Posting has been light from me for the last few days because it’s been crunch time for NTU Law School’s new external law degree program, for whose implementation the Dean and Head of School made me responsible, not least because I’ve touted it unmercifully for the last 3 years as the salvation of the Law School from static and even marginally declining enrolments (stemming mostly from competition from the proliferation of Australian law schools, some of whom have lower TER entry requirements than NTU and are rather more conveniently located).
The external law degree program is being delivered entirely via the Internet, the first law degree program to be delivered in that way anywhere in Australia. QUT and UNE have external law degree programs, but they rely mostly on delivering extensive written material to students by post – a fairly traditional “correspondence” mode, albeit with some electronic components. NTU’s program delivers written learning materials (lecture notes, study guides, tutorial problems, PDF copies of additional readings etc) via the WWW using leading edge Blackboard interactive learning software. We also digitally record all lectures (starting with first year subjects from this semester) and deliver them to external students using “streaming” audio (currently Microsoft Windows Media format, but soon Apple Quicktime). Lastly, we’re conducting tutorials, workshops, and some “live” online lectures using online Voice Cafe “voice chat” facilities provided by Kiwi company Optecs. TA co-blogger Wayne Wood helped us test the latter facilities, for which I owe him a few beers.
In new enrolment terms, the program has so far been wildly successful, in that the Law School has trebled its usual semester 2 new enrolments, even though we deliberately avoided widely publicising the external program. We planned this as a pilot semester, where we’d test and refine the technologies, learning materials and course delivery methods so we had a stable and fairly mature program by the time we began marketing it more widely.
The first large-scale 2 hour online lecture using the Voice Cafe chatroom took place yesterday. There were a few glitches, but overall it was very satisfactory and all the students were more than happy with the learning opportunity it opens up for them. It’s not quite as good as an on-campus lecture, but it’s pretty close. In some respects it’s even better, because you can “co-browse” and “workshop” legal research by surfing to cases, legislation and journal articles and discussing them together.
We had students physically situated all over Australia “attending” the first lecture: Darwin, Katherine, Tennant Creek, Alice Springs, Ayer’s Rock, Mount Isa, Broome, Perth, Kalgoorlie and Sydney. As far as I know that’s never been done before by any tertiary institution. It also opens up some very interesting opportunities for collaboration between universities in delivering learning programs.
For me, the lecture also had a personal historical resonance. One of our new law students participating in the online lecture was Ren Kelly, licensee of the Yulara Tavern at Ayer’s Rock Resort. Almost 20 years ago, not long after I first arrived in Darwin, one of my early cases was a Supreme Court appeal on behalf of the Pitjatjantjara Council against the granting by the NT Liquor Commission of a takeaway grog licence to the then newly-opened Yulara Tavern. We won the case, and Ren Kelly didn’t get his takeaway licence. I wonder whether that’s why he’s studying law all these years later. Actually, the Supreme Court decision in our favour back in 1984 was pretty strangely reasoned, to say the least. In fact, when Ren progresses to studying administrative law in due course, he’ll discover that I use that decision as a tutorial problem to illustrate faulty judicial reasoning in jurisdictional error cases.