A Little Grafting of Second Life into a Legal Research Class

Can immersive online environments such as Second Life enhance legal research instruction? Experiments in full class lectures and other uses of Second Life in higher education offer a mixture of hype and excitement. Second Life obviously won’t replace traditional law school teaching, but can Second Life be used modestly to enhance traditional classroom legal research instruction?

Arguably, Second Life offers instructors several valid educational uses. These uses include educational exercises such as simulations, immersive displays, recreations, treasure hunts, interactive tutorials, guest lectures, and virtual field trips. These can be hard or impossible to replicate in the real world due to cost and time factors but are relatively easy in Second Life. Additionally, such educational experiences enhance learning by supplementing what takes place in the classroom with an interesting multimedia component. The novelty of this form of multimedia might inspire classroom interest and enthusiasm for students in the subject area, and lead to better learning engagement. This at least was the working hypothesis.

Testing the educational potential of Second Life as a supplement to classroom instruction occurred over the duration of a seven week ‘International Legal Research Skills’ class taught at Nova Southeastern University Law School. The class met once a week for lecture and discussion on standard FCIL research from International Arbitration to World Trade.

The Second Life component took a supporting but significant role in the class. Initially, class knowledge of Second Life was surveyed using questionnaires. The result indicated all but one of the class members had no Second Life experience. As a result, Emerging Technology Librarian at NSU, Meg Kribble, gave an introductory demonstration on Second Life and provided the class with basic written instructions.

As the class evolved, Second Life was used in the following three ways: First, it was used as an immersive, interactive exhibition for students on issues and agencies involved in international law. A tour was provided within Second Life for law students to virtual offices of international law firms, courts, libraries, and government agencies with Second Life presences. It was powerful for students on the tour to meet within Second Life lawyers practicing international law from Europe. It generated discussion that would have been difficult to create in the classroom alone. Also included in the tour were outstanding recreations of international hotspots such as Darfur which provided teachable moments for NGO & IGO discussion, as well as introducing the role of international human rights law. The tour ended at a courtroom reproduction where pictures of class members sitting at the bench were taken. The added benefit of this was to establish an educational sense of social community within the class that perhaps would have been absent without the Second Life tour.

Second Life

The second method of incorporation involved a special event hosted by Mr. Paulo Casaca, a member of the European Parliament, European Union. His Second Life talk was on the international legal implications of using EU airports to refuel airplanes transporting prisoners to Guantanamo Bay. He was the only European Parliamentarian using Second Life in this way, and his assistant sent a special invitation to the instructor and class to attend. There were many others in attendance as well, mainly from Europe. It was an opportunity to meet an individual deeply involved in the process of international law. Of course, a guest lecture such as this would be hard to organize in real life. Integrating Second Life into the course created an enhanced context for learning that better prepared the students for the concurrent classroom presentations on EU legal research.

The third way Second Life was incorporated was unplanned by the instructor because it was student initiated. One of the students could not attend the last meeting of the International Legal Research Skills class, but was scheduled to give a short presentation of his research pathfinder that day. He proposed to give it in avatar form to the class from within Second Life. With the assistance of Meg Kribble, a link was set up for the video and audio requirements for the presentation. Second Life was shown to the class meeting on the room projector while the student’s voice was audible through the PA system. The format was particularly clever as the pathfinder was on international intellectual property issues, a subject Second Life is no stranger to. Using this technology, the class was able to see the research presentation and teleport to locations within Second Life while the class observed and asked questions.

All but two classes in the Legal Research Skills Class contained no Second Life element – this was not a class in Second Life, but a legal research class. The uses of Second Life involved very little time and no additional costs. However, the addition of the virtual field trip, guest lecture, and the student presentation enhanced the traditional classroom efforts of the instructor in several ways.

The most surprising was the development of a student community of inquiry created by the novelty effect of Second Life. The typical reticence of the law students to speak or otherwise participate diminished considerably. Class discussion increased on many issues, but noticeably on those issues where Second Life had engendered student interest. Also as a result of Second Life enhancements, some students put their laptops to use in new ways and reportedly enjoyed the incorporation of classroom technology into the class. Class comments by students were generally favorable towards Second Life.

Unfavorable lessons were learned as well. The overwhelming inexperience of the law students in accessing Second Life required more hand-holding than was really possible to effectively provide. Demonstrations and written instructions alone only worked for a minority of students. Many needed one-on-one help setting up Second Life accounts and moving within the medium. Additionally, both computer compatibility and wireless failure issues created barriers to using Second Life; this was perhaps the most unpredictable and enigmatic area of concern, but remains an issue with all educational technology. Lastly, student attitudes towards Second Life were mixed – ranging from one expert in its use, several eager beginners, a curious majority, and a disengaged minority who never responded to this type of learning instruction. Anticipating this last group, all Second Life activities in the class were optional and counted only as one form of participation points towards the ultimate final grade.

The barriers to Second Life resulted in a lower participation rate on the virtual tour and guest lecture, but every student observed the student presentation from within Second Life. Many students expressed frustration with the technology barriers and conveyed a desire to participate more in this part of the class. Ultimately, the quiz prepared by the instructor in international legal researching using only the resources on Second Life was filed away without a single student knowing it had ever existed for these reasons. It was far too ambitious to use Second Life in this way for this class.

Second Life enhanced legal research instruction in this case as a complement to the active work of the classroom.

Many more educational uses of Second Life can be found at the Second Life Education Wiki. [Last Accessed 3/5/2008]

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