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Using the virtual learning environment

This chapter looks at the advantages and possible disadvantages of using virtual learning environments (VLEs). It examines some of the theories of e-learning and how the technology can be most effectively applied. It also sets out the different tools available and their respective contribution to the process of acquiring legal research skills. The evaluation of a VLE course is considered. Digital copyright and how to share learning materials with other institutions are discussed.

Understanding the terminology and thinking about the technology

Key definitions

As Table 7 below shows, there are many definitions of the term VLE and some interpretations are wider than the conventional view.

VLE (virtual learning environment) “A virtual learning environment is a collection of integrated tools enabling the management of online learning, providing a delivery mechanism, student tracking, assessment and access to resources.” (JISC, 2005)
quizzes/tests – CAL (computer assisted learning) Usually taken to mean exercises which are completed and answered online. Sometimes the answers appear after the individual questions, other examples give a score at the end of the completed exercise. Feedback is provided as an on-screen explanation of why a particular answer is incorrect or insufficient, an invitation to try again, and/or a direction to the specific area of the course materials for further study on the particular point in question.
asynchronous communication (discussion boards/bulletin boards) Use of online discussion facilities to conduct a debate on a particular topic, set by the teacher. Students can contribute whenever they happen to sign in, within a defined period of time, typically one or two weeks.
synchronous communication Chat room facility to take the place of a face to face meeting. Contribution is properly speaking in real time between two or more students online at the same time.
learning/knowledge objects “Knowledge objects are discrete items that can be integrated into lessons – for example a text, graphic, audio, video, or interactive file. Learning objects are more highly developed, consisting of discrete lessons, learning units or courses.” (Anderson & Elloumi, 2004)
multimedia tutorial Electronic format which includes some or all of the following – video clips, webcasts, audio presentation.

Table 7: key definitions relating to virtual learning environments

Some general words of advice

It is important when embarking on VLE design not to work in isolation. Hopefully yours will not be the first successful use of VLE technology within your institution.

  • find out before you start what policies and strategies already exist for designing, delivering and evaluating
  • is there a partnership between academics, IT, library, and educationalists already existing (you may need to look outside the law faculty for this)?
  • has the VLE been used in the delivery of other modules within the law course?
  • consider what you know about e-learning – much of the pedagogy which underlies successful e-learning can also be applied to VLE use
  • think about your learning objectives before the content, otherwise you must ask yourself the question: why use a VLE at all?

It may be that not all the elements of the VLE are appropriate for the outcomes you have identified. Use of the technology just for the sake of it will be easily apparent to students, leading to a failure to participate. It will also tend to alienate academic staff as well.

Before you start to write your multimedia tutorial or online quiz make sure you have taken account of all the legal aspects (copyright, disability compliance, quality assurance standards). Also look for any rules for internal compatibility and plan for UK interoperability standards, such as SCORM (Shareable Courseware Object Reference Model) and the UK Learning Object Metadata Core (UK LOM Core). If this sounds daunting, be encouraged by Jane Secker’s assertion (Secker, 2004) that “most of these terms are really just long words for very simple concepts…if you can learn the Dewey Decimal Classification and MARC then you are well on your way!” Ensuring that your learning objects conform to these standards means that they can be used with another VLE other than the one you are working on. If you need to make a business case for spending time on development, the potential to sell on your legal research tutorial could be valuable.

Do not underestimate the time it will take to develop some of the elements and do not expect, necessarily, to get it right first time out. Although the most time consuming work is undoubtedly the initial development, experienced practitioners in this field estimate that an online tutorial will last only as long as the delivery time of the module itself. In other words, you will always need to update not just the law but the design. Student feedback is invaluable, as is a review of the pedagogic outcomes, and both of these should be planned for at the start.

If you have never undertaken any VLE or e-learning yourself it can be very instructional to enrol on a course if the opportunity exists. It is much easier to understand how students will react to the legal research module by seeing what it is like to be on the receiving end. Consider using asynchronous communication tools (online discussion facilities) for library staff discussions and ensure that you are ‘enrolled’ on any law courses in your institutions which are already using the VLE.

If you are in a pioneering position – nobody else has made serious use of the VLE beyond the basic ‘document deposit’ – then look for other enthusiasts, get the support of someone on the teaching faculty and publish an online tutorial on your VLE as a first step. You will not, however, be able to do this indefinitely, and sooner or later will need senior level support. Students will only undertake a very limited amount of optional work. If your legal research module is to be a serious asset to the law department it will need to be formally integrated into the rest of the course. However, if you do succeed in this you will very quickly be recognised as a champion of VLE throughout your institution and consequently be in much demand!

Functions and features of different VLEs

Of the proprietary VLE systems on the market, there are a few which currently dominate – Learnwise, LotusNotes, Blackboard and WebCT. For consistency we have used WebCT terminology throughout. Some institutions run more than one VLE (in which case usually Blackboard and WebCT). In any case, you will need to know which functions they offer, as these differ slightly between the two. This information should be readily available to you internally, but if yours is the first application of the technology there are various useful websites which outline the features clearly (see Chapter 9, Further Reading).

Differences between VLEs and other forms of e-learning

One of the most significant differences between an interactive CD-ROM module and VLE delivery is the added element of communication:

  • tutors communicate with individual students or a group of students
  • students communicate in a virtual classroom (chat rooms/synchronous) or in online group work over a period of time (discussion boards/asynchronous) or with their tutors (e-mail)

All participants should be able to feel that they are studying as part of a group, not working in isolation and without support.

Another important difference is the ability with VLEs to track the progress of an individual student or to see how the understanding of a group of students is developing. The Law Society is keen to see how much use students make of e-learning, and apart from quizzes being completed and submitted for marking the standalone CD has no tracking functionality.

