedagogical models, and respect and empower learners as co-producers on their lifelong learning paths. OEP address the whole OER governance community: policy makers, managers/ administrators of organisations, educational professionals and learners.’ (The OPAL Report, 2011: 12).
Cronin explains that OEP moves beyond OER in that:
‘it includes the creation, use, and reuse of OER, as well as pedagogical practices employing participatory technologies and social networks for interaction, peer-learning, knowledge creation, and empowerment of learners’.
As such, OEP incorporates a number of open pedagogies with its own typology and framework. In order to evaluate the relevance of OEP to tertiary education, and legal education more specifically, I will employ the typology of Bali, Cronin & Jhangiani for ‘Framing Open Educational Practices from a Social Justice Perspective’ (2020). According to this framework, there are three dimensions that conceptualise OEP: 1) from content-centric to process-centric; 2) from teacher-centric to learner-centric; and 3) from primarily pedagogical to primarily social justice focused. (Bali, Cronin & Jhangiani, 2020). The following section explores these dimensions in the context of “sustainable” legal education.
1. Content-Centric to Process-Centric
The focus has shifted from OER to OEP in order to value new ways of constructing knowledge such as social learning and developing digital literacies (Cronin, 2017). In legal education, this dimension is particularly relevant as OERs are more available and accessible to students than ever before, with online open universities attracting large enrolment for legal MOOCs. In my personal experience, all the knowledge required to understand and “learn” the law is freely available to varying degrees on online platforms with the option to view e-textbooks, legal blogs, and academic writings. Similarly, international instruments, national legislation and key cases are easy to find with a simple Google search. Given the vast array of digital OER, developing digital literacies is pivotal to fostering open learning practices. As noted in my video reflection on digital literacies for law students, free and open access to an abundance of information does not correlate to better learning. Students have varying levels of digital literacy in how they access and synthesise online information. Digital literacy is defined by Paul Gister as ‘the ability to both understand and use digitised information’ (Gister, 1977). Preparing lawyers for the future, also requires that legal education “catches up” in replicating certain processes that are rapidly digitalising within legal services (Bonkalo et al., 2021; Mironova et al., 2019; Thanaraj, 2017).
Inclusive legal education that substantively engages with SDG4 therefore requires that a much greater emphasis is placed on digital skills. This refers to ‘capabilities which fit someone for living, learning and working in a digital society’ (JISC, 2015). There are basic skills which a law student is expected to have when entering higher education, such as email writing, using a browser to access Moodle, using MS Word, connecting to online library resources and accessing legal databases. However, my personal experience shows that this cannot be presumed and there are significant discrepancies between learners in respect of digital competency. Addressing these differences can be done through simple demonstrations in class, or it can be achieved more comprehensively by meeting students halfway and communicating basic skills over the platforms wherein students are already “residents” (White & Le Cornu, 2011). My video on digital literacies illustrates how TikTok or Instagram can be useful platforms for introducing new skills and signposting various resources.
Process-centric practices also focus on networks and social learning. Here, the focus in on connectivist principles that value diverse opinions and aim to construct knowledge in a dynamic way through establishing and nurturing online networks (Goldie, 2016). Siemens originally expounded upon the principles of connectivism which can be broadly conceptualised as ‘the clustering of similar areas of interest that allows for interaction, sharing, dialoguing and thinking together’ (Siemens, 2005).
Theories of social learning include theories of social constructivism and sociocultural theory that place and emphasis on learners being actively involved in the learning process (Conole & Oliver, 2006; McLoughlin & Lee, 2010).
In my experience, students who achieve poor grades are often those who feel isolated from the learning community, whilst better performing students are more engaged with their fellow classmates and teachers. Inclusive education therefore requires a greater emphasis on bringing students into the learning community and exploring pedagogical support tools for understanding why certain students are alienating or distancing themselves from the community. Social media needs further exploration in law schools as learning communities are increasingly digital (Khalil & Ebner, 2014).
