UK: The Emerging Benefits of W/CBT in Legal Training

Last Updated: 29 January 2003
Article by John Pitman

Web and Computer based training (W/CBT) methods are fast emeging as some of the most useful and important tools available to today’s legal training professionals. The convergence of traditional distance education, computer conveyed education and the latest internet technologies has resulted in an unparralelled wealth of rich media and interaction becoming available to supplement law firm training programmes. By utilising a mixture of CD ROM and internet delivery, training partners are able to offer learner-content interaction in the form of written documents and HTML pages, audio and video presentations, and simple drill and practice exercises such as true/false tests and multiple choice exercises; asynchronous learner-learner or learner-instructor interaction via e-mail and online forums; and even synchronous interaction through real time virtual classrooms and videoconferencing.

Obviously the use of such technologies can, quite literally, free a firm’s training programme from the boundaries of the terrestrial lecture room and from the restrictions of scheduling and timetables. Learners train at a location to suit themselves, no-one need spend time out of the office, learners can control the pace and direction of their own learning, and they can do so at times convenient to them. In addition, the effectiveness of this type of training in skills transfer and retention is well documented. For example, the use of video is particularly beneficial in that it involves more of the senses. Video imparts a message using sight, sound, and emotion with the result that the audience becomes more engaged, and is thus more likely to take notice. The increased rate of retention afforded by video over print is considerable, and indeed a study by the Wharton School of Business has shown that video boosts comprehension and retention by 50% over even a live presentation. Other studies have shown that six times as many people prefer watching a video to reading printed information. If the message is also reinforced through the use of event streamed Powerpoint slides and self assessment testing and is backed up by an electronic performance support (EPS) system offering access to additional materials and expert opinion then the overall learning experience becomes even more powerful.

It is true to say that W/CBT may not always be the best solution to a training problem. Traditional delivery and face-to-face learning have their advantages too, but deploying W/CBT as part of a wider programme of education and training can be both highly effective and inexpensive. However, there still seems to be some resistance to the idea within the legal profession. Undoubtedly, lawyers are a cautious breed and although at the moment, W/CBT is high on the agenda for larger firms there are relatively few who have so far taken the plunge. All seem to agree that the pure economics of W/CBT are not on their own a compelling enough proposition to encourage take up. To training partners, W/CBT courses must offer high quality content coupled with enhanced learning methods and to learners they must represent an attractive alternative to instructor-led courses. Unfortunately, many early attempts at providing W/CBT to the legal profession failed to live up to their potential and it is possible that these early failures have caused training partners to view this type of product with some degree of scepticism. However, the latest offerings may well go a long way towards convincing the sceptics of the true value of this technology.

Obviously, with regard to any form of training, content remains king, but that content must be highly focussed and relevant to the trainee. Generic content unrelated to the needs of the individual or the organisation has very little value. Today’s W/CBT suppliers have recognised that the overriding need is for legal training to be relevant and useful for the business needs of the firm - if it is not then lawyers will simply revert to traditional methods. In this respect though the immediacy of W/CBT offers a clear advantage, both in its response to the needs of the learner and reaction time to change. This has particular ramifications for CPD courses, where the information can reflect the most recent developments. By way of illustration, The Legal Practitioner service, Semple Piggot Rochez’ new W/CBT service aimed at providing CPD to smaller law firms, combines a series of video presentations delivered on CD ROM with a supplementary online service providing interim updating material on a daily basis in order that learners can be sure of having the very latest information at their fingertips at all times.

There are times too, when training is required as the need arises or ‘just in time’. Here it is the immediacy of W/CBT which is of prime importance. EPS systems can provide problem specific training and support whenever it is necessary, with learners able to dip into centralised ‘know-how’ databases, make direct contact with subject matter experts or mentors, or participate in specialised listservs or weblogs. For large firms the delivery of learning that is not only timely but also targeted is of paramount importance. They have specific, highly specialised needs which any successful training programme must address. The deployment of in-house expertise is an uneconomic option and training providers can also prove costly. In-house EPS systems, however, can be customised to cater for the exact needs of the company.

Turning to the actual methods of learning online, it is clear that interactivity is the key here. Although it is accepted that in W/CBT there are many oportunities for learner-content interaction, it is commonly perceived that it is the interactivity with other people that learners miss out on. Distance learning in the past has always seemed impersonal and isolated. W/CBT though, need be neither impersonal nor isolated. The careful use of asynchronous communication and collaboration via online forums or e-mail will enable distributed learners and instructors to communicate fully and freely with the additional benefit of being able to contemplate their contributions and reflect upon the contributions of others. Alternatively, a combination of audio or video conferencing, internet relay chat, whiteboards and screen sharing can be used to offer real time ‘virtual tutorials’, a type of interaction that has been implemented to great effect in the Semple Piggot Rochez online LLB and LLM programmes.

What is clearly noticable is the advantage that is to be gained through the blending or blurring of technologies. Web and Computer based training is wholly about effective training. It should no longer be viewed as an end in itself but rather as a collection of instructional technologies which may be combined in greater or lesser degrees to facilitate wider educational goals. The learning experience is vital and can be greatly enhanced by the technology used in its delivery. Training partners are now, more than ever before, able to select a powerful combination of media to deliver learning objectives and provide continuing reinforcement and support. Every learner can be given access to best practice and leading practitioners, the information supplied can be kept completely up to date and comprehensive, and communication and group learning tools can be used to maintain contact and encourage learners to share their own experiences. It was once thought that W/CBT would ‘kill the classroom’. This is certainly not the case – the use of W/CBT will liberate the lecture theatre so that, if required, it can be used for the delivery of highly intense and highly efficient learning experiences to close knit groups. In these competitive times the most successful firms will be those that learn quickly, continuously and effectively and there is no doubt that one of the keys to this success can be found in the skilful deployment of multimedia and internet technology.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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