Common features of VLEs

  • ‘quizzes’/ tests – CAL (computer assisted learning) – unlike the CD-ROM standalone version, using a VLE enables the teacher to link to the institute’s moderating system for grades/marks to be officially accumulated. Typically, a quiz will be used to find out how much of a large group session (lecture or online tutorial) a student has understood. A decision needs to be taken whether to restrict students to a single attempt, a small number of attempts or unlimited practice.
  • asynchronous communication (discussion boards/bulletin boards) – the discussion is private to the group which has been predefined (often the small group which students are enrolled in for the duration of their course.) There are various methods by which contribution can be assessed (see below).
  • synchronous communication – chat room facility to take the place of a face to face meeting. Contribution is, properly speaking, in real time between two or more students online at the same time. The debate may resume at any time, but this form of communication tends to be less formal and non-assessed.
  • learning/knowledge objects – a knowledge object might be a video clip from a speech. It could become a learning object by adding a lesson to the video clip. The learning object can be catalogued so that it may subsequently be retrieved and repurposed in different contexts.
  • multimedia tutorials – links to relevant databases or other information resources are usually included. A section of the primary text may appear on the screen alongside a webcast – for example a section of an Act. These are not by themselves VLE delivery, only if they are accessible over the Web. Otherwise they are used as standalone CDs.

Summary of models of e-learning and teaching

Just as there are different recognised preferences in learning styles, so there is more than one approach to e-learning and teaching:

  • student centred learning
  • blended learning
  • social learning

Student centred learning

Beyond involving students teaching themselves, this method aims to approach learning tasks from the standpoint of the student and with definite outcomes in mind. E-learning serves this aim by providing a variety of tasks to undertake and by allowing students to repeat elements at their own pace and as often as they need.

There is evidence that the most effective arrangement of the different elements is “show – tell – do” (Maharg, 2003). Another way of describing this, as expressed by Galison (Fahy, 2004), is “moving from declarative knowledge (knowing something is true/theoretical knowledge), through procedural knowledge (knowing how an activity is performed) to craft knowledge” (being able to perform a procedure/use knowledge with expert proficiency). To give an example of this:

  • present an example of a report for a client or principal based on a trainee’s legal research findings (SHOW)
  • explain how the research was conducted via keywords, using quality legal information sources and correct updating procedures (TELL)
  • set a research task for the students to do themselves (DO)

This practice is found in face to face learning, but applying this rule to VLE teaching has the added benefit of independence of time and space and, perhaps more significantly, the possibility for instant feedback.

Blended learning

Since the pioneering days of e-learning and subsequent research into its effectiveness it has become recognised that virtual classrooms on their own are not a sufficient substitute for small group and one to one teaching. Blended learning is generally understood to mean a mixture of self led, on-screen activities and live seminars or workshops. (At the Glasgow Graduate School of Law multimedia tutorials have replaced all large lecture sessions, but the staff resource thus freed up has been re-deployed to offer additional ‘clinic’ sessions to students).

In particular, undertaking quizzes to confirm that they understand a point of law before discussing it in a group encourages students to come effectively prepared for active contribution. Evidence from focus groups is that undergraduate and graduate students (as opposed to post-research students or those already qualified in another profession) are reluctant to take on the whole responsibility for their own learning. Face to face tuition enables them to share this with a tutor.

Social learning

As discussed in chapter 2, students need to do some of their learning as a group. Concepts are more easily explored by discussing with others, and even the least competitive will feel more secure if they can measure their knowledge and understanding against that of the rest of the group. Distance learning students will often be apprehensive about attending their first study day: “Will the other students be much cleverer than I am?” “Will I make a fool of myself if I ask a question?” However, they also look forward to meeting their fellow students and are likely to cite this as one of the chief benefits of the day.

Electronic bulletin boards work well if they are used to build on this meeting, but if the participants have never met face to face it can be a barrier to participation. “You can’t join forces with somebody you don’t know, haven’t met, haven’t had coffee with” (Herman, 2004). There are exceptions, such as the Law in a Box service, originally produced by Semple Piggot Rochez to support their online LLB programme. Arguably, students on purely distance courses have made a decision to forgo the element of social learning for reasons relating to their personal circumstances.

In addition to interacting with other students, there is also the need to meet the teacher. Research in the United States (Gilliver et al, 1998) has found that it is important for tutors to show that they are interested in and capable of motivating learners. The tutor who sets the discussion task should ‘appear’ early on in the online discussion. ‘Presence’ establishes that this is like being in class, that there is a wise guide and an official purpose. The worth of the exercise is established from the outset. Terry Anderson of Athabasca University, Canada, has constructed a model illustrating how teacher and student interact with each other and with content in the specific context of online learning:

Model illustrating the two major modes of online learning
Reproduced from Anderson T and Elloumi F (eds) (2004) Theory and practice of online learning Athabasca, AB: Athabasca University (Copyright Creative Commons)

Different styles of learning

In addition to the different models of teaching, students’ preferred ways of learning can also be broadly categorised into different types. Honey and Mumford identified these as activist, reflector, theorist and pragmatist. What follows is paraphrased from an HBC article by Helen Bouchami (Bouchami, 2002) and a similar interpretation on the All Ways Learning website:

  • activist – learns by doing; activists like to learn by experience and are keen to have a go at something in order to improve their knowledge
  • reflector – learns by observing and thinking; reflectors prefer to gather views and information from several sources and consider carefully before coming to any conclusions
  • theorist – learns by constructing theories; theorists think problems through logically, step by step, then organise their conclusions into a theory
  • pragmatist – learns by trying out ideas; pragmatists tend to take what they know and try it out in new situations

Different types of tasks will suit these differences in learning styles – see Table 8 below.

Learning Style: Learns By: Responds To:
Activist doing, hands on  
  • practical questions
  • searching catalogue
  • locating books on reading list
  • problem solving
Reflector thinking about task in hand  
  • reading content modules
  • posting comments on bulletin boards
  • module handouts
  • thinking tasks through
  • background reading
  • observing demonstrations or worked examples
Theorist understanding clear objectives and background information  
  • aims and objectives
  • bullet points
  • summaries of information
  • handouts
  • introduction sections
  • clear structure
  • forum for questions
Pragmatist proven techniques and practical examples  
  • quick start search guides
  • worked through examples
  • practical tasks and using skills

Table 8: learning styles

Use of multimedia in e-learning

Certain principles have been put forward by Mayer (Fahy, 2004) regarding effective use of multimedia. Briefly they relate to:

  • combination of words and graphics
  • relative positioning on the page
  • value of using the spoken word over text
  • human limitations when processing multimedia information

Mayer’s seven principles governing effective use of multimedia

(Reproduced from Anderson T and Elloumi F (eds) (2004) Theory and practice of online learning Athabasca, AB: Athabasca University (Copyright Creative Commons)

NB Page references are to the original publication by R Mayer (2001) Multimedia learning New York: Cambridge University Press)

  1. Multimedia principle – students learn better from words and graphics or pictures than from words alone (p68).
  2. Spatial contiguity principle – students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.
  3. Temporal contiguity principle – students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively.
  4. Coherence principle – students learn better when extraneous words, pictures, and sounds are excluded rather than included (p117).
  5. Modality principle – students learn better from animation and audible narration than from animation and on-screen text (p135).
  6. Redundancy principle – people have only limited capacity to process visual and auditory material presented simultaneously (p152); therefore, students learn better from animation and narration than from a combination of animation, generation, and on-screen text (p153).
  7. Individual differences principle – design effects are stronger for low knowledge learners than for high knowledge learners, and for high spatial ability learners than for low spatial ability learners (p184). (Spatial ability is the ability mentally to generate, maintain, and manipulate visual images, see p172.)

