E-learning tool co-developed by Professor Stephanie Ben-Ishai expands access to experiential learning

Photo of Stephanie Ben Ishai
Professor Stephanie Ben-Ishai

A virtual learning tool co-developed by Osgoode Professor Stephanie Ben-Ishai is offering a glimpse into how technology could help transform the teaching of law.

Ben-Ishai, who developed the technology in partnership with Western University law professor David Sandomierski and a team of software developers, is already using the virtual learning tool to help teach contract law to her students. The project was supported by a $100,000 grant under the Ontario government’s Virtual Learning Strategy initiative.

“We’re trying to see if we can leverage technology to offer something better than the Zoom experience and to mimic the classroom, as well as the client experience,” she explained.

The audio-visual technology, called Teaching and Learning Law in the Metaverse, anticipates potential responses to questions and pushes students to come up with questions themselves, providing automatic feedback along the way.

Ben-Ishai said she and Sandomierski applied their significant experience in teaching contract law to optimize the technology and the learning experience for students. She said Sandomierski dedicated his PhD thesis to the ways contract law is taught. But the technology could be used to teach many other aspects of law, she added.

“It could work in different areas where the teacher is trying to achieve an experiential component,” she said.

“Most of law is about the lived experience,” she added. “We’re trying to move away from a fact-pattern based exam experience to have the student deeply understand the material, define the problems and figure out what resources to use.”

Ben-Ishai said the virtual learning tool does not make use of artificial intelligence because AI can’t teach students to conceptualize problems and address people’s lived experience.

After completing user testing and quality-assurance work in February, the research team submitted the virtual learning tool to the Ontario government’s eCampus Ontario site for open access and will continue to pilot the technology in the classroom.

Osgoode Dean Mary Condon welcomed the new technology, saying law students will benefit the most from Ben-Ishai’s innovative research.

“I am delighted to see colleagues with a deep understanding of their scholarly field create meaningful tools that enhance the student experience,” she said. “As contract law is a first-year subject, JD students will be introduced early to the possibilities this technology offers.”

Ben-Ishai said that she and Sandomierski have had a longstanding collaboration, but they began working in earnest on their virtual learning technology at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on how they could add an experiential element to improve online learning.

“The metaverse has the potential to integrate creative curriculum development with experiential learning in a way that is not possible on Zoom or in a bricks-and-mortar institution,” they wrote in their proposal to eCampus Ontario. “As the metaverse evolves we will likely see transitions away from exclusively traditional forms of university and law school education.

“The project we are creating,” they added, “enables learners to pose questions, define their own goals, and collaborate with peers, their clients and professors as they acquire and build the knowledge base.

Ben-Ishai said that creating the legal virtual learning tool may have been difficult without provincial funding because of the high cost of developing such technology at the pilot stage.

Since launching its Virtual Learning Strategy (VLS) in December 2020, the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities has invested $57 million in more than 395 projects led by the province’s universities, colleges and Indigenous institutes. The VLS is aimed at significantly expanding options for traditional and life-long learning through the accelerated use of both online and hybrid learning.