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Engaging Information Studies students with law and policy: Part 1

Introduction  

The legal and ethical questions around information engage people far beyond the legal field. Online privacy, copyright, net neutrality, and ‘fake news’ (with its challenge to democracy) are in the headlines almost daily. People who may not work in law, government, or technology are, nevertheless, Internet users and citizens with a stake in the rules shaping the information society. For that reason, I believe it is important to educate users and information managers about their online rights. That was the guiding philosophy behind the course Information Policy, which I recently taught at McGill University’s School of Information Studies. Teaching this course – engaging students from outside law and policy with these subjects – allowed me to try out several pedagogical techniques. These included: scaffolding and building on students’ existing knowledge (especially given the newsworthiness of course topics); and active learning tools encouraging students to apply course content. My first experience teaching this course offered valuable lessons, both positive and negative. I address some of the positives, or, at least, the pedagogical tools I tried to implement, below. Part 2 of this blog post will address lessons I learned and scope for improving this course. 

Context about the class 

In Fall 2018, I taught Information Policy to 19 Master of Information Studies students. Students had varied interests and career goals, including technology, academic and public libraries, archives, and knowledge management (the business of helping organizations effectively manage employee knowledge). I suspect that most students self-selected into the course because of an interest in information policy, which I define as the legal, regulatory, and ethical issues around information and its governance. The class had not been offered at the School since 2005, which gave me an opportunity to revamp the course significantly. I was eager to succeed at my first time teaching independently. I had taken as many TLS and AGSEM workshops as I could, and set out to make an effective, interesting course which would engage information studies students with legal and regulatory concepts.

Scaffolding: building on existing knowledge 

Like all instructors, I suppose much of what I did could be called scaffolding – helping students achieve progressively stronger understanding of and greater independence with material covered. While I had excellent and motivated students, the challenge lay in the fact that my background (law) is not necessarily one that students had much prior exposure to. An additional challenge is that, as with legal literacy in general, students’ exposure to legal issues could vary within a class or between topics (for example, a student who had worked in a government job applying a given statute might know that area of law better than their peers). I also note that I am in no way blaming my students or anyone outside the legal field for having limited exposure to these concepts, which are not necessarily addressed except in specialized disciplines!

I kept all these challenges in mind and tried to apply one important rule in my teaching. That rule was, “Remember in whose presence I babbled.” I’m not sure how well I succeeded at this, but I tried to define legal terms in resonant, accessible ways. Then, once students had a simple (and, where possible, humorous and memorable) foundation, we moved on to more realistic examples or applications. I used similar precepts in developing examples of legal concepts, starting with fairly obvious ones, and moving up to more nuanced or challenging cases. However, in reflecting after the end of the course, I realized that I may still be able to improve how I define legal terms for my class. I may even be able to organize them in a more interactive, effective way – for example, by using my own definitions as a starting point, but letting students collaborate in a shared Google doc. 

Another issue I built on was the fact that information law and policy are newsworthy. As a result, most students had at least some prior exposure to issues such as copyright, privacy, ‘fake news’, and net neutrality. However, this, too, is a double-edged sword. First, while newsworthiness guided my syllabus to some extent, there were also important topics to address that are not necessarily as ‘hot’ in the media. Similarly, even extensive media coverage of a subject – such as the copyright and piracy wars – may be legally shallow or misleading. I believe – based on student feedback – that I successfully harnessed students’ preexisting interests in important 21st century debates while also enhancing their understanding beyond the things they gleaned from the headlines. I hope to continue doing so in future iterations of the course.

Active learning: “It is the one who does the work, who does the learning” (Doyle, 2008, p. 25). 

Another pedagogical tool I tried was active learning. As someone who’s been a student for ages, active learning just makes sense: no one’s attention span is cut out for lengthy lectures. As various TLS and AGSEM workshops highlight, “the person who does the work does the learning.” I therefore set out to break up my lecturing as much as possible. However, I found this difficult, given that I was teaching concepts to students who were not trained in them at all. I developed the compromise of lecturing for part of each class, then breaking to give students time to work on hypothetical problems in groups. Hypothetical problems could be theoretical (such as identifying and discussing ethical issues in a fraught situation), or more practical (such as looking at a scenario and a piece of legislation, and identifying which provisions might apply). Further, where possible, I tried to break lectures early on to do think-pair-shares and engage students with the material. Initial understandings would, I hope, be refined as I explained concepts, and students would then practice those concepts in answering hypotheticals. Overall, I believe student feedback and evaluations were positive. However, as I will address in the next post, there are still some areas (including balancing lecture and active learning) in which I hope to improve.

References 

Doyle, T. (2008). Helping students learn in a learner-centered environment: A guide to facilitating learning in higher education. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing. 

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