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The Law Catches Up With Distance Education

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Voice-Recognition Software Makes Online Legal Instruction More Efficient, Effective

Legal issues in postsecondary Education is a popular course in the Department of Leadership, Foundations and Human Resource Education at the University of Louisville College of Education and Human Development in Kentucky. The course is required for most master's- and doctoral-level students in education administration, but also admits students from other programs. Because so many graduate students at the university are working professionals, online courses are steadily gaining in popularity. So, it was just a matter of time before "Legal Issues" went online. The first step in developing the course was to identify the issues that made it unique such as:

  • The fact that the legal profession has been rather hesitant to embrace distance education and that there were few models to follow;
  • The course had traditionally been highly interactive with a heavy case reading load outside of the classroom, but there was no current textbook; and
  • The instructor already had a full teaching load with little clerical support available.

In regard to the first issue, there is still a great deal of reticence about teaching law online. Although the American Bar Association has recently recommended that law schools be allowed to offer some course hours via distance education, they ask that it be limited to 12 of the 80 hours needed to graduate (Carnevale 2002). However, Marcel (2002) argues that law can be effectively taught online if care is taken in the design. Her recommendations include teaching from authentic problems that students are likely to encounter in the real world, designing projects for both group and individual work, and breaking the work down into weekly deliverables. Marcel also reminds us that good online courses depend on supportive technology, but that technology is not an end in itself.

In regard to the second issue, the online interaction had to replicate the classroom interaction as closely as possible. The final course design relied on units, lessons and continuing interaction. Although the units were not of equal length or complexity, there was a specific pattern of work for students to follow (i.e., reading, posting their analyses, responding to a "what if" quiz focused on applications, and reading the instructor's feedback to the postings and the "what if" responses). The course was also asynchronous but not self-paced. In addition, the lack of a textbook and the need for consistent instructor-student interaction exacerbated the third issue - the lack of clerical support to create extensive documents and maintain online correspondence.

Software, Instructional Design Solutions

The practical solution to creating the extensive teaching documents and supporting online interaction appeared to be voice-recognition software. The University of Louisville uses the Blackboard Learning System v5.5 as its electronic-learning platform of choice. Although Blackboard claimed that it could accept voice recognition, there was no how-to information available to guide the process. After research into the available software, we selected ScanSoft's Dragon NaturallySpeaking 6 Legal Solutions for our experiment.

The instructions provided with the software were very clear, even though training the software to recognize the instructor's voice and syntax was a time-consuming process. But the results were exponential - the more the software hears your voice and reads your documents, the faster it learns.

Training the software consists of reading assigned documents into the microphone, feeding in document files authored by the user to provide samples of syntax, and slowly creating and editing original documents. The use of Dragon NaturallySpeaking Legal Solutions rather than the standard version probably increased the efficiency because the legal version is equipped with Latin prefixes, suffixes and other unique vocabulary.

The instructor was soon creating the documents needed for course management and content. The course management documents were notes to students about how the course was organized and what was expected of them. These took on a very natural tone because they were, in fact, transcripts of real conversations. For example, "A Unit in the Life of a Legal Issues Student," was a lighthearted explanation of the students' work pattern of reading, research, posting and response that applied to each lesson within an instructional unit. The content documents included formal commentaries and handouts, less formal scenarios and replies, and a detailed course calendar created as a downloadable Microsoft Word table to help students manage their time. In all, the final course size was 8.34 MB compared to 4 MB-5 MB for the usual U. of Louisville College of Education course.

We were expecting the software to create increasingly legible Word documents, but it was a pleasant surprise that Dragon software could handle site management commands and place text into the Blackboard course site with such ease. The process of using voice-recognition commands was the same as for using the software to do Web navigation, with no special adaptations necessary.

