JILT 1997 (2) - Ben Watt
A Learner's Review of the SLCC CD-ROM
The views expressed in this article are the views of the author writing in a personal capacity, and do not reflect the views of Arthur Andersen.
|2.||What makes good software good?
|3.||The SLCC CD
This is an IT Review published on 30 June 1997.
Citation: Watt B, 'A Learner Review of the Scots Law Courseware Consortium CD-ROM', IT Review, 1997 (2) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/sw/97_2slcc/learner/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1997_2/watt/>
The stereotypical image of legal study certainly includes weighty, dusty tomes, green library lamps and leather-topped desks. Whilst this may not reflect the actual state of most university law libraries, it is an image to which most students and academics can relate. The purpose of this review is to consider the possibility of an alternative, new image - that of legal study embracing technology.
In particular, this article seeks to describe the use of one software package, a CD ROM produced by the Scots Law Courseware Consortium (hereinafter SLCC). The aim of the Consortium is to prepare materials which can be used as an alternative to traditional teaching methods (most usually group tutorials). Students are expected to follow through on-screen a series of problems, using a PC as a "virtual tutor" of sorts. The PC serves as interrogator, but also as a source of reference materials.
This article will focus upon the nature of the reviewer's experience using the software and its practicalities; a full discussion of the merits of computer-based learning in general lies outside the scope of this review.
2. What makes good software good?
In the reviewer's opinion, the quality of software generally can be defined by ease of use. Regardless of perfection in content, any software which appears to be sloppy in presentation, or is troublesome to navigate will quickly be disregarded by users. The keys, therefore, to the effective uptake of a package such as the SLCC work are :
i) Truly intuitive operation. This aspect is often heralded, but rarely encountered. For novice users, any more than one minute of indecision and doubt means unease and confidence is shattered. An ideal, this is an attribute difficult to quantify - as it depends on the user's confidence and level of experience .
ii) Thorough on-screen help. Such systems are now commonplace, but often they disappoint.
iii) Pleasing, consistent design. Such design reduces learning time and gives important confidence to new users who have had some exposure to related packages.
iv) Stable, reliable, hack-proof programming. A fundamental requirement in teaching environments. It can be no surprise that some students would rather try to crash software than use it. They must not be given the opportunity. Diligent students are distracted by programming flaws, and prefer quality library time to re-booting hung machines.
It is with these criteria in mind that the SLCC CD has been evaluated. The reviewer's treatment is based on impressions of feel and style. Time and space do not permit a detailed consideration of substance, as there are some dozen modules of varying complexity. However, on a general level, the nature and extent of the treatment of the law by the software will be described.
3. The SLCC CD
Twelve modules are provided, covering the Scots private law subjects most likely to be followed by undergraduates (with the notable exception of delict). Each Family-related module could be considered analogous to a traditional tutorial, which covers one area of the law. The others modules treat specific chosen areas of the law; they do not replace whole courses, nor are they expected to be exhaustive. The modules are :
Capacity and Legal Representation
Consequences of Marriage and Cohabitation
3.1 Package design
The software is operated through a front end based on the now-common card index format, using which the operator selects his choice of program by clicking on the required 'tab'. Three tabs are used to indicate Introduction, Family and Other Modules. The front end is a pleasing graphic of Scotland in a tasteful navy blue shade; so far so good.
The design limitations of the SLCC product as presented are inherent in its method of construction. The unifying front end is one of the product's best features. As distinct from this base, any differences in presentation between the constituent modules is readily apparent. These differences arise because each module has been prepared with a greater degree of independence than might be desirable. Many law faculties have been involved in the production of material, and this breadth is a necessary facet of country-wide development.
The striking impression in the use of each module is that each has a distinct feel. Some modules maintain a standard Windows title bar and menus, others remove all traces of Windows altogether. Some modules are based on a filofax-type model, but amongst these there are variations : ring binder filofaxes and floating page designs. The very effective, original HyperCard-like presentation of 'stacks' navigated with icons and text links could loosely describe most modules, but some deviate completely. The Property module adopts a cartoon storyboard style, and is very effective.
Such diversity of treatment presents an interesting but difficult reconciliation. It is the reconciliation of a desire for uniform design with individuality and flexibility. The free rein with which individuals or teams have been able to prepare their modules has permitted the use of novel ideas and reflects varied teaching attitudes and personalities. It is wrong, therefore, to condemn inconsistencies per se; these preferences being largely subjective.
In the writer's opinion, a middle road could usefully be followed. It might involve simply the specification of uniform icons, or the prescription of one filofax style, if used. Details matter. So standard buttons should not appear 'OK' in some situations, and 'Ok.' in others.
One example illustrates the fine-tuning which could improve the overall feel of the SLCC package. Most modules open with a dialogue box indicating the academic and technical support contributors. It seems that all modules should usefully display this information, but some do not. Of those modules that have such an introduction screen, it should be removed consistently. In fact, some disappear automatically after some seconds, some are removed by clicking a box, some vanish instantly, some can be removed by pressing enter. Uniformity at this level of detail would raise the standard of presentation across all areas, and portray a more effective, coherent image to the user.
The reviewer noticed some weaknesses. In the Contract module, the user is asked whether the user has prior experience with the module. Upon answering 'no', the introduction screen appears to stick, and was removed only by repeated use of the escape key, in combination with File..Close and other desperate random clicks, the usual 'enter' solution failing.
