Webcasting of Continuing Professional Development Courses: an effective learning and revisionary tool?
Solicitor, Diploma Manager
IT Co-Ordinator for Education
© 2013 Freda Grealy, Caroline Kennedy and Rory O'Boyle
First published in the Web Journal of Current Legal Issues
Citation: Grealy F, Kennedy C and O'Boyle R, 'Webcasting of Continuing Professional Development Courses: an effective learning and revisionary tool?' (2013) 19(4) Web JCLI
In recent times there has been a significant trend in the use of technology in education. There is a danger that technology in education is implemented for technology sake and not enough thought is given to embracing and designing technology so that it leads to more effective ways of learning. This paper describes an initiative at the Law Society of Ireland's Diploma Centre whereby a webcasting facility was customised for the needs of students. In providing professional continuing development to busy practitioners accessibility is one of the key factors. Adopting a student centred approach and placing control in the hands of the student in terms of providing ample opportunities for interactivity and providing various means of accessing courses is of paramount importance. According to Fullan (1993) organisations must be "actively plugged into their environments in order to prosper. This paper outlines the efforts made to 'plug in' and align the provision of higher legal professional development education with developments in technology. This paper demonstrates the use of key features such as video, timed slides and instant messaging. It compares the performance of students who accessed lectures by means of live webcasts against those who attended onsite lectures and analyses how and when all students used the recorded webcasts for revision purposes. It also outlines the results in terms of positive student feedback and an overall increase in interaction between the students and lectures. (Approx 200 Words)
Keywords: Blended learning, webcasting, Moodle, chat, instant message
The Diploma Centre in the Education Department of the Law Society(1) provides post qualification education to solicitors in Ireland in the form of six month diploma courses and three month certificate courses in specialised areas of legal practice. An underlying issue which prompted the project was a concern to increase accessibility for all members of the profession as many work fulltime and have difficulty travelling to attend courses(2).
The demand for increased accessibility was repeatedly articulated in feedback from the profession. For example, the types of comments received from an online survey of solicitors included:
"More online options please."
"I would like to see the Dublin based diploma and certificate courses to be made more available to rural based solicitors."
The aim therefore was to increase accessibility and in so doing to maximise the learning experience for remote students. The project in particular focused on a 'triptych design' display combining (1) the webcast window (2) a timed slide window and (3) a synchronistic message board known as 'Cover IT Live' which functions as a moderated questions facility for students to connect with the lecturer. Similar to McKellar and Maharg, we were interested in using the webcast as "part of an integrated study tool" (2010, p.43). The objective was to increase the opportunities for interactivity for remote students so as to foster a sense that such students could fully participate in the class and would be fully part of our community of learning. We were interested in ascertaining whether or not the remote student who watching the webcast 'live' performed at least as well as those students who attended onsite lectures, their perception of the facility and whether or not it accurately created an authentic lecture theatre experience and finally how all students used the recorded lectures for revision purposes.
We were conscious of implementing a student centred approach and while webcasting is an established learning tool, and "when used appropriately can do more that provided cheap lectures on the web (Maharg, 2009), we were aware that our design must be customised to meet the learning styles of our students. In designing the project we focused on ensuring a rewarding and supportive learning environment for all participants, regardless of their method of accessing the course. Some of our students could be described as 'digital immigrants' rather than 'digital natives', as Prensky would describe them, and we appreciated that the design of our chosen Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) had to be straightforward and easily navigable. A VLE can be described as "a standardised, computer based environment that supports the delivery of web based online learning" (Cheng and Yen, 1998). Moodle, which is an intuitive and easy to use site, was the chosen VLE. Martin Dougiamas designed Moodle, an open source VLE, in 1999. Moodle creates a user centred environment that helps both student and lecturer to build upon their skills in a collaborative online environment(3). Dedicated course pages for webcast courses were created on the diploma Moodle site, offering administrative capabilities to the lecturer (owner) of the course and limited rights as set by the authors for the students. Each Moodle page followed a set of rules for consistent layout and features(4). The key to design is 'shape' and the provision of a well organised knowledge management system (Maharg 2009). With this in mind a linear, intuitive and relatively simple design page was chosen. Each webcast course was set-up as a private course on the Moodle site so that only pre-enrolled tutors and students could enter, therefore creating a scaffolded area. The aim was that the secure access for both the tutors and the students would promote a sense of trust and safety and thus a sense of community for the students. See below a graphic of the site log-in and course homepage.