When designing multimedia units for e-learning (ie a replacement for face to face teaching, rather than an additional classroom aid) these principles, based on Mayer’s own ongoing research, are important to take note of.

Advantages and disadvantages of using VLEs for teaching and training



The accessibility of the course is improved for students with special needs, and for distance learning and part time students. It can also make a difference to students in any category who learn best by being able to watch a video, or by interacting in a virtual environment instead of in the classroom, or by repeating their learning process at their own pace.

Diversity issues include:

  • range of learning preferences
  • range of abilities
  • revision function (at your own pace)
  • availability of the course outside office hours (students in paid employment/caring for children or other dependants)

Disability/special needs issues include:

  • available in variety of formats/customisable
  • no need to take notes (NB auditory impairment will require script or subtitles for video elements)
  • available outside office hours (disabled students may need the assistance of a carer who works during the day)
  • electronic communication is particularly assistive for profoundly deaf students


There is much evidence to show that students benefit from actively engaging with their course (Anderson and Elloumi, 2004). More specifically, the advantages relate to feedback, practice and customisation.

Instant feedback:

  • progress
  • no time lag between completion and marking
  • correcting straight away


  • ‘doing’ aids learning
  • self directed
  • self paced


  • personalised study area


This is the element that marks out the VLE from other forms of e-learning and helps the student to feel part of a learning community. The areas in which this is most effective are assessment, bulletin boards, ad hoc instructions and ‘stop press’ items, and the facility to extend the module beyond the first few induction weeks of the first term. In detail:

Summative assessment:

  • makes the legal research tutorial an integral part of the course
  • creates a dynamic (changing) student profile
  • makes the activities compulsory
  • provides students with the all important ‘pay back’

Bulletin boards:

  • can be used as a forum for evaluating sources
  • provide opportunities for staff to support distance learners
  • contribute to the overall learning outcome, ie group work which counts
  • offer improvement over e-mail in terms of threaded discussions

Instructions, updates, alerts, current awareness:

  • add immediacy and dynamism
  • indicate the presence of the teacher

Continuum planning consisting of:

  1. Further modules after first term induction.
  2. Practice and revision throughout the course.
  3. A structured programme.

All three are underpinned by seamless integration of resources and multimedia functionality.

Seamless integration: practical advantages:

  • allows uninterrupted learning (the student does not have to break off to fetch a book or look for a password)
  • book is never ‘off the shelf’ (being used by another reader, sent for binding, missing or mis-shelved)

Seamless integration: academic advantages:

  • ensures the correct source is used
  • minimises the risk of plagiarism as a result of a PC being logged in and left unattended
  • encourages concentrated working
  • allows students to select sources (using JustCite™), promoting awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of different databases
  • allows ‘push’ technology for selected databases selected
  • promotes use of free quality Web services (BAILII, HMSO, EUR-Lex)
  • can incorporate digitised collection of off-prints
  • highlights and utilises electronic versions of practitioner works

Multimedia functionality:

  • provides dynamism
  • facilitates delivery to many by a few
  • allows repeat/slow speed facility
  • allows pictorial representation
  • can be used to teach legal research in hard copy reference books where it is important to recognise the various component parts (cf the Iolis CD-ROM workbook on Using a law library)


  • difficult to change/update (unless you have an accompanying content management system)
  • requires access to PC
  • hard to take account of whatever hardware the students have to work with off-campus
  • webcasts received over the Web require a fast modem and/or considerable bandwidth (may prefer to issue these tutorials as CDs or offer them as an alternative)
  • e-learning itself is not yet in line with established study patterns (for example, bulletin boards are unfamiliar as a way of learning)
  • more difficult to ‘sell on’ any part of a VLE course unless it is SCORM compliant
  • less opportunity for independent searching and serendipity
  • reduces face to face contact

When to use a VLE

The key to creating a successful VLE module is to identify a clear need for legal research training to be delivered online. If no clear need for change in current teaching practice or improved learning outcomes exists, effectiveness of an online course will be limited.

Legal research training materials can be delivered online in a number of ways:

  1. Design a complete online tutorial to replace elements of traditional legal research classroom teaching.
  2. Create small sections of content to embed into existing online tutorials already delivered by the law department.
  3. Approach academic staff to link a resource area in their existing online module. This area could include links to your library website, relevant databases, online reading lists or electronic versions of help sheets or search guides.

If the opportunity to create a complete online tutorial does not exist, options 2 and 3 will involve the law library in your institution’s VLE and may lead the way to the creation of a complete module in the future.

Common reasons for creating online tutorials include:

  • time – since the boom in electronic resources in the mid 1990s law librarians spend an increasing amount of time training students. Often facilities do not exist for large group sessions incorporating practical elements, and therefore the same session must be repeated a number of times. Using VLE technology, physical training hours will be reduced.
  • increase in distance learning, mature and part time students – the changing demography of the student population means an increasing proportion of students must combine work, family life and study. Studying off campus at a time suitable to their personal need will be advantageous.
  • expanding student numbers – many law libraries employ either one librarian or a small team to run the information service. Due to rising student numbers staff skills are in high demand. Online delivery of legal research training will alleviate pressure on staff time.
  • environment – space may be an issue in your institution, and the facilities may not exist to deliver hands-on training to large numbers of students simultaneously. An online course would resolve this issue.

Before creating a virtual course or course materials assess existing teaching materials for their suitability for inclusion in an online course. Adapting existing materials saves time, as you need not ‘reinvent the wheel’.

To help structure and plan your course design, ask yourself the questions set out in Table 9.

