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Features - Rethinking Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis Training

By June Liebert, Published on August 1, 2000

June Hsiao Liebert is the Electronic Resources Librarian for the Jamail Center for Legal Research,Tarlton Law Library at the University of Texas School of Law. June has worked at the Hugh & Hazel Darling Law Library at UCLA and was a computer consultant in Cleveland, Ohio. She holds a B.S. inManagement from Case Western Reserve University and a J.D. and M.L.S. from Indiana Universit -Bloomington. You can reach her at jliebert@mail.law.utexas.edu 


When the University of Texas School of Law completely revised its first year curriculum this past year, the law library decided to reexamine how Computer Assisted Legal Research (CALR) is taught to first year law students. There have been many changes in Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis (Lexis) over the past few years, but our training program has changed very little.

I have participated in Westlaw and Lexis training for almost 10 years (beginning as a Westlaw student representative in law school), and student attitudes towards such training have changed considerably. What used to be new and exciting/frightening is now often viewed as old and remedial. The advent of Web access to Westlaw and Lexis and the increased exposure to online services in most undergraduate programs have only enhanced this new view. Attendance at optional Westlaw and Lexis classes has dropped considerably, and while requiring attendance solves this problem to a certain extent, student evaluations indicate higher dissatisfaction with CALR classes overall.

The range of computer skill levels seems more widely spread with each incoming class. Ten years ago, most students were at the beginner and intermediate level, but now they range from beginner all the way to advanced. Due to the diversity in computer skill levels, it is difficult to offer one generic class that provides an appropriate level of training for everyone.

Each new group of law students is also more technologically advanced than the last, and the technology learning needs and expectations of these students change correspondingly. We are just beginning to see the influx of the "Net Generation," a phrase coined by Don Tapscott in his 1998 book, "Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation." The N-Gen students are "born with technology, they assimilate it. Adults must accommodate -- a different and much more difficult learning process. With assimilation, kids view technology as just another part of their environment, and they soak it up along with everything else. For many kids, using the new technology is as natural as breathing." (Tapscott, p. 40). These students do not need training on how to use a computer or a particular software program. The media itself holds no special significance for them. What they do need is to understand what information is available to them, how it is organized, and how to locate, evaluate, and use that information -- regardless of the media.

Many of these issues can be addressed by integrating more CALR instruction into the legal research program. The implementation of a Web-based tutorial gives students more flexibility in how and when they learn. The Web was chosen, because it was easy to implement and the browser interface was simple enough for all students to use.

In order to understand how dramatic these changes were for us, you must first understand our past.

The Past

Teaching Quizmasters (TQs), a select group of 2nd and 3rd year law students, teach legal research at UT. The TQs serve as both tutors and mentors, starting from the first day of orientation. We have almost 450 students in each entering class, and each TQ is assigned 15-20 students. The law librarians train the TQs before the first year legal research course begins.

As part of the old Legal Research and Writing program (LR&W), all first year students were offered one Westlaw and one Lexis class. These classes were held during the first month of school and taught by Lexis and Westlaw academic representatives. Although it helped to have the classes early when students were not yet bogged down in coursework, there were many drawbacks. One of the most serious drawbacks was that the vendors found themselves explaining digests and citators before these topics were even discussed in class.

The vendors did offer optional classes later in the semester, but none of these were "endorsed" or mentioned in the LR&W program. Only a handful of students attended these optional classes, which is surprising at a school of almost 1500 students.

This Year

The Experiment

This fall, the law school decided to move the entire LR&W course to the second semester. The LR&W instructors were very open to the idea of change, as were our Westlaw and Lexis academic representatives. Through a cooperative effort, we were able work out a much more integrated program. The biggest changes were the inclusion of a Web-based tutorial1 and the break-up of the CALR training into five different modules:

Module 1 (early September 1999)
Two half-hour sessions (one for Westlaw and one for Lexis) introduced CALR and showed students how to pull up a case by citation or party name, a statute by citation, and how to browse and print documents.

Module 2 (late October 1999)
Optional job search classes reinforced some of what was covered in the first class. They also discussed job resources online, and introduced a few basic search techniques.

Module 3 (late December 1999 to early January 2000)
This module was assigned over winter break and the first week of school. Students were required to complete a Web-based tutorial that explained Boolean searching and reviewed many of the earlier topics. We used one tutorial for both Westlaw (the "classic" version) and Lexis. Beth Youngdale, Head of Reference at UT, wrote the text for our tutorial, and I created the Web pages for it. Although the tutorial did translate fairly well from paper to online, it was reorganized and reworded to make it more concise and easily read from a computer screen. We also tried to add some interactive elements to it, but in a fairly low-tech way due to time constraints. We even added streaming audio for those who preferred listening to reading. Students were required to turn in a printout from Westlaw and e-mail a set of Lexis results to their TQs.

If students needed help, they were encouraged to e-mail, phone or visit the reference desk when questions arose. During the first week of school in January, representatives from both Westlaw and Lexis held extended hours in the computer classroom to assist anyone who needed additional help.

Module 4 (January - February 2000)
The TQs and writing instructors then integrated Westlaw and Lexis citators, digests, etc., into their classes and assignments over next several weeks.