Although Microsoft Word is not specified as an installation requirements, some modules appeared to require it, prompting the user for path names, or expressing un-availability. The use or not of Word is not made clear either from the manual or the software; this is an area in which improvement should be made.
Similarly, the package did not display correctly on a PC equipped with only a VGA card. The hardware specification stipulates 'SuperVGA or other windows compatible card'. This should be changed to require Windows-compatible SVGA cards only.
The front end is inadequately protected from accidental or malicious tampering. One can highlight and amend or remove module names, which unfortunately are not repaired for the next user. Such weakness shows a lack of testing and forethought. These weaknesses, however, are not fundamental, and as a whole the package performs well.
3.3 On-line Help
All modules displayed a degree of on-line help. The best had constant hints displayed at the foot of the screen with pop-up assistance, another attempted basic instruction in mouse identification : 'Beside the keyboard you will find a small rectangular plastic box. This is called a 'mouse''. In the writer's view, such hardware identification lessons are patronising and un-necessary. Most students will have a basic knowledge of Windows; if they do not, the Microsoft Windows Tutorial is appropriate. Some modules loaded this application upon demand, but again this seems un-necessary. It is not the role of law teaching materials to teach Windows; the two should be tackled as independent exercises - otherwise inexperienced students might spend their allocated time learning Windows and not the law.
Taking for granted an average level of Windows proficiency, the level of module-specific help seemed sufficient, but extent varied between modules. This is one area in which package-wide help would simplify and improve matters; it is again one consequence of having disparate creators.
3.4 Printed Documentation
Despite the reviewer's past experience, which dictates that manuals should be consulted only if all else fails, the documentation provided with the CD was read. Whilst it is arguable that documentation is un-necessary if on-line help is available, the reviewer expects both, and expects both to be of a high standard.
The Instruction Manual is a 30-page A5 document. Unfortunately, the material is rather untidily presented. The reviewer notes at least one spelling mistake; the contents page omits page numbers. One is left wondering why, for example, the heading "Installing the Software" appears on the page preceding the relevant instructions.
The manual is liberal in its use of screen display illustrations, and for this it is to be commended. However, it appears that these graphics have been hastily prepared. Crude editing has resulted in an untidy product.
Presentation aside, the content of the manual is thin, with a dozen or less sentences describing the use of each module. Of this substance, each section of the manual describes in essence the means of navigation within the module. This is helpful as presented, but as a whole, the CD and its documentation could have been simplified by the use of a consistent set of icons and navigation techniques.
3.5 The Law
The greatest strength of the software is that it has been prepared in collaboration with leading academics, for example Professor Reid (Property), and Professor Thomson (Contract). This is an important factor which must not be under-estimated, as it adds relevance for students seeking inspiration.
The content of the tutorials is of a very high quality. In substance the tutorials embrace the important issues arising, for example the succession module involves an appreciation of the requirements of formal validity for a will. This example illustrates the class of users at which the modules are aimed - namely Ordinary-level undergraduates. So whilst it is the rudimentary issues which are typically addressed, these are such fundamentals that no tutorial would sensibly omit them. The computer represents here a useful, unforgiving method of learning critical facts.
3.6 Best Features
The reviewer was particularly impressed by the use of a number of techniques to facilitate and enhance learning, and with the use made of PC capabilities.
Firstly, the availability of supplementary materials on screen. These include relevant statutes and passages from important texts, for example Erskine (Property), and the more accessible Clive (Family). These texts included hot-links to statutes where relevant. The writer assumes, for the purposes of this review, that no intellectual property rights have been breached by unauthorised reproduction - but believes this to be an important consideration for the future.
Perhaps the best example of source material availability, and one of the best modules generally is the Cohabitation tutorial. This module included text of Scots Law Commission reports; it is fully abuse-protected, was colourful, and featured a constant help bar at the foot of the screen (as seen in Microsoft's Excel and other packages).
The integration of statutory and other sources with the issues examined forces the user to examine the law in detail. This is a valuable element of the computer-based learning experience, because commonly statutes and the institutional writers are under-utilised by undergraduates, when in fact they often hold the best information. The computer makes these works more accessible to the student.
Secondly, the reviewer was impressed by the volume and quality of material presented from a technological perspective. We have travelled far from the text-based, monochrome multi-choice quizzes which some years ago were passed off as computerised learning aids. Today we have presented in a highly accessible format a wealth of information, colourfully and instructively presented. The Windows environment is used effectively, with many modules using very little keyboard use. The power of information retrieval is well demonstrated by statue, problem and text linkage; the CD ROM is clearly the right choice of distribution medium. Whereas advocates of video and sound supplements in these tutorials may have to wait, the software currently available to be highly recommended as an additional resource for teaching.
The analysis above is detailed; a large amount of this analysis relates to the issues arising from the presentation of the modules as elements of one package, when in fact they could more properly described as stand-alone packages accessed from a common menu. It is not so much a question of semantics, as a question of expectation.
The reviewer anticipated a fully integrated set of tutorials which would display similar characteristics and use uniform design elements. The SLCC package presents a number of programs which could stand alone and merit much praise. The integration of these programs into a more coherent whole is a possibility for future exploration. In life, we are naturally disappointed when expectations are not matched. One should always look forward, however, for this is the route to improvement. This article has described some of the benefits of the chosen treatment, and suggested some opportunities for change. The next steps in the SLCC project will be instructive.