How law schools are using virtual reality tools in classrooms

[This story from the January-February 2019 ABA Journal magazine describes some of the ways Law Schools are incorporating presence into their training; the original version includes different pictures, and see a May 10 story in the OU Daily for more about how one Law School is using virtual crime scenes. –Matthew]

[Image: Source: VRrOOm – “Virtual Reality Is Coming To A Courtroom Near You”]

How are law schools using virtual reality tools in classrooms?

By Anna Stolley Persky
January 1, 2019

This past summer at the University of North Texas Dallas College of Law, a small team of law students and school employees created a virtual reality crime scene. There was blood made of ketchup, a stapler, handprints and of course, a dead body. Using a 360-degree camera, the team staged an imaginative crime scene.

“It was an experiment at the request of a criminal law professor,” says Jennifer Wondracek, director of legal educational technology at the school. “We did it low-budget because we were trying it out.” The professor liked it, Wondracek says, and asked for another that could be used to supplement classroom material.

In fact, Wondracek says her department is ready to do a lot more, including re-creating actual crime scenes for the school’s criminal law classes.

And perhaps it won’t stop there.

Virtual reality technology has the potential to transform the law school experience. “We are at the beginning of what I think is going to be a revolution in the way we train our students,” Wondracek says. “We are right at the edge with virtual reality technology in both the law school setting and the legal profession.”

Virtual reality involves the use of computer technology to create a simulated environment, immersing a user in a 3D experience. In the past few years, the legal industry has begun slowly experimenting with VR technology—using it, for example, to re-create crime and accident scenes.

However, it might take a while before VR establishes a foothold in most law schools.

At this point, only a handful of schools are experimenting with VR and augmented reality technology, and nobody yet knows exactly how it can best be integrated into the curriculum, says Ayyoub Ajmi, digital communications and learning initiatives librarian at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

“The technology was developed before we knew we had a need for it,” Ajmi says. “What do we do with this technology now that we have it? We are in the early stages of figuring that out.”

In addition, many law schools appear reticent to even devote an initial investment in VR technology. One reason is that, in general, law school administrators and faculty have a limited budget and other favored projects they wish to fund.

Simply put, Wondracek says, many law schools don’t prioritize being on the cutting edge of technology.

“Law schools tend to wait for technology to develop a bit more before investing in it,” Wondracek says.

That being said, an increasing number of law schools are offering online programs that could benefit from virtual and augmented reality technology, says Fredric Lederer, a law professor and the founder and director of the Center for Legal and Court Technology at William & Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Virginia.

“As we begin to move law school online, one of the great concerns about online instruction is that we lose all the wonderful things of being physically present in class,” Lederer says. “But what if, using this technology, we eventually have a virtual reality classroom in which people participate together? Maybe that could allow online instruction in which students have the ability to see and interact with other students.”

LAW SCHOOL RETICENCE

Some law schools experimenting with VR technology are focused on creating videos that can be used to supplement classes. In doing so, they are using 360-degree cameras to create immersive experiences.

Panoramic imaging has existed for a while, Ajmi says, but the technology used to be prohibitively expensive. In recent years, the technology, including cameras, has gotten more affordable and therefore more accessible.

In general, law schools wanting to invest in VR technology can now do so for considerably less than in years past. The necessary headsets range in price but now can be purchased for as low as $20. Software apps can be accessed on student phones.

“Now, with an investment of less than $1,000, schools can provide students with a decent quality virtual reality experience,” Ajmi says.

But he admits that even getting law schools to invest $1,000 in experimental technology can be challenging.

Kenton Brice, director of technology innovation at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, believes the first step is piquing administrative interest. After that, you have to convince faculty that the investment is worthwhile.

“You need their buy-in, or it won’t work,” Brice says.

In 2016, the University of Oklahoma launched the Oklahoma Virtual Academic Laboratory to provide students with technologically advanced immersive education experiences.

The law school has followed suit, buying its own VR headsets and computers, Brice says.

“Part of the process has been working with the faculty to create content,” he says. “That has helped for faculty to reach an understanding that this is not a disruptive technology but one that can complement a curriculum, if you have the right content.”

Another concern is maintaining the security of student information as required under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

“The elephant in the room is student privacy,” Ajmi says. “As virtual reality goes online, the question will be: What happens to the data when it goes to a third party? The privacy and security of student information will be big issues.”

In addition, administrators may be reticent to purchase VR equipment because they know their faculty and law students are not particularly knowledgeable or adept when it comes to technology, much less able to get the most out of the equipment.

Further, many law students often have “little or no interest in technology,” Lederer says. “That creates a challenge,” he admits. “But what are they going to do when they have to use technology in their practice?”

In fact, lawyers have an obligation to know the benefits and risks associated with using the latest technology. In 2012, the American Bar Association modified its Model Rules of Professional Conduct to require lawyers to stay abreast of changes in the practice of law, including the use of new technology.

“Virtual reality is becoming an important technology,” Lederer says. “It would be helpful for students to know something about it before it hits you over the head in the working world.”

DRONES AND PHONES

Law schools experimenting with VR are piloting a variety of projects. Brice, at the University of Oklahoma’s law school, found a way to integrate the technology into the curriculum by partnering with the law school’s Oil & Gas, Natural Resources and Energy Center to create a 360-degree video of a water reclamation site in West Texas. Brice used 360-degree cameras tethered to drones to capture the site.

“You could tell them what water reclamation is and what it looks like, or you can have them fly around a water reclamation site and they can see it for themselves,” Brice says. “By doing that, we’ve created a context for what they are learning that they won’t get out of a textbook.”

The project forced Brice to get out of his comfort zone.

“I had to learn about video editing and piloting drones,” Brice says. “These are things I never thought I would be learning how to do, but I did, and now I have new skills.”

In addition, the school is using “Clouds over Sidra,” an immersive video about a Syrian refugee camp, with students in the law school’s human rights class.

“We wanted to motivate students in the human rights class,” Brice says. “The video provides an experience that students otherwise wouldn’t get.”

In addition to creating crime scenes, students at UNT Dallas College of Law have been pilot testing an eLearning Studios VR public speaking app for improving student trial skills.

To use the app, students only need a smartphone and a VR headset, Wondracek says. The app allows students to practice their advocacy skills within a realistic environment to help them prepare for advocacy tournaments. The American Association of Law Libraries provided the school with a $2,500 award to fund the project.

Wondracek says her goal is to eventually create a VR courtroom in which students could practice opening and closing arguments.

“We would like our students to learn how to make their arguments when there are distractions, like a jury shifting around or a door opening and closing,” Wondracek says. “These are all things that throw beginning attorneys.”

Meanwhile, students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law are using 360-degree cameras to record themselves conducting voir dire, Ajmi says.

“It’s a way that students can self-critique and faculty can critique,” Ajmi says. “Right now, it’s being used as a simple assessment tool.”

Ajmi adds that he wants the law school to go beyond creating “spherical videos” to true VR content that will be used as part of the law school curriculum, like virtual courtrooms.

However, Ajmi has noticed students are not exactly climbing over each other to use the technology the school already offers.

“Their schedules are full, and they have no time to learn the equipment,” says Ajmi. “In general, law school faculty focus on the traditional method of learning—the Socratic method. We should encourage students to be familiar with the technology by embedding it into the teaching.”

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