Question Example
Who is the module for? What is the experience level of the target audience?
What course are the students taking?
What are the course aim and learning objectives? For example: 
  • to increase awareness of specific subject databases
  • to instruct students on paper-based research
What VLE functions will be used to achieve the aim and objectives?  
  • content modules
  • formal assessment
  • completion of quiz
  • self tests
  • group research activity using VLE discussion technology
Will the module be optional to support class work, or fully embedded into the teaching curriculum?  
  • make contact with relevant academic tutors to raise awareness of module or to discuss how to fully embed the tutorial
If the module is to be part of the curriculum, how will students’ progress with the module be tracked and learning assessed?  
  • release of further module sections after activities completed
  • evaluation of skills using online quiz
Who will be responsible for designing course material? If you are the course designer: 
  • can you accommodate the work load in the time scale?
  • will your daily duties have to be reorganised?
  • has funding been secured for extra time taken by the project?
Does the designated course designer require training in using VLE software?  
  • find out if your organisation runs introductory courses using your VLE
  • VLE software now includes editor functions for developing content pages, therefore advanced hypertext mark up language (HTML) knowledge is not required
  • basic skills in VLE navigation and knowledge of editing functions will help

Table 9: questions to ask when designing a VLE

Points to consider

  • is there a need for an online course?
  • can existing training materials be adapted?
  • who will create the course?
  • does the course designer need training in skills for using VLE technology?


  • estimate the time needed to create the course and materials and to review and evaluate the end product
  • allow extra time for possible slippage
  • check if your institution runs introduction to VLE or design courses
  • join any internal institutional VLE design discussion lists
  • discuss proposals with academic staff
  • talk to other staff members within your institution who have experience of creating modules and materials for best practice guidance
  • if the opportunity exists, participate in an online course yourself to understand the students’ perception of online tutorials. Experience using a variety of VLE tools such as asynchronous communication tools for online discussion.
  • produce a project plan.

Effective material design and development

When designing VLE materials it is important that you do not work in isolation. The key to designing effective online courses and materials is collaboration.

Get support from an academic, programme leader or department head for the project and raise awareness of the project. Enthusiastic academic staff may be willing to help review or advise on appropriate content and ensure that pedagogic considerations are included. Having support and input from the department will help acceptance and integration of the new training tool into the academic programme and raise staff awareness of the project.

Training sessions can often be designed based on what librarians believe individuals should know rather then what the audience needs to know. Where possible, with the approval of the department, research the requirements of your target audience:

  • talk directly to individuals currently receiving legal research training to assess their learning needs
  • discuss target audience needs with academic staff
  • run a skills audit with existing legal research students (skills audits can be conducted via paper-based surveys during class time or using survey function software available in most VLE packages)

Discussing training needs and learning outcomes with staff will ensure the development of tailor made materials which enhance user learning.

Holding regular review meetings with tutors ought to encourage academic staff to promote the resource. It may also help to embed the training technology in teaching modules in the future.

Design tips

These include:

  • divide course materials into clearly defined sections to create a user friendly learning environment
  • include an introductory information section to introduce and summarise the course. Provide details on:
    • course aims and objectives
    • navigating course and sections
    • approximate time taken to complete the tutorial
    • module timetable
    • deadline information for activities (if appropriate)
    • contact details for help and assistance
  • include navigational instructions on each content page
  • create master templates for pages of content, saving time and ensuring a uniform approach to page design; standardise design for page format, icons, font colour and headings ensuring a consistent layout
  • balance pages of content with text, images and space – too much text is time consuming to scroll through and concentration is easily lost
  • no more than two screens of text should be used on any one page
  • link resources, such as your library website, to content pages – new webpages can therefore be accessed directly, without manually loading a second browser window (loading additional browser windows can be confusing for students who may only have basic technology skills)
  • check links to external resources regularly – external links can disappear without warning, causing frustration if resources are inaccessible (regular resources checks can be performed manually or by purchasing link checking software such as Netmechanic)
  • relate materials and activities, such as search strategies and examples, to other subject modules or to current study topics, to retain students’ interest
  • online materials in a VLE must comply with disability access guidelines as a requirement of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 (SENDA) – check your institution for inhouse guidelines on producing accessible Web materials (external bodies such as Netskills run courses in accessible Web design)


  • write specific aim and learning objectives to structure your course and materials
  • review evaluation forms from previous legal research skills training, as they can provide valuable information on content to include
  • check sources such as INFORMs for materials that can be adapted for use in your online course
  • allow time for materials to be proof read and tested – reviewing online materials and gathering feedback from academics, students and library staff will increase effectiveness of the end product and enhance collaborative relations between librarian and department
  • technology and software for VLEs are continually developing – each online module must be reviewed after use and and any necessary adjustments and improvements made before the next course cycle

Effective legal research activities in VLE

Anything that involves a student performing a task is an activity in a VLE. Activities can include:

  • opening documents
  • downloading worksheets
  • accessing Web resources via links in content pages
  • completing self tests
  • participating in online discussions
  • posting questions and answers on a bulletin board
  • taking online quizzes and receiving immediate feedback
  • submitting assignments to the virtual environment

Illustration 14 (RTF file) sets out a number of legal research activities in a VLE devised for students at Manchester Metropolitan University.

If you include activities in your virtual learning environment, ensure they are:

  • interactive – interactivity increases learning and knowledge retention compared with knowledge gained through passive reading or listening
  • relevant – out of context activities leave users feeling frustrated and negative about the virtual learning experience

Different VLE software packages generally include the following activity tools (for full definitions of each tool see the earlier key definitions section):

  • content module – basic document pages for text, images, audio or video clips, graphs, charts and diagrams
  • communication – bulletin boards, asynchronous discussion technology for online chat, calendar, whiteboard and e-mail
  • assessment – self tests, online quizzes (automatically marked and with immediate feedback to students) and assignment upload facilities
  • student area – virtual space for individuals or groups to conduct joint project work (functions in this area vary depending on the VLE software – most allow creation of homepages to list current projects and link to websites; tools for taking notes online whilst studying a virtual course also exist)
  • other activity technology – embedding links to be opened on content pages and linking to interactive tutorial technology such as INFORMs

Using a combination of relevant activities will make the material appeal to the four learning styles (activist, reflector, theorist and pragmatist):