2. Teacher-Centric to Learner-Centric
Learner-centric approaches view learners as co-creators of knowledge (Huang, 2002). The learner is also able to influence content, delivery, pace, and collaborative activities (Froyd & Simpson, 2008). This sort of institutional approach has proven to increase intrinsic motivations to learn, comprehending and retaining more knowledge, and fostering a deeper critical evaluation of the content (Collins & O’Brien, 2003). Shah et al have investigated learner-centric approaches in the context of online learning and MOOCs (2022). Their findings propose that the teacher plays a limited role in delivering content (namely through very short 5-10 minute videos), whilst the learning environment is deliberately planned and centres on learning by doing, fostering dialogue, and immediate feedback (through quizzes, surveys, chat forums).
The data on learner-centric approaches and the frameworks for implementing such approaches has been a major learning curve and point of reflection for me. On the face of it, my teaching is extremely teacher-centric. I design the module content, choose all OERs, and deliver content in the format of 2-hour lectures. Students have fortnightly 2-hour workshops where they can “learn by doing”, yet these questions are set based on pre-selected materials and students have little say in what activities are planned. Given that all the module content and resources are readily available, perhaps my role as teacher needs to shift from lecturer (in the traditional sense) to facilitator. Do I actually have to explain knowledge and content, or would it be better to start a discussion on module content and allow students to actively seek resources that are beneficial to them? Of course, this would need to be guided by developing necessary digital literacy skills and also providing a framework for students to assess the credibility of sources and materials.
A major focus of learner-centric approaches is that resources are adaptable to meet the individual cognitive needs of learners (Shah et al, 2022). I am going to use some of these insights in my contributions to the LLB Programme Review called “Reimagining the LLB” at The City Law School. I think that law academics certainly need to rethink the traditional lecture model and how we deliver content on legal doctrine without contextualising it for students in the modern world with their own participation. It seems hypocritical to ask students to contribute to a future that attains sustainable development by addressing socio-economic inequalities when their LLB education does little to accommodate a diversity of backgrounds and varying digital literacies.
3. Pedagogical to Social Justice Primary Focus
Social justice interventions in education refer to a number of sub-dimensions involving redistributing who has access (economic justice), recognising other cultures and re-articulating the learning process accordingly (cultural justice), and emphasizing equal representation and parity of participation (political justice) (Hodgkinson-Williams and Trotter, 2018). There is a major focus on connecting content with connectivist theories of community building and collaboration which are more process-centred and learner-centred (Shah et al, 2022). Education for sustainable development is characterised by a new educational order and corresponding sustainability competencies which is achieved by democratising power relationships and challenges the existing social reality and its constructs (Gokool-Ramdoo & Rumjaun, 2017).
In order for students to challenge the social reality of the times and democratise power imbalances, there ultimately needs to be a democratisation of power within the learning environment. This is a yet another major point of reflection in my own teaching practice and how to shift my role. There cannot be an inconsistency between the structure of legal education and the expectations of future lawyers in combatting socio-economic injustices. New Private Law theory speaks to the substance of sustainable legal education in that it must, inter alia, ‘incorporate a critical perspective, which encourages ethical and moral evaluations as well as strategic awareness’ (Leone, 2022). This must include an openness to all knowledge as relevant in finding the answers to legal problems in respect of sustainability.
OEP is necessary for inclusive legal education that recognises the diverse backgrounds and learning needs of students, as well as for educating lawyers are equipped to challenge the status quo and promote sustainable development. In order to employ the OEP Framework from a Social Justice Perspective, the way that the LLB is taught at City Law School requires radical change. To support learner-centred approaches, I would like to propose that traditional lecturing be replaced by short introductions to a topic and a curriculum that allows students to actively select their own OER thereby developing digital literacy skills. Students from different backgrounds should be able to offer alternative sources of knowledge in response to a legal question, whilst feeling that all opinions are valued in a learning community. Legal educators have a lot of catching up to do in utilising social media to maintain and foster online communities that support active learning and to ensure that marginalised students are not isolated from the collaborative learning experience. I hope to continue the discussion on how to democratise power imbalances in the learning environment so that students feel empowered to challenge social constructs and to become responsible lawyers who contribute to sustainable development and tackling social justice issues.
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