A guest post by Matthew J. Homewood, head of department at Nottingham Law School
Many legal education providers and would-be providers are grappling with how to respond to the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).
How they will respond will depend upon many things, including their ‘traditional’ market, their staff base, and their institutional structures to name but a few. At this stage, it is far too early to predict what the future of legal education will look like and there are a number of challenging questions that remain unanswered which will shape the cost, form and availability of provision.
Chief amongst these is the need for clarity on whether skills will form part of SQE stage 1, the dates of the SQE examinations and confirmation of the design of SQE stage 2 following the pilot in December 2019.
One thing that is clear, is that there will be a much wider range of provision available to students, giving greater choice and greater flexibility than ever before.
If providers are to survive in this new market, they will have to offer excellent teaching, first-rate facilities, outstanding student support, exceptional graduate prospects and unique and varied opportunities – Nottingham Law School, for example, has a fully regulated, award winning, teaching law firm where students can work.
Courses will need to be flexible, offering a personalised experience with exposure to, and use of technology to enhance the learning and teaching experience.
Such technology can be used in many different ways – it can be used to introduce students to, and develop fluency with, the skills that they will need in practice including basic use of office software.
It can be used to introduce students to technology they will use in their life as a practitioner such as case management systems.
It can be used to develop understanding of technological concepts they will encounter in practice, such as digital currencies, e discovery and blockchain, and those concepts that have the potential and indeed already are changing the face of the provision of legal services, such as artificial intelligence, document automation and smart contracts.
Technology has a particular role to play in the personalisation of learning. Students learn in different ways and at different rates, requiring further support and consolidation in some areas and not in others.
In ‘conventional’ learning spaces, this can be hard to support, with one size rarely fitting all. Utilising a digital space enables learning materials to be released depending upon a student’s proven understanding with consolidatory materials, tasks and alternative approaches being made available on the basis of need. Whilst the same learning outcomes will inevitably need to be met, the learning journey a student takes and the materials they use need not be the same for all.
Technology will also have a significant impact through the use of learning analytics. Given the strong correlation between engagement and performance, having systems in place that can measure engagement is important both in ensuring student success, but also in being able to step in and make interventions to provide students with relevant guidance and support for their well-being.
Sophisticated systems exist which collect data from a range of sources, including log-ins to virtual learning environments, door swipes and library use. It’s a tool that can be used both by staff and by students – encouraging greater responsibility for individual learning.
Of course, SQE stage 1 brings an assessment methodology that is new to many institutions with the use of multiple-choice questions to assess functioning legal knowledge. Again, technology provides a means to support students and to help them understand and take responsibility for their own learning.
Question banks can be developed which can randomly allocate questions or can do so within specific areas, providing students with feedback based upon individual answers and directing students to consolidatory material accordingly. Such databases, if developed correctly, will enable students to compare their performance against that of others in their cohort or even wider, providing students with a developing insight into their own level of preparedness for the centralised assessments.
It is clear also that technology can build upon traditional skills teaching as assessed by SQE stage 2. Research, writing and drafting can be practised digitally with analysis taking place of common errors and areas for improvement. Perhaps more excitingly, virtual environments can be created with a seemingly endless range of possibilities, including virtual interviewing, oral presentations and advocacy, enabling a diverse range of scenarios that will greatly enhance the legal skills of future lawyers.
This is a period of opportunity and those that can will embrace it. Providers know where we need to get our students to but will have greater flexibility than ever before in supporting them to get there. In embracing this flexibility, technology has a significant role to play in enhancing, but not replacing, traditional legal education.
Combined with exposure to and teaching of legal tech, both existing and emerging, providers can develop students that are better prepared than ever before for their future careers.