  1. Groups of individuals are easily alienated from training sessions, as trainers often design material and activities which appeal to their own personal learning style. Table 10 below lists appropriate activities for individual learning styles which can be included to create an effective legal research learning environment for all personal learning styles. A balance between materials and activities for all styles can be hard to achieve in traditional teaching environments; using a virtual classroom, however, means a range of resources and activities can be incorporated into one training package, appealing to all learning styles (see Table 8 above).
  2. Balancing reading text online with interactive activities can help motivation and improve learning.
  3. Consider each of the four different individual learning styles when creating materials.
Activity Example
Self Test  
  • students asked to compare two websites for authority and answer self test questions to assess own learning
  • log on to databases and locate materials; self test function used as prelim assessment before formative quiz; tutorials and quiz must be re-sat if appropriate score not achieved
  • 15 question quiz of short and multiple choice answers to assess knowledge gained through undertaking module
  • downloaded workbook to be completed using legal paper resources, submit answers online via multiple choice quiz
  • Legal Practice Course (LPC) students download Practical Legal Research formal assessment from VLE, complete assignment and submit online
Online Discussion  
  • chat room software used to run virtual office enquiry sessions to enable course participants to contact the law librarian for assistance
Discussion Board/Bulletin Board  
  • Bar Vocational Course (BVC) students post Practical Legal Research module queries onto WebCT for tutors and/or the librarian to respond
Video Clip  
  • short introductory video into paper-based legal research
Audio Clip  
  • navigation information for location of legal materials in the library
Web Links  
  • follow Web links to external resources such as Intute: Law, locate information
  • answer questions in content module using radio button questions to gain instant feedback
Interactive Tutorials  
  • use INFORMs technology to create interactive live tutorials on accessing and navigating legal databases

Table 10: Examples of legal based VLE activities

Points to consider

  • ensure that online courses include content pages of text to communicate relevant information
  • relevant examples and activities must be included to illustrate points
  • using a variety of activity functions will enhance the effectiveness of the VLE as a teaching tool
  • activities must be accompanied by clear instructions and guidelines
  • use a combination of activities to achieve learning objectives – this will appeal to all personal learning styles, enhancing individual learning capability
  • do not include an activity solely to make use of a VLE function
  • discussion software, such as chat room technology, may not be appropriate for legal research training

Effective delivery of a virtual course

The success of delivery of a virtual legal research methods course is subject to three factors:

  1. Introducing students to the module.
  2. Creating effective support mechanisms.
  3. Avoiding pitfalls which cause frustration.

Introducing students to the module

The methods used to introduce students to a virtual tutorial will depend on the size of your group and whether the tutorial is embedded in an academic module:

  • for online courses not running as part of a teaching course, consider undertaking a marketing campaign to promote the tutorial. Example marketing techniques are:
  • * promoting the module via introductory lectures, course committees, and student liaison groups
    • displaying posters on notice boards
    • sending an all student e-mail with details of the service
    • linking the module to the library website with details of guest password access
    • issuing flyers with access instructions at library help points
  • for online tutorials running as part of an academic module with a large student cohort, run an introductory demonstration. These lectures can take place independently, as part of the normal academic course, or in the last few minutes of a timetable lecture. It is helpful if the academic is present, as this highlights the importance of the tutorial to students.
  • if facilities exist, and it is practicable, run computer drop-in sessions for smaller groups. Introduce students to the VLE, giving them the opportunity to start the module, working through with staff present to assist with any queries.
  • a legal research tutorial may be the first encounter many students have with a VLE, especially if this is the first course of its kind within your institution. Show how to access the module, navigate the course whilst pointing out key features and advise students of the timetable. If students are expected to participate in online discussion or post bulletins on discussion boards you should discuss VLE written communication etiquette.

Practical sessions can be useful to solve access, technical or password problems. Students often feel more comfortable asking questions in a face to face setting than seeking help remotely. Participants can experience frustration if they have access problems once they are away from the institution. Practical sessions ensure that students have a ‘kick start’ with the module.

Always provide students with supporting handouts detailing:

  • course aim and objectives
  • activity timetable
  • deadlines
  • getting assistance
  • screen shots of access pages and activities
  • details of any additional software that may be needed, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader©, and details of where to obtain software if necessary
  • include a troubleshooting section and solutions – for example, some VLE functions are affected by anti-Internet popup box software; if this software is enabled, quiz and assignment pages may not load

Effective support mechanisms

  • Run drop-in sessions – practical drop in sessions help resolve course access or navigation queries. Sessions should be student focused, not tutor led. Students should have the opportunity to ask questions and have guaranteed access to computer facilities. For standalone legal research tutorials not embedded in courses, advertising drop in sessions will promote the resource.
  • Inform library helpdesk staff that the module is running – staff may get asked VLE related questions and need to know where to direct students for further help. If appropriate, train helpdesk staff in login procedures and basic navigation.
  • Inform academic staff of module progress and deadlines – aAcademics are the best vehicle for promoting an online course to students. Encouragement and endorsement from academic staff will emphasis the module’s importance.
  • Run a ‘virtual office’ using discussion room VLE technology or set up a discussion bulletin board where queries can be posted. This is useful for part time or distance learning students who may not be able to come to campus for guidance. If you are running a virtual office or drop in session, check timetables to avoid clashes with teaching sessions.
  • Send a reminder e-mail to participants near deadlines, reminding them to complete tasks and activities.
  • Set interim deadlines – deadlines encourage students to complete the module. Set a date, for example, by which all users must have logged on to the course. This ensures that all password and access problems have been resolved way before the final deadline and students are encouraged to complete the course early in the timetable.
  • Stagger release of module sections – this is useful if a course is large and embedded into the teaching programme. Students will not feel overwhelmed by the size of an online tutorial if the release of sections is staged. It can be linked to the completion of tasks. This can be a useful tool if the course is compulsory and needs monitoring to ensure all students complete each section.

Avoiding pitfalls

You need to be prepared for students not to use your online tutorial. This can often be the case if a module is optional. Although the resources contained in it are informative and useful, students often cite lack of time and pressure from compulsory assignments as reasons for not using additional resources to improve their skills.

The best way to promote a skills module is through enthusiastic academic staff raising the profile of the course with students. If it is not possible to connect your online course to a teaching module within the department, promote the course to students during your teaching sessions, at help points and through marketing within the department or library.

A common complaint from students studying online legal research tutorials as part of an academic module is that the course does not contribute towards their final module mark. Students feel frustrated that time has been taken away from studying for formal assignments. This can cause negativity, demotivation and non-completion of the tutorial. If the law school agrees, the most successful way to motivate students is to connect the module and activities to the release of coursework.

