Collaboration | Feature

Collaboration Technology Teaches Law Students to Work Together

Forget "The Paper Chase" or even "Legally Blonde" -- today's law schools are dialing down the competition between students and deemphasizing the "sage on the stage." Instead, schools have started to foster the kind of collaboration and group problem-solving that students will encounter in most law careers, with the goal of better situating them for the job market and their first law jobs.

The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law (UMKC) is one such school. The school invested $1.3 million to transform the ground floor of its law library into a new tech-enabled facility designed to help students learn to work together. At the heart of this new space is the Courtney Turner Trust Collaborative Technology Classroom. Known commonly as "the tech classroom" the area includes six 46-inch displays (at six workstations), a television, a ceiling-mounted projector, a Dell computer, eight Apple Mac minis and a large screen at the front of the classroom. The hardware is managed by a Crestron control system.

But layered on top the hardware is ClassSpot and TeamSpot software from Tidebreak. The software works with the hardware to create a learning zone that fosters collaboration, with group workspaces and a "teaching wall" with interactive whiteboards and monitors.

How it Works

TeamSpot enables the students, working in groups, to share content on the wall-mounted display at their workstation. They can move applications and documents from their personal devices to the shared monitor. Multiple students can share information at a single time.

ClassSpot allows the professor to control the workstation monitors. He or she can transfer the content from all six monitors to the large screen at the front of the classroom. The system archives all shared content and work product for later review.

But just having the software in place is not enough, the school learned. In the three years since UMKC opened the tech classroom, faculty have learned some lessons about what it takes to make collaboration effective.

Design Activities with a Narrow Focus

"Legal research classes lend themselves to group activity," said Paul Callister, director of the law library and associate professor of law. But for collaborative activities to be successful, he has learned, faculty must give them a focus.

Callister described one faculty member's "aha" moment when he started collaborative work: "There was absolute silence. He looked around and documents were up. Students worked quietly for a while and then they started talking." That was when the instructor realized he was no longer lecturing; the class had been turned over to the students. He also realized he was going to have to design activities to make this work.

Through experimentation, Callister and his colleagues have found that assignments with a narrow focus are the most successful. "In my research class you have a specific problem as though you were in a firm. We need to know if we can do a specific transaction a specific way and it has these facts," Callister said. Similarly, a colleague who teaches a health regulation class collaborated with a UMKC health professor to refine a topic so that it was narrow enough to work well in a collaborative environment.

"Just assigning them to go out and do a presentation or paper on a topic is too broad," he pointed out.

Create the Right Groups

UMKC faculty also recognize that well-formed groups are fundamental to the success of the collaborative approach. "We spend a lot of time considering who goes into what group using the information we have," Callister said.

A colleague was recently surprised to find that several first-year students had signed up for a mini-term course that usually draws only second or third-year students. He organized the class's groups into mini law firms, with second and third-year students acting as partners in each group and first-year students filling out the remaining spots in the groups. Putting the more experienced students in the mentoring role worked well, Callister said.

He noted that the group requirements can be different from one class to another. His International, Comparative, and Foreign Law course, for example, draws quite a few foreign students from varied cultural backgrounds. Organizing the students into groups for this class means taking into account the complex content of the course plus the initial demands of learning the Tidebreak software -- and adding in a whole new wrinkle, the stress of interacting and working in English as a second language. With this in mind, Callister takes the time to learn the background of the students and divide them into balanced groups where their strengths and weakness can play off each other.

"It takes time to build healthy relationships in the groups, " Callister said. "Tidebreak is a technology that allows so many different uses, but if you don't develop the group dynamic and the appropriate group problems, it's not going to change anything."

Benefits

UMKC is finding two major benefits with this collaborative approach, not to mention a number of smaller bonuses. The first is shifting the dynamic between law students from competitor to colleague. Having students work collaboratively as they eventually will in a law firm goes a long way in supporting this shift.

"Our students go everywhere, but a large measure stay in this area, and so what goes around comes around," Callister pointed out. "We dominate the local bar, and in Missouri we have a huge role. From day one at the law school, we say 'these are your colleagues and you have to help each other.'"

Another major benefit is that the group work the students are producing is higher quality than that of the past. Before Tidebreak, Callister and his colleagues found that even when they were ostensibly working in groups, students would split the assignment and work independently. The work they presented was often disjointed.

With Tidebreak, students share documents and work on them in the same place at the same time, and the result is much more coherent content that coalesces.

As a result, students are better prepared for the working world. "We're creating an intermediate community where students start to behave like the professional community that they're going to join," Callister said. "They come back from clerking over the summer and say, ‘what they had us do is the same kind of thing I did in your class. I wasn't lost. Thank you!'"

"When it works, it's sweet pure joy," he added.

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