Quantitative Data

Students were not shy about corresponding with the instructor both through Blackboard and regular e-mail. Real relationships evolved to the point that many e-mails included personal greetings and comments such as "congratulations on the new house" or, on a more serious note, "hope your husband's test results come out well." The students and the instructor became real to each other because they were communicating beyond the mere instructional content of the course.

Although the U. of Louisville Office of Distance Education conducts a standardized evaluation of every online course, students were also asked to complete an informal course evaluation created by the Legal Issues instructor. The questionnaire was delivered and returned via e-mail, and was created as a Word template so students could manipulate the format and include open-ended responses wherever they wished. The questionnaire asked for students' responses to 23 descriptive statements - using a Likert-type scale of 1-5 (with 5 being the most positive) - such as "In terms of what you knew about this topic. ..." There were also nine two-choice questions about their study processes such as "I printed out the cases" (yes or no) and "I created a course binder to organize materials" (yes or no). All questions invited open-ended responses so students could share comments in their own words.

Of the 20 students in the class, 14 completed the course and 13 completed the questionnaire. Although the quantitative data provided a useful overview, the most valuable data was found in the observations shared in students' open-ended responses. This data was analyzed using a version of the Glaser and Strauss' grounded theory "constant comparison" method (Babchuk 1997).

The quantitative data from the questionnaire showed a high degree of student satisfaction with instructional outcomes (mean score of 4.76 out of 5), the delivery of course materials (4.92), the preparedness of the instructor (4.92), and adding timely information as the opportunity arose (4.84). Students found the course design useful (4.53) and responded with a perfect 5 when asked if they found the consistency in unit design to be helpful. All of the 13 students responded that they had created a binder or notebook to handle course materials, and reported that they printed out course materials rather than read them online.

Click here to view the "Informal Student Survey Quantitative Results" Table. (Table 1)

Qualitative Responses

The instructor and course designer believed from the beginning that with this degree of reading, students would deal with the course materials as text and then convert them to paper. With this in mind, the conversational style supported by the voice-recognition software would make it easier to produce highly readable materials. These assumptions seem to be supported by the survey results. And, although this sample is too small to generalize the findings, they do raise some interesting questions about the online delivery of instructional materials. For learning segments that are text intensive, perhaps well-written print-ready documents in a standard word processing format are preferable to HTML pages on the face of the learning platform. Although they are attractive, intricate Web-looking screen design may actually be getting in the way of function. Concentrating on document design and delivery also helps define a clearer path to meeting the Web accessibility goals of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998.

The open-ended (qualitative) responses were rich in students' personal insights into this labor-intensive course. For most students, this was their first exposure to the law, and several commented how different it was from what they had expected.

The design and management of course materials generated a great deal of comments. Students were very pleased with the design of the Blackboard course site, and were especially appreciative of the consistency in unit and lesson designs. When asked if they had a choice of taking this course online or in a traditional classroom, slightly more than half said they would take the course online; however, almost all of the students added an open-ended response to that question. The comments ranged from the practical: "I could not have taken this course this summer if it were not online," to the more analytical, "I feel I invested more of myself by doing it online ... because in class I would have relied more on the professor."

Although voice-recognition software is frequently seen as a tool for individuals with disabilities, the instructor and the course designer in this case study agree that since most instructors and students do not have 100% of their faculties working at 100% capacity for 100% of the time, disability is pretty much a relative term. If something makes online instruction both efficient and more effective, it may well be worth the investment.

Click here to view the "Informal Student Survey Qualitative Results" Table. (Table 2)

References

Babchuk, W. 1997. "Glaser or Strauss?: Grounded Theory and Adult Education." Graduate student research paper from the 1996 Midwest Research-To-Practice Conference in Adult, Continuing and Community Education. Online: www.anrecs.msu.edu/research/gradpr96.htm.

Carnevale, D. 2002. "Bar Association Seeks to Ease Rules on Distance Education or Law Schools." The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 July: A32.

Marcel, K. 2002. "Can Law Be Taught Effectively Online?" Jurist: Legal Intelligence. December.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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