Ways of connecting legal research tutorials to coursework include:

  • linking completion of an online quiz to the release of formal assessment details
  • linking successful submission of an assessment online to automatic release of the next classroom based tutorial discussion paper
  • protecting areas such as quizzes or assignments with passwords – set VLE software to release the password to students who have completed a previous task or achieved an acceptable grade for an activity
  • requiring students to download quiz submission and feedback from the VLE to submit as part of a work portfolio


  • send a welcome e-mail to students to remind them to complete the module, test login procedures and confirm deadlines
  • this demonstrates that you are approachable and gives students a reference point in case help is needed (Smith & Rose, 2003)
  • create guest passwords to access the course. If participants experience access problems, guest IDs can be issued whilst access issues are resolved. This will lessen the frustration felt by users if problems occur with technology. This works well for online modules released at the start an academic year, should delays in network or VLE password allocation be experienced.
  • if a VLE course includes questions related to Web resources or legal databases, either in self tests or via quizzes, the answers may alter when resources are updated, so regularly check that answers are still valid. Answers automatically marked as incorrect will cause frustration if participants continually get questions wrong when using the correct methodology.
  • allow students access to the skills module for a full academic year, so that they can refer back to it if necessary
  • ensure accessibility guidelines have been met for visually or mobility impaired students
  • use VLE tracking facilities to monitor student progress and check that deadlines are met; if the module is optional, tracking information can be useful to monitor student take up
  • change access words for any password protected areas regularly – this prevents sharing of passwords between students
  • individuals often over-estimate their ability and skip sections of courses – linking sections together using passwords released after the completion of preliminary tasks will prevent this (Piccolli, Ahmed & Ives, 2001)
  • for an example of a worked course delivery see Table 11 below, a case study of a basic legal information skills course for 160 full time Graduate Diploma in Law students
Activity Delivery Method & Deadline
introduction to module  
  • lecture hall introduction to VLE and key module areas
  • support handouts with screen shots provided
informal drop in sessions in computer lab  
  • run over two hour period at the end of week one
  • opportunity for students to ask questions
  • ensure access to computers to start module
virtual office  
  • not run for full time students – included in part time and distance learning modes of basic legal information skills only
logging on to VLE  
  • by end of week one of module
completion of content modules, self tests, interactive tutorials and compulsory VLE module evaluation form  
  • one month after introduction
submission of the formative quiz using legal databases  
  • quiz only accessible after evaluation form completed and available until a specified date – feedback available immediately
completion of the Additional Legal Subject (ALS) options choice  
  • choice question only released if student scores over 50 per cent in the quiz
completion of the ALS quiz  
  • relevant quiz released to students depending on result of ALS options choice activity -feedback available immediately

Table 11: case study of VLE course delivery

Effective assessment design for a VLE course

There are two assessment methods within a VLE:


  • self tests
  • participating in online discussion
  • posting discussion contributions to a bulletin board

Formative assessments are designed for participants to assess their own learning test results, and are not recorded on the VLE tracking system. Participation in discussion can be adapted to form part of a formal assessment. Students could be asked, for example, to post contributions or participate in online discussion. However, these activities do not give immediate feedback on student performance. Tutor feedback can be provided at a later date and forwarded to a student using the private message function in the VLE e-mail facility.


  • online quiz
  • assessment functions

Summative assessment areas can be used by participants to submit coursework online. Submitting online is helpful for part time or distance learning students, who may find it difficult to visit campus. Tutors can mark the work and post grade information onto the VLE system. The quiz function can also be used for formative assessment.

The different types of quizzes that can be used for both formative and summative assessment are:

  • multiple choice
  • multiple answer
  • select all the statements which support a premise
  • fill in the blanks
  • true/false
  • match words from two different columns
  • ordering – put steps of a task in the correct sequence
  • drag and drop (Note that there may be potential disability (SENDA compliance) issues with drag and drop, to do with the use of a mouse. You may need to think about key stroke alternatives.)

It is important to collaborate with academic departments if your VLE module includes any form of assessment. As discussed earlier, including assessments linked to coursework or the taught module will motivate students to complete the course. The best outcome is for research skills training to be fully embedded into the curriculum design and be assessed equally alongside other academic work.

If an assessment or quiz score is not contributing to a final module qualification, the VLE system can be set to release their practical legal research assignment, course work group details or an options choice form, for example, on completion of the online tasks. Releasing information in this fashion encourages students to complete all online tasks.

Executing assessment

With large groups, summative assessment using online quizzes can be problematic. Students completing the assessment remotely may collaborate and share information. Test results will therefore not provide an accurate picture of student learning.

Where the results of an online quiz are to contribute to a student’s final module mark, and if facilities exist, use computer rooms to run a test session. Enforcing examination conditions ensures all participants complete the test at the same time and venue, thus reducing collaboration. This does, however, defeat the main benefits of VLE technology, as virtual activities are designed to be flexible, completed at any time or place.

Coventry University experienced problems using quiz software for formal assessment due to large student numbers. Students conferred whilst completing their formal assessment quiz off campus. As a result, exam conditions were put in place in computer rooms and a number of formal assessment sessions were run. The quiz itself was password protected, and when each examination had begun, the password was changed so students outside the room could not access the quiz early. Coventry University also set up a bank of questions for each quiz, so that random questions on similar themes were delivered to individual students and students sitting next to each other did not receive the same questions. This can be time consuming to set up, but effective if the quiz function is being used for formal assessment (Patalong, 2003).

It is also possible to allow students either a single or a number of attempts to complete their online assessment activities. Given more then one chance, for example, individuals can take responsibility for their own learning, repeating sections of the course and quiz to improve their knowledge and score.