Fig 1 The webcast link on the course page in the VLE
According to Gardner and Hatch (1989) intelligences develop at different degrees among students. This implies that lecturers need to teach in ways that appeal to all forms of intelligence, so as to ensure that learning occurs for all the students. With this in mind, a template, called a "skin" was used and allied to every recorded webcast. This "skin" included the three screen concept for video, lecture slides and collaborative interface. The left hand side of that page contains the live video stream with volume controls and play/pause options. When the student is watching the 'playback on demand' the running time of the lecture is then given with a time bar that allows the student to move between sections in the recording. The middle block headed 'Timed Slides' contains the title of the lecture and the synchronised slides. The block on the right of the "skin" contains the view of the 'Cover IT Live' interface. The bottom section of the "skin" contains access to resources such as links for feedback, help and settings. The technically difficult issue was connecting the lecture slides to the passages in the recording in which they appear. Our approach synchronised the slides to the respective sections in the recording. All webcasts were available for the duration of the course in 'playback on demand' mode.
Fig 2 the Skin for the webcast
Access to the webcast was seamless as the link could be embedded in Moodle. A course page was dedicated to each diploma course which in turn contained seamless links and access to the webcast interface. General information such as the diploma team information and contact details and images was added to each course homepage together with all the necessary information relating to the course. Each week of the course was given it own section on the page where lecturer information, lecture materials and the link to the webcast would be placed.
With regards to the specific elements of the triptych design, recorded web lectures have become a steadfast learning companion for students over the last number of years, thus playing an important role in the e-learning portfolio of a higher education college. Lecture recordings alone, even before adding advanced learning features, can be more engaging by their very nature, allowing the learner to make stronger connections to the lecturer as an actual person as well as the other learners in the lecture theatre (Ketterl et al., 2010). This type of learning media comes with a number of benefits such as a multimedia learning experience and relatively low production costs per learning unit (Mertens 2007). Several authors have reported on the pros and cons of this kind of learning material, e.g. (Deal 2007), (Lauer and Ottmann, 2002). For remote learners, web based lectures help to convey to the learner that they are not alone in the learning process and that both peers and content experts are involved (Barokas et al., 2010). As discussed by Ketterl et al (2010) web lectures extend the outreach of the college to remote learners in different regions, countries and time zones (Lauer and Ottmann, 2002).
We also considered how our design would make the slides available for remote students as if they were in the lecture theatre. The design of the webcast page supported a 'timed slide feature' to ensure that the slide would change when the lecturer prompts the next slide. In addition all of the slides and notes would be available for students to download prior to lectures. We perceived that these would be important features for students to make the lectures more engaging.
With regards to the instant messaging feature, Baeker. R et al. (2007, 262) highlight that "….persistence in chat can provide a promising environment for learning and encouraging reflection and participation". Therefore we recognised that our design would have to facilitate a means of communication with remote students including a facility for such students to ask questions of the lecturer. In essence, we needed to foster a sense that the remote audience would be part of the class and provide such students with a chance to participate in the class. Therefore the chosen design incorporated a live chat facility provided by 'Cover IT Live'. This functioned as a means for remote students to ask questions of the lecturer which had the added educational support of guarding against isolation for the remote students. Using the "Cover IT Live" resource as part of the webcast "skin", remote students could continue to direct questions or queries about the content to the lecturer as per the onsite students attending the "live" lecture. Researchers have reported on the effectiveness of applying media technologies, such as chatting tools, video and audio in deliver awareness (Tsai et al., 2005). Developments in pedagogy and blended learning demonstrate the importance of collaboration and discussion in education (Garrison and Vaughan, 2007) thus this must apply to remote learning also. The objective of the design was to encourage socialisation and to peer-to-peer inquiry that might lead to discussion relevant to their level of understanding in the area. Paloff and Pratt (1999) note that it is through these relationships and interactions among the participants that "knowledge is primarily generated'. They further state that shared goals and collaboration are 'powerful forces in the learning process'. In our model the role of the lecturer shifts to one of a mentor, guiding and supporting the student throughout the process of knowledge (Barajas and Owen, 2000). A "Cover IT Live" session is booked for every webcast that is to be recorded. The lecturer begins the discussion every evening prompting those students connected remotely to engage with the lecture and material. Just as the remote student could hear the questions from the floor, the onsite students could hear the questions from the remote students as they were repeated aloud by the Course Leader who acts as a moderator and publishes messages when they are sent. In certain situations where the message was private and related to a localised IT issue it operated as an added means of communication and support for the student via the Course Leader and such messages were not published.