Module 5 (late February 2000)
The academic representatives offered optional advanced training classes. The classes were organized by TQ group and customized to help students with the brief writing assignment for their particular group.

The Results

The overall response to the CALR training program this year was extremely positive. The students were somewhat bored by the initial training session, but the reactions to the online tutorial were surprisingly good. At the end of the tutorial was a brief, online questionnaire to which over 300 students responded. The responses were overwhelmingly positive.2 The few complaints we did receive were about problems with Westlaw's attached printing feature and the need to switch back and forth from one window to another in the first half of the tutorial (caused by Westlaw's Web programming). There were no complaints about the Lexis half of the tutorial. Christy Nisbett, who is in charge of the legal research and writing program, reported that she received no student complaints about the CALR training for the first time in many years.

Most of the students indicated that the tutorial fell into the easy to moderate category, and only a handful felt it was too difficult. We were particularly surprised that only one or two students complained about having to do the tutorial on the Web. Many of the students actually thanked us for putting the tutorial online, because they could complete it on their own time and at their own pace. In fact, tracking software revealed that the tutorial was used almost all hours of the day and night (except 7 a.m.--10 a.m.). 

We estimated that it would take the average student an hour and a half to complete the tutorial at a fairly slow pace. The word on the street was that it took anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours to complete.

The program was also successful when viewed in terms of Westlaw and Lexis usage. The usage from January to March 2000 increased by 25% over the same period in 1999. The value of such numbers is somewhat debatable. The legal research program was held in the spring, rather than the fall, so an increase was inevitable. However, 25% is a surprisingly large increase. Whether more CALR usage is a good thing is another discussion altogether, and beyond the scope of this article.

The extended hours in the computer classroom proved to be almost unnecessary. The few questions the Westlaw and Lexis representatives fielded were in regards to printing and where to find the tutorial.

The Future

We feel that the Westlaw/Lexis training program this year was a success, and we plan to do the same next year with a few minor changes:

1. Incorporate better graphics in the Web-based tutorial
Our Web-based tutorial was created in only a few weeks, so we did not have enough time to create fancy graphics or provide a more interactive experience. It employed basic HTML with frames and a few simple Javascripts. Next year, we hope to produce a slicker product with more graphics - possibly with an interactive tool such as Macromedia's Flash. The UT Digital Library's Texas Information Literacy Tutorial is a great example of what can be accomplished with Flash. It would also be nice to incorporate a tracking system, so that students who have to leave midway through the tutorial could automatically be returned to where they left off.

2. Provide more learning opportunities
Adult education experts emphasize the necessity of providing different learning opportunities for people with different learning styles and needs, so we plan to make available a few printed copies of the complete tutorial and schedule a few "live" classes for those who prefer them.

3. Create additional exercises for further exploration
One student comment suggested that we provide fewer directions, and let students "discover" things on their own. I don't think this is a good idea, however, since many students are completing the tutorial in the middle of the night when there is little assistance available. I think students need all the direction they can get in the beginning. However, we would like to include optional "practice" exercises that are less directed and require more independent thinking.

4. Include optional tutorials for other online services
We will probably include other online services as options to the Web-based tutorial next year, such as the Matthew-Bender treatises or the Loislaw service. We may even include more free resources, such as the Library of Congress' Thomas) Web site.

5. Provide a brief "cheat sheet"
Students love cheat sheets, and the fact that the tutorial existed only online made some students uncomfortable. They wanted something they could quickly refer to the next time they needed to do a search. Although most vendors provide a wide assortment of such cheat sheets, we will probably create or include one specifically for Boolean searching.

Our online tutorial was based, in part, on tutorials created by the Univ. of San Diego and UCLA3 . The USD and UCLA tutorials are printed and handed to students to complete on their own. Interestingly enough, both schools have since switched back to offering vendor-taught classes. One reason for this is that tutorials must be created far in advance, but new features and software updates are added so frequently in Westlaw and Lexis that it was difficult to keep the tutorials current. Although we faced many of the same issues, we simplified things by deciding to use only one Web version for each service and not the software.

Fortunately, Westlaw is slated to release a new and improved Web interface this summer that should address many of the student complaints. Lexis, as far as I know, has no imminent plans for changing its Web interface, so the platform should be stable next year.

Westlaw is in the process of creating its own online tutorials, and Lexis already has already created several of them. Although the Lexis tutorials are not bad, they would be more useful to me if they were broken down even more into many mini-tutorials that address specific functions, such as how to use citators or how to look up a statute by name or citation. I can then choose the pieces I need, when I need them.

Teaching CALR is always a challenging task, and we were very pleased with the positive response to our new program this year. Our next project is to create Web pages to support the first year LR&W program. It will start with information for all incoming students and continue on throughout the rest of the year. If you would like to view our Web-based tutorial, go to: http://www.law.utexas.edu/tutorial. It is very much a work in progress, and if you would like to use any portion of the tutorial, please contact me first.

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Footnotes

1. For more information about Web-based tutorials, read Marie Wallace's article, Guide on the Side: Web Based Training - Click and Learn. <back to text>

2. Although we did read all the responses, the commercial server where the information was stored crashed, so we were not able to tabulate the results. <back to text>

3. Thanks to Ruth Levor at the University of San Diego's law library and Linda Maisner at UCLA's law library for sharing their tutorials with us.  <back to text>