  • single attempt – allows tutors/subject heads to gauge the effectiveness of the large group session
  • two attempts – suits the learning outcome if a skill is being taught, while minimising the random effect of guessing or students ‘sharing’ answers
  • unlimited attempts – more suited to an additional practice facility not linked to summative assessment


  • carry out assessment of student progress in order to monitor skills levels and the effectiveness of a VLE module as a learning tool; self assessment in an online course allows participants to monitor their own progress as independent learners
  • work closely with the department if formal assessment is included
  • formulate strategies to minimise conferring
  • if writing informal quizzes, liaise with academic staff to ensure that questions test skills at an appropriate level
  • limit questions in an online quiz to between 12 and 15, as long quizzes can be demotivating; if more questions are needed, create two or more quizzes
  • set up an evaluation survey using quiz technology to assess the success of each module – student feedback can help improve your module each year
  • as part of any quiz instructions, inform students that the VLE technology will only recognise quiz answers as correct if they are typed exactly as inputted by the quiz author.; student frustration will be reduced if they are able to assume that a question is correct even if answers are spelt incorrectly or use of the wrong case has marked answers incorrectly
  • test scores and course assignments are essential to assess effectiveness of the course content

Course evaluation

Obtaining feedback on your online course from students is essential. It is important to remember that you will not get your VLE tutorial perfectly right the first time you deliver it to students. Feedback will help you develop and improve your module each year. Positive feedback can be used to further promote your module to academic staff.

Some ways to evaluate your course are:

  • include an online evaluation form in your module – if possible make the form compulsory; this can be done by linking the completion of an evaluation form to the progression to a quiz coursework section or the release of another module section
  • face to face – ask academic tutors to leave time at the end of a lecture for students to complete a paper evaluation form

E-mailing an evaluation form to students is possible. However, compulsory, online forms and paper forms filled out in face to face situations are the most effective ways to guarantee module evaluation – see illustration 15 (RTF file) for an example of a questionnaire for a survey of student VLE usage.

Students often comment positively on the following areas, which should be kept in mind when designing materials:

  • clear instructions
  • accessibility
  • user friendliness
  • easy navigation
  • concise
  • self test questions
  • interactivity
  • ability to practise
  • accessible from off campus
  • clarity of explanation

Comments that aid course development

Constructive comments allow you to develop your online module to meet student needs effectively. Actual feedback comments that have led to changes in VLE course layout and design include the length of a tutorial being too long. The time taken for courses to be completed can be shortened by reviewing course content, removing repetition and condensing information.
Remember that there will always be some negative comments, as you will never create a course which suits everyone. There may be comments from frustrated students who experienced technology failure or problems with their home computers, which are beyond the course designer’s control.

Implications for tutors, library and IT staff


As stated at the beginning of this chapter, tutors, library staff (both subject librarian and more general library staff) and IT personnel need to work as a team to produce successful courses in a VLE. No one role has all the necessary expertise and “specific skills are needed to develop learning materials within a VLE. An understanding of the learning process and of how teaching materials used in workshops need to be translated into true learning materials is essential for the success of the module” (Bent & Purcell, 2004). Moreover, courses developed in isolation are less likely to have the support and recognition necessary from the top.

Technical support

The extent to which your IT department is involved depends very much on the structures and roles within your particular institution. If you have access to a learning technologist your task will be a great deal easier. If not, you may be working with a specialist inside the library department.

As was found with the LiLo project (LibLearn Online – project delivering training on Blackboard to library staff), “specific technical skills for seemingly simple things like creating a banner for the module, also needed to be developed, or more often, help sought from more able colleagues” (Bent & Purcell, 2004). At the very least there may be support implications for your IT department, especially as the initial legal research training is likely to be very soon after the students arrive and while they are still relatively new to your network. How much support is traditionally given to students working from home? Is there a single helpdesk through which all information enquiries are fed or are there separate routes for ‘IT’ and ‘Library’, and possibly a further administrator for your VLE?

If you are intending to use multimedia this can be done very informally by using library staff and a digital camcorder. (A good example of this is described in a paper by Claire Tylee (Tylee, 2005) on a project carried out at the University of the West of England.) This approach has the advantage that it is one less department to work with and therefore allows for more flexibility. On the other hand, it could be more time consuming, and if there is a multimedia production team available (with a suitable time slot in their schedule) their experience could make a valuable contribution.

Time frame

A realistic time frame for development should be agreed in advance with all members of the team, some of whom will have differing time constraints external to the project. With specific regard to legal research, it is also advisable to liaise with the key legal publishers to find out if any important changes to either content or platform are on the horizon. However, if you have a ‘window of opportunity’ to contribute to the overall course design it may be better not to wait. If your first attempt is successful in terms of student acceptance and learning outcomes you are likely to be asked to work on a second edition for the following year.

It is almost impossible to be prescriptive on the amount of staff time it will take to develop a legal research training module – it depends on the complexity of what you intend to produce, the level of expertise and experience available and the extent of existing materials which can be adapted or ‘re-purposed’. However, there are some examples on which to base a rough estimate:

  • an online legal tutorial developed at the University of the West of England used six months x 0.5 of a dedicated technician’s time
  • at another institution the standard time for the completed production of a multimedia tutorial is 11.5 working days’ this however assumes a dedicated professional film crew, experienced media developers and a team of expert writers – the content development aspect of a legal research multimedia tutorial (writing the story boards and filming the webcast) is estimated to take 6.5 working days

If you are intending to integrate quizzes into the assessment system, consult the relevant course or module leader at the earliest stage for consent and adhere to the assessment regulations of your institution.

Points to consider

  • materials/learning objects/methodology/technical framework/software should be re-usable
  • continuity needs to be planned into the project (in case key personnel leave)
  • wireless technology may have an impact in the near future
  • academic staff may need to ‘start again’ with their approach to the subject
  • dividing lines – who does what? – are not always clear
  • several revisions are likely – do not expect to get it right first time

Digital copyright

Managing digital rights

Digital copyright is in some ways easier to manage than hard copy, since you are almost certain to be seeking permission for any third party materials you use, possibly direct from the copyright holders. Notable exceptions are Crown Copyright documents and European documents from sites such as EUR-Lex, for which the permission is clearly laid out on the relevant websites.

All copyright materials used should either have a link to a permission statement, or an indication that this has been reproduced with kind permission of the publisher somewhere in the document. The HERON (Higher Education Resources ON demand) service will do this for you.

The conditions under which the documents will be reproduced and the number of users will form part of the agreement in advance, and it is good advice to anticipate future growth in students numbers and courses so that frequent re-negotiations are avoided.

It is also important to know whether your multimedia tutorial in legal research will eventually be offered for sale, as even the ‘free to reproduce’ materials will require a licence for commercial use.