The webcast equipment had to be purchased and customised to accommodate the project. The equipment list included a camera located at the back of the lecture theatre feeding video back to the central webcast console machine located outside of the lecture theatre in the IT rack. The audio feeds from the podium were arranged to feed to the console also. In the past a hand-held microphone was used for questions, which proved unsatisfactory. Eight additional ceiling microphones were installed in the lecture theatre to accommodate questions from the audience. A touch screen monitor was installed at the podium also. This monitor was connected to the webcast server and so displayed the slides relating to the lecture. The lecturer was able to move the slides in sync with the lecture and this was all recorded on the webcast server.
Moodle was also re-engineered to meet the needs of students. As the webcast courses follow a blended learning structure we designed the Moodle page for the course to be a 'one-stop-shop'. All lecture information, webcast links, online evaluation forms, discussion forums and chat room links were all made available to the student on the course page. This ensured that the Diploma staff answered queries in the forums where all members of the group could follow the threads, instead of relaying the same information to students through individual emails and telephone calls.
During implementation it became apparent that our design had to address how to ensure that remote students could hear questions asked in the lecture theatre. During our piloting phase we found that many of those watching the webcasts were frustrated because they could not hear the input from the students at the onsite sessions. We did not want to compromise the 'live' experience of those who attended on-site. We installed ceiling or button microphones in the lecture theatre to could pick-up questions and comments from onsite students to the lecturer.
We implemented a 'testwebcast' link page which was referenced on all course application forms. All prospective students were made aware of this and were obliged to tick a box indicating that their PC was compatible and had the relevant software. As a result, overall we had only two queries and they related specifically to mac computers.
Qualitative research was the main method used as we were searching "…. for the pattern in human activity" (Marshall and Rossman, 2006). In a research case study such as this one, which aims to uncover meaning and understand the dynamics of a group of lawyers in a blended learning environment, fluidity is required in order to allow theories to emerge and evolve (Corbin and Strauss, 2008).
The research methodology was a case study involving a virtual learning environment in which the patterns of learning behaviour of solicitors on continuing professional diploma courses could be studied. A case study was used as this provided an opportunity to conduct intense, contextualised exploration of participants' engagement with the webcasting tool on actual courses. A case study affords the researcher the opportunity to test in context and gather data accordingly. Yin (2002) advocates the use of mixed method research in case studies, and likens case studies to research strategies where qualitative and quantitative research methods can be used and the data combined to strengthen the evidence and legitimise findings. In this study there were  students on [seven] separate courses. The research data is thus a rich and valuable resource for proving the hypothesis that learning conducted via webcast lectures is an effective way for solicitors to learn.
The data sets that were chiefly relied upon included student usage statistics, observation and self-completion feedback questionnaires. Moodle, provides data on usage through an automated report facility. This data was used because they show both the levels of access and the amount of time spent in the environment and this leads to certain conclusions about activity and patterns of learning. The reports can give a variety of data, which are date sensitive, participant sensitive and activity sensitive. At a more basic level, the data shows who used the online environment and when they used it, and who did not use it. The usage logs also aided the identification of the activities that encouraged the most interest and the activities and papers that were accessed the most. CMC was analysed in the form of synchronous posts on Cover IT Live to determine whether or not the communications show that the participants exhibited evidence of critical thinking and use of higher order skills. The authors were participant observers who acted as Course Leaders on a number of the diploma courses and took part in certain activities in an attempt to welcome participants and encourage them to send messages and questions for the lecturer. The authors also found that it was important to be seen in the environment, and also to take part in the process and be supportive. In this context, it was important to be seen as an 'insider' and to avoid being perceived as an 'outsider' (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995).
