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Using videos to teach law: panacea or poison?

Male student typing on his laptop while sitting on the ADCO Amphitheatre stairs.

We should exercise caution when using videos to teach law: funky ideas don’t always work.

The use of videos and blended learning techniques offer new ways of content delivery and student engagement. In the digital age, the practice, training, and education of law can be bundled into series of short and slick videos that the new generation law student can watch over mobile devices or their laptops.

Summarising an important judgment or convoluted legal concepts into a brief video not only saves time for the students but also provides them with a critical information driving a topic in a neat, little package. The use of colours, graphics, and visuals to go with the words further enhances the appeal. Law teachers who do it are “cool”, those who don’t are “old school” and “not so cool”.

There is little doubt that students and the faculties prefer “cool” over “old school”.

Besides, what can possibly go wrong?

Frank confession: I have had a mixed relationship with the use of videos in my teaching and they don’t always work as intended.

I was initially sceptical of blended learning, until a rude awakening in 2018 compelled me to discard my illusions of an experienced law educator. I re-assessed the new type of law student in my classroom and concluded that the students were overloaded and fatigued with the flow of information to the point of frustration. I took inspiration from the video games I indulged in and decided to experiment with videos embedded in my tutorials.

They loved it! I was “cool” again. They told me; we want more…more!

The faculty and the OLT were very happy – My efforts were acknowledged by a teaching award. Yay!

The first three videos I produced took roughly 8 hours of work (summarising the legal content into a script, peer-reviews from generous colleagues, production, editing etc.). The Lightboard was the funkiest of mediums to produce a law video but also the most time-intensive. The hand-written, bright, neon text added a genuine, human component to the video. The students were captivated by the novelty of how I was able to write text and it didn’t appear inverted. After producing three Lightboard videos, I took stock of the situation: the idea was great, but it was taking too long to produce the videos. There must be a better way.

After discussions with the super-helpful OLT staff, I opted for a video making approach where I pinpointed key concepts to the OLT production gurus who promptly inserted the concept as captions in bold text within the videos. The text was brief, not more than 2-3 lines, interspersed throughout the videos. The production process was efficient and quick. I immediately produced nine more videos.

Another advantage was that captioned-driven videos could be updated and edited quickly in case new content was to be inserted or if editing was warranted in case of a mistake or inaccuracy.

The assumption behind the idea of brief captions was to flash important concepts on the screen that could penetrate the already overloaded student minds. I thought to myself, even if students don’t understand the whole video, at least they can grasp the key concepts.

The videos covered a variety of topics: summarising important cases such as Amadio or We Buy Houses, explaining complex legal concepts, summarising statutory remedies or various statutory interpretation approaches. Topics I anticipated might cause problems for the student.

By summarising the rules in the video, I again assumed, would encourage the students to further read the underlying concepts. That’s where I went wrong. The assumptions were unrealistic and too optimistic, and the students were tempted to base their understandings on the video alone while bypassing the required readings.

Houston, we have a problem!

Without reading the bare legislation, there can be no understanding of the legal foundation of a statute. Without reading case extracts, the detailed reasoning of the judges cannot be grasped. Without reading the textbook, the students are simply getting a “sugar hit” by watching the video and making short notes.

Yet, it is the detailed readings that are cause of student worry. The solution I came up with created another problem, rather than solving the original problem. Now, the students are simply not reading what they’re supposed to read.

Taking a step back, I have conducted an honest appraisal about videos based on my own observations over the last three years. Videos in the modern day teaching of law are only a tool to further student understanding. Videos are not the panacea law academics are looking for. There is no substitute for readings, commentaries and developing understanding of statute or precedents. If videos are not balanced with rigorous coverage of the law embedded in the course content and the assessment, the panacea becomes the poison!

Through this blogpost, I would caution my academic colleagues on the overzealous use of videos. The videos or recordings of content can quickly become a poison that will stunt the growth of the new generation of law students under our care, unless we marry the video resources with good “old fashioned” coverage of statute and precedent.

Even if it means that we become “uncool” again!

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