Here are some of the more detailed points to bear in mind in relation to copyright:

  • Get agreement at managerial level that copyright checks are part of the protocol for producing VLE courses (unless a specific guardian of copyright, other than yourself, exists within your institution with a mandate to take care of this). All staff should be instructed to co-operate. If you find yourself policing copyright for more than just the VLE course you have developed this can be very helpful for other course designers, but bear in mind that for you it can be a very time consuming task. Aim to establish procedures for staff to follow for themselves. Create a template for staff to submit (preferably direct to copyright owner/website owner) – see illustration 16 (RTF file) for an example.
  • Keep a log of all permissions. For example, set up a table summarising date, who obtained from, any terms and conditions, duration of the permission, any specified acknowledgement wording – cut and paste relevant e-mails. Update regularly and circulate to course designers, programme heads, learning technology/print and design unit. This:
    • provides for a legal audit of permissions
    • minimises duplication
    • allows for easy extension of permission
    • records evidence which will persist beyond the individuals who sought and granted the permission

Alternatives to individual permission agreements

Here is a selection:

  • higher and further education institutions can make use of the HERON (Higher Education Resources ON demand) service
  • see also the Copyright Licensing Agency’s Higher Education Digital Licensing Scheme, similar to the old CLARCs clearance scheme for hard copy photocopying – there is no fee to join, but once signed up an institution can broker their digital copyright requests (either relating to scanned copies of paper or born digital versions) via the Agency. A price is obtained, and if you agree to the fee the transaction proceeds. Some publishers (for example OUP) will only deal with educational copyright in this way.
  • there is a digital licence similar to the paper Copyright Licensing Agency licence for further education institutions, but it is estimated that the corresponding licence for higher education institutions will not be available until at least 2006
  • you may be able to obtain a blanket permission to include materials in your VLE from the providers of the legal databases which you subscribe to – it is in their interest to promote their databases directly to students, but they will want guarantees of attribution and reassurance of security measures to exclude students from outside your institution or from groups not covered by your subscription

Further tips:

  • include permission to reproduce in the VLE when negotiating contracts with database providers
  • use price rises to negotiate for the right to include in VLE courses

Newspaper articles and images

Check whether your institution has a licence from the Newspaper Licensing Agency. If so, does it include digitisation or local newspapers? (Both of these are usually at extra cost.) Photographs are not included in the Newspaper Licensing Agency licence.

There are two important resources of educational images:

  • Education Image Gallery – “thousands of images from the world famous Getty Archives, available for download
  • SCRAN (Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network) – SCRAN provides access to “over 300,000 copyright cleared images movies and sounds from museums, galleries, archives and the media”. It can be used as a substitute for clip art, or for particular learning applications.

If your institution uses the Athens system of authentication you may find either or both of these listed on your Athens page.

Sharing learning materials with other institutions

Intellectual property and ‘ownership’

Apart from the partnerships which already exist, if you are considering tapping into the work of another institution, or, having completed your legal research tutorial, are approached by someone else with a request to share, here are a few points to consider:

  • intellectual property – this will tend to belong to the institution for whom the course developer(s) worked at the time; established partnerships with other educational institutions may allow for sharing of materials, or, at least, expertise
  • customisation and branding – students usually choose their institution with great deliberation, especially at the postgraduate level, and expect their learning materials to have been developed from inhouse expertise
  • re-purposing – if you decide to use a generically developed framework, such as INFORMs, bear in mind that you will need continued support for this and are therefore dependent on a third party; however, given the pace of design in legal courses, and periodic changes in database interfaces, chances are you will need to revise your e-tutorial in any case


The decision whether to use a VLE for the delivery of legal research skills teaching should be taken only after considering whether a partnership of support exists between academics, IT and library staff. Although there are parallels with the pedagogy of learning in a conventional environment, the electronic environment is developing its own distinct e-learning theory. VLEs should be used to deliver legal research skills teaching only when there is a clear need for use of the medium.

The design, development and delivery of VLE learning modules and materials have similar foundations to those discussed in chapters 4 and 5, but the opportunities of the technology pose challenges which need to be recognised and addressed for user learning to be maximised. Effective support mechanisms need to be devised to ensure access and navigation queries can be resolved, otherwise the learning experience will become negative.

A variety of assessment tools may be used within VLEs, but must be administered within the institution’s assessment regulations. This point will be developed more fully within chapter 7. Evaluate the course you have built – this is discussed in greater depth in chapter 8. Do not try to re-invent the wheel – partnerships within UK higher education already exist allowing VLE developers to tap into the work of others legitimately.


  • Anderson T and Elloumi F (2004) (eds) Theory and practice of online learning Athabasca, AB: Athabasca University
  • Bent M and Purcell C (2004) ‘LiLo: Keeping afloat with staff development’ (Report of the CILIP UC & R Innovation Award Project 2002-2003) Relay 1: 14-18
  • Bouchami H (2002) Learning styles in learning design Reading: Helen Bouchami Consulting
  • Fahy P (2004) ‘Media characteristics and online learning technology’ in T Anderson and F Elloumi (eds) Theory and practice of online learning Athabasca, AB: Athabasca University
  • Herman E (2004) ‘Research in progress: Part 2: some preliminary insights into the information needs of the contemporary academic researcher’ Aslib Proceedings 56(2): 118 -131
  • Honey P and Mumford A (1982) Manual of learning styles London: P Honey
  • JISC (2005) Effective use of virtual learning environments Bristol: JISC
  • Maharg P (2003) ‘Virtual communities on the Web: transactional learning and teaching’ in A Vedder (eds) Aan het werk met ICT in het academisch onderwijs: RechtenOnline Rotterdam: Wolf Legal Publishers
  • Patalong S (2003) ‘Using the virtual learning environment WebCT to enhance information skills teaching at Coventry University’ Library Review 52(3): 103-110
  • Piccolli G, Ahmed R and Ives B (2001) ‘Web-based virtual learning environments: a research framework and a preliminary assessment of effectiveness in basic IT skills training’ MIS Quarterly 25(4): 401-426
  • Secker J (2004) Electronic resources in the virtual learning environment: a guide for librarians Oxford: Chandos Publishing
  • Smith A and Rose R (2003) ‘Build and teach a successful online course’ Technology & Learning 23(9): 16
  • Tylee C (2005) Developing an interactive multimedia guide to enhance legal research skills (presentation at UKCLE seminar on teaching and learning for legal skills trainers, 16 February) Coventry: UK Centre for Legal Education

Last Modified: 30 June 2010