McKellar and Maharg highlight that until comparatively recently there has been little research on the design of VLEs in the legal education context but that literature from medical education indicates that computer base lectures should be just as effective as traditional forms of lecturing (2010, p.44). Ellaway (2007, p. 153) summarises that becoming a professional is not just about learning how to be practitioner, it is also about adopting a culture and ways of working so as to join a community of practice. Rovai (2007) highlights that an important goal of distance learning is the creation of learning communities where members feel connected to and assist each other in their efforts to learn. It is also important for them to have the sense of common purpose with the others in the class and to feel part of the community of learning. Webcasting has met with very positive response from students who feel valued and can contribute to the classroom discussion regardless of how they access lectures. The webcasting of courses lead to an increased level of student and lecturer interactivity, both during and after the lecture, as evidenced most clearly by students' use of the 'Cover IT Live' system. Such innovations have led to an enhanced student centred environment which again is borne out by feedback received from student in the self-completion questionnaires, with one student commenting on the "practicality and openness of participants to discuss" with another commenting that they found the process "very interactive, even from home". However, the importance of making sure that students watching via webcast are included during questions and answers sessions at the end of lectures was reflected in a number of comments and has led to a general review of the technical arrangements governing the asking of questions from students onsite.
A White Paper by the Carnegie Mellon foundation (2007) highlighted that webcasting improved the student experience in terms of having a variety of study tools available and relieving stress and anxiety about missed lectures when necessary. The option of the 'playback on demand' facility contributed to improved access for students as all webcast recordings were placed in archive mode until the end of the course. Therefore students could learn at a time suitable to their learning needs which also had benefits for revision. The extent to which students perceived webcasted courses as a useful study mechanism was again reflected in comments received in self-completion questionnaires, with one student for example commenting that it was an "excellent facility and allows you to plan your study times at a time to suit you". More generally some students commented in the self-completion questionnaires that the webcasting of courses led to an improved educational experience with one student for example stating that:
"Given that you can download and where possible read the notes first it allows you [to] follow the lecture more closely and understand the content of the lecturer better. Personally I can concentrate better on the subject matter of the lecture from the webcast rather than the lecture theatre."
We were interested in pursuing these findings further. In particular we were interested in ascertaining whether or not students who attended lectures primarily by means of 'live' webcasts performed at least as well as those students who mainly attended the same course by means of onsite lectures. We initially focused on one diploma offering, namely the Diploma in Environmental and Planning Law. In total 61 students completed the course, with final results analysed to compare the results of the different student cohorts. The first aspect of this analysis was to ascertain the various means of accessing lectures and once that was established to compare and contrast the students' final results(5). In relation to each student we had the following data, the number of onsite lectures attended; the number of 'live' webcasts watched; the number of recordings accessed and when such recordings were accessed; and their final results. Of the 61 students, 13 were identified as having predominantly attended onsite lectures, in that they had attended 10 or more onsite lectures. Conversely, 11 were students were identified as predominantly having attended by means of 'live' webcasts in that they had watched 10 or more live lectures. The final results of these contrasting cohorts of students were then analysed, with the average result for onsite students being 54.8% whereas the average result for those who had attended predominantly via live webcasts was 59.2%. From those two cohorts of students there were three students who did not achieve a pass mark, all of which were onsite attendees. Of those students who achieved a grade of 60% or more, three were onsite lecture attendees whereas eight accessed lectures via live webcasts. Therefore, we can conclude that those watching by means of online live webcast did on average at least as well and in-fact many cases better than those attending onsite lectures.
Using the data generated we were also interested in ascertaining how students used the recorded webcasts for revision purposes, which again produced some interesting findings. The course was split into two semesters, with six lectures occurring before a one month Christmas break and seven lectures occurring in the second semester. As per the above, the data was analysed to ascertain which lectures were watched one week after the onsite lecture. On average, 16 students accessed the semester one recorded lectures one week after the onsite lecture, whereas only 8 students on average accessed the second semester recordings. This underlines the importance that the recorded webcasts can play as a means of revision, meaning that the students were free to access 'older' lectures for revision purposes. There was also a strong correlation between those who used the recordings for revision purposes and final grade achieved. For example, those who failed (i.e. less than 50%) accessed on average .77 lectures; those who achieved between 50 and 60% in their final result watched on average 2.33 recorded lectures for revision purposes; whereas those achieving plus 60% in their final result accessed on average 3.36 recorded lectures for revision purposes.
We were also interested in the flexibility that the model provided to students and how the facility was used depending on the students' chosen method of accessing the course. As such we analysed data from a second Diploma, namely the 2012/13 Diploma in In-house Practice. In total there were 31 students on the course, five of whom were identified as frequently having used the recorded lectures for revision purposes in that they accessed the recordings on ten or more occasions. On average, those students who frequently used the recordings for revision purposes were much less likely to have attended either the onsite lecture or live webcast, for example averaging a mere 2.67 onsite lectures or live webcast(6) over the entire course. In contrast, those students who were less likely to have used the recordings for revision purposes, (in that they accessed less than ten such recordings) were much more likely to have attended onsite lectures or live webcasts and had a much higher average attendance rate of 5.23 lectures out of ten. This highlights that those students who were unable (or unwilling) to commit to a specific time of accessing the course could and did turn much more frequently to the recordings for revision purposes. The effectiveness of this method of accessing the course was highlighted by one particular student, who having attended only one lecture was in fact the most prolific user of the recorded lectures for revision purposes and was the second ranked student in the class with a final result of 88%.
