Distance Learning: LLM International Business Law

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On behalf of The City Law School, we are proud to have launched the University’s first distance learning degree programme, the Master of Laws (LLM) in International Business Law (IBL), in May 2014.

In consideration of the school’s strategy to internationalise our postgraduate curriculum and course offerings, Professor Jason Chuah, the Head of Academic Law, was concerned to create a course which distinguishes itself from the many “massive open online courses available” which offered little by way of the positive student experience. Following a market survey and a programme mapping exercise, Professor Chuah and I, as Programme Director of the new LLM IBL, began putting together a postgraduate programme to be delivered entirely online. ‘International Business Law’ was chosen as the programme’s title for three reasons. Firstly, several members of staff in the School have strong specialist knowledge in the law as it relates to multinational corporations, international banking, finance and investments, and international trade and transport. Secondly, the content of the programme is highly attractive to lawyers who are looking for an advanced law qualification and business professionals who are seeking specialist legal knowledge in their respective fields. Lastly, the course takes an internationalist approach to the curriculum so that the student from any jurisdiction will be able to acquire the requisite skills and knowledge for the international practice of business law.

To ensure strong recruitment, we were very mindful of the importance of flexibility. The programme is offered on a part-time basis; there is no residency requirement. LLM IBL students are entitled to take up to two consecutive terms off at a time, however, the programme must be completed within five years. All three University terms are used; there are intakes in May, September and January of each year. If they wish, students may also exit with a PgCert or PgDip.

The programme was designed and developed in three key stages:

Stage 1: Validation

In preparation for University validation, countless email exchanges and discussions took place at School level, with colleagues from other schools who have experience with blended and distance learning, and with LEaD educational technologists. Professor Susan Blake, the School’s Associate Dean for Education, was instrumental in guiding us on important aspects relating to learning, teaching and assessment. (It should also be noted that Professor Blake doubles as module leader for the LLM IBL module on dispute resolution.) Dr Pam Parker offered particularly helpful feedback and advice on behalf of LEaD. For validation, we also had the benefit of seasoned distance learning educator, Professor Alice Belcher of University of Dundee, as External Advisor. Her input was invaluable to us as we put the finishing touches on the programme design and student-facing regulations.

Stage 2: Structure

The programme structure benefits from two ‘bookends’ as core modules: Foundations of Law in International Business and Dissertation. Based on consultations with current and past LLM students at City, we took the decision to reduce the assessment in the Dissertation module to a research project of 10,000 words; the credit value was also reduced respectively to 30 credits. As a result, we are able to offer students an ‘extra’ elective module on the programme. Successful completion of the LLM IBL requires 180 credits, 60 of which are core and 120 are electives. Each module is worth 30 credits.

For each new LLM IBL intake, I hold a 90-minute online ‘virtual induction’ on the first day of each term via AdobeConnect. Students are guided through using Moodle as our VLE and are invited to make introductions on webcam.

As Programme Director, I also teach the first module, Foundations of Law in International Business, which students must pass before proceeding on to the electives stage. This provides me with an opportunity to develop a good rapport with each of the students. Students are also allocated a Personal Tutor, who is a School staff member who teaches on the programme.

On the LLM IBL, each module runs for 10 consecutive weeks. There are 8 teaching weeks and 2 assessment weeks. Students are required to submit discussion board posts (summative) and a final essay (summative). There are also formative feedback opportunities, such as an essay in week 5 across all modules. In all modules apart from Dissertation, students sit the final essay (3,500 words) in week 10 – and have only one week to complete it. All assessments are completed online.

For the core online content, experts in each of the subject areas taught on the elective modules were engaged to draft materials for each week of substantive teaching, which Associate Professor Katherine Reece-Thomas and I edited for quality assurance. The core content for each module comprises 10-20 pages of written commentary on each week’s topic, in addition to links to relevant readings in e-books, and academic journals and law reports in online databases to which the University subscribes.

Stage 3: Technology

With the help of expert assistance given by Steven McCombe and Connie Tse (and others!) from LEaD, each module leader on the LLM IBL was able to make professional videos, shot either on campus, in the LEaD studio or elsewhere in London ‘on location’, and make recording for podcasts. Once Steven did his magic with the video editing, the films looked fantastic. Each LLM IBL module now has approximately ten multimedia objects online. Our inspiration for including this type of content was not only for its educational value, but also to give the distance learning programme a human dimension as well. Module leaders appear on camera and introduce themselves and their modules. They also appear in locations around London that are relevant to the subject being studied, e.g. the Houses of Parliament and Lloyd’s of London. We feel this is important for strengthening our competitive advantage on the market, noting that most of the students on the programme are not in the UK or the EU for that matter. It is of utmost importance that the message is clear to prospective and current students: The City Law School has designed, and crucially also delivers, its LLM IBL distance learning programme.

Looking forward…Enhancement

Now that the programme has been up and running for four terms, and each elective module has been offered at least once, we have moved into the next stage of the programme development: enhancement. I held a meeting in September, attended by the teaching team and Steven and Connie representing LEaD, where we discussed our experiences teaching students on the programme. The input from that meeting will now be fed into the next steps for programme enhancement. Plans are in place to review the assessment strategy and to pilot live online lectures in the current academic year.

Timescales

  • Stage 1 approval – November 2013
  • Stage 2 approval – February 2014
  • Launch – May 2014 (core module)
  • Development – September 2014 (core + 3 elective modules)
  • Development – January 2015 (core + 6 elective modules + dissertation)
  • Enhancement – from September 2015 (additional recordings, videos, piloting live lecture)

Student feedback

Student feedback has been very favourable. A few excerpts from testimonials are copied below:

  • Online study suits my current circumstances, I travel a great deal and I can utilise my time effectively to maximise my studies remotely, using modern technology such as tablets, smartphones and laptops … I am very pleased with the experience and the materials and support are first class.
  • I chose this programme due to the reputation of The City Law School and the flexibility of the distance learning programme. I have only the online experience with City University and I am very pleased with my experience. Although the course had been challenging but I am never left feeling unsupported or helpless. Whenever I request for help I am impressed by the speed of response from all. I particularly like to single out my Programme Coordinator, Dr Steven Truxal for his role in the programme which is excellent. He is very supportive and cares much about students’ progress in their studies and progression.
  • I first hope to have a better knowledge of international business law as I work in a business law firm. It is important for me to master the subject. I hope it will help me in my daily work and maybe open a door to new opportunities in terms of career development or assisting different types of clients.

A word of thanks!

There are many people not mentioned above who contributed to the successful launch of the LLM IBL programme. We would like specifically to thank Sarah Oliver (LLM IBL Course Officer), Matthew Such (former Quality and Administration Manager), as well as the rest of the School’s admin team, and Emily Allbon and Paul Long (COO), for their tremendous support. Saralyn Burton and Sophie Cubbin have also done a fine job of promoting the programme to prospective students and the media, respectively. We wish also to thank our Dean, Professor Carl Stychin, for his encouragement throughout.

We are always happy to share our good practice with others at City University London and beyond. Click here to watch my keynote presentation delivered at Cass Business School’s e-Learning Showcase in May 2015.

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