All of the participants were new to this type of learning and with a 90% take-up rate for webcasting the findings demonstrate that solicitors are autonomous learners who adapt to new technology and find practical ways to make it more effective for their own learning style. The following responses demonstrate the various methods employed by participants to make effective use of the webcasting. In response to a specific question on the self-completion questionnaire on how they used the webcasting facility for study purposes, students reported the following:
"I printed off the notes beforehand and then made my own notes as I watched, this is what I would do if in attendance also as I find taking my own notes useful at a later time."
"Viewed webcasts for missed lectures and revision"
Furthermore, webcasting also led to a radical shift in the geographical profile of attendees. In the 2008/2009 period for onsite courses, 72% of all attendees were from Dublin. For 2010/2011 period, five courses were webcast and the average number of students on those courses from outside the Dublin area is approximately 50%. Thus, our student profile for webcast courses is now largely representative of the general geographical spread of the profession. For webcast courses, approximately 40 to 50% of students attend onsite, 20 to 30% watch the webcast 'live' and a further 10 to 20% watch a recording within one week of the lecture. Of the 60 student evaluations received on one participant, 65% of students indicated that the availability of the webcast influenced their decision to do the course. In many instances, participation of these students would not have been possible without the webcast facility. The projects success in increasing the accessibility of Diploma Centre's courses for all members of the profession regardless of their location is also evident in comments received from the self-completion questionnaires such as "excellent service……..It ENABLED me to do the course".
The findings confirmed that those watching by means of online live webcast did on average at least as well and in-fact many cases better than those attending onsite lectures. The findings also highlight a strong correlation between the use of the webcasts for revision purposes and final results achieved by the students. In addition, the design proved to be student centred and appropriate for the needs of busy professionals. It led to increased accessibility for practitioners who could attend the courses regardless of location. The existence of the "Cover IT Live" facility provided students with added support and an improved educational experience. The availability of the recorded webcasts for the duration of the course reduced student anxiety in the lead-up to examinations. This was reflected in an approximately 95% attendance rate at final examinations. From the point of view of a member organisation the use of webcasting and technology provides an opportunity to demonstrate that the importance of a learner centred environment.
Other advantages included the continued sustainability of the Diploma Centre in these financially challenging recessionary times and more students are likely to attend from outside Dublin as a result increased value added factor that webcasting provides.
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(1) The Law Society of Ireland is the educational, representative and regulatory body of the solicitors' profession in Ireland and is the professional body for approximately 8,000 solicitor members that hold current practising certificates.
(2) The Diploma Centre is located in the Law Society headquarters in Blackhall Place in central Dublin. There is a concentration of solicitors located in major urban and economic areas, with approximately 50% of all solicitors located in the Dublin area. As such, one would expect a high proportion of our attendees to be Dublin based. However, with courses predominantly being offered onsite in Dublin, overall class profiles reflected an even greater bias towards practitioners in the Dublin catchment area.
(3) Moodle version 1.9.10 is currently in use in the Law Society.
(4) At the start of the course all students attending the course were given an introductory tutorial by the authors introducing Moodle as the central repository for all materials and activities related to the particular webcast course.
(5) The webcast attendance data was available from Moodle's reporting facility as Excel spreadsheets. To perform the relevant analysis of the data, it needed to be input to a database, in this case MySQL was used. For each lecture a list of students and whether or not they attended the lecture, watched it live, watched it later, or used webcasting to revise was created. An Excel spreadsheet was generated for inputting the data before transferring it to MySQL. For each of the thirteen lectures, the Excel spreadsheet was downloaded for the appropriate lecture; lists of students watching live, that week and revising with webcasts were determined by removing duplicate student names within specified timeframes. These lists were transcribed to the intermediate spreadsheet as Boolean lists of 1 or 0. This data was transferred to MySQL via phpMyAdmin's csv import facility. Another table was created with the students' exam results and a further table was created using onsite attendance sheets.
(6) Out of ten such lectures