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Online Study: An Interview with Richard Haggett

The University of Law is at the forefront of digital education, offering an extensive range of both legal and business courses. Leading our ongoing innovation in this area is our National Programme Director, Richard Haggett. Today Richard gives us an insight into his vision for the future of online learning and the opportunities it provides our students worldwide.

I was a student at the Chester Campus of (what was) the College of Law in the late 1990s and it was, without doubt, the most enjoyable educational experience I’d had. A combination of the quality of the course, the excellence of the tutors gave me an unshakeable thought that teaching and developing others would be a fun thing to do. Whilst working as a commercial lawyer, teaching – and particularly teaching here - was always at the back of my mind and I joined the College of Law as a tutor in 2002. From 2004 to 2010 I managed the Legal Practice Course in Chester and in 2009 I opened and thereafter was the head of the Manchester Campus. From 2012 I started working with online programmes and have been the programme director for undergraduate and postgraduate online law programmes since September 2016.

In order to look after our people properly, I’ve abandoned any expectation of a ‘normal work day’, and it’s liberating to think outside the four walls of an office or the equally confining ‘walls’ of a 9.00 – 5.30 structure, both of which hem in one’s thinking and ambitions. Because we have colleagues and learners all around the world, operating across different time zones and in a host of jurisdictions, I actually tend to get more correspondence “overnight” than during the daytime (daytime UK, anyway), so my days are hugely varied. That presents challenges but it’s not boring. Classroom teaching definitely has its place, but I am more interested in time than place, and the fluidity of opportunity and freedom to study that online learning can allow. My usual place of work is everywhere, which guards against insularity, complacency even. 

Rather than ‘online courses,’ the natural next stage of the evolution is not to consider ‘online’ as some mysterious sub-section of its own. They’re just courses. Being online gives people the opportunity to join in; why put up classroom walls to keep people out? Our models for online delivery and the time, thought and effort we put into our online courses is helping change the language of learning, so that the question becomes not one of “why did you do this online?” to “didn’t you do this online?”. The experience of learning online is changing from (effectively) a correspondence course into a true developmental and learning experience of itself. Without a range of courses and a range of learners at all stages of their experiences, we couldn’t do this and it’s fascinating to hear from students and their expectations of what learning is; it would be a foolish institution to be dogmatic any more. Being online is part of our learners’ whole life experience, and I’ve always thought learning best succeeds if it naturally fits into how one lives.

Compared to campus courses, I don’t think in terms of ‘instead of’; it’s more about ‘alongside’. We are able to provide an opportunity to people who could not travel regularly (or overseas into the UK) for full or part time attended study because they had such substantial caring, working or family commitments that their skills and attributes were locked out of the legal profession. To be blunt, the legal profession may have suffered as much from being denied them as they were denied it. The lawyers and leaders of tomorrow are out there as well as in here. Closing a classroom door in their face is ultimately only closing the profession off to their abilities. Long term, that doesn’t seem terribly wise.

It’s increasingly the norm that learning is delivered (at least in part) online or with access to wider resources than the teacher alone, certainly in the case of the generation now coming through secondary and higher education, for whom it would be very odd indeed – a massive step backwards in expectation - to learn purely in the old chalk-and-talk manner. This isn’t to deny the impact of teaching, but the perception of “teaching” has to change to ensure it matches the learning, and the learners. For younger learners now, the internet wasn’t invented, it has always been there. Even with those returning to learning, perhaps to develop a CV or purely out of interest, an online presence is inescapably the new normal. There is no point in online learning changing if online teaching doesn’t at the same pace, and this is an important part of my role.

Anywhere, anytime. Anyone? Well, you’ve still got to be determined to do it, and online learning does demand self-discipline. Over time it is (slowly) disappearing but the perception of ‘student’ still seems strongly towards a particular age range, a particular set of demographics and, perhaps with law students more than many, perhaps a perception of underlying financial support or advantage. These are, I accept, generalities, but in being careful not to insult anyone, I don’t think they are wholly inaccurate ones. I would confess – and confess is the right word - that when a student myself, I did meet those age, demographic and financial norms. Online learning disrupts the generality. Let it.

Prospective students need to think carefully about the commitment that is still required. Online doesn’t mean ‘out-of-sight’, nor does it necessarily mean ‘part time’, as we have developed full time online programmes which will demand as much devotion of learning time (if not travel time) as an attended full time version. Our model for online learning is still taking advantage of lawyer support and mentoring in the supervision and delivery of programmes, as with attended courses, but these are law courses and shouldn’t be considered any less demanding or engaging as if attending a campus. Another consideration is thinking sensibly about the demands of the working styles and environments of the legal world and how the method of learning is going to strengthen the skillset and nurture the edge, the advantage. In learning anything online at all, what are you additionally putting in your armoury?

At the end of Back to the Future, Doc Brown proclaims (shouts, really) ‘Where we’re going, we don’t need roads’. Where we’re going, we don’t need walls. You will need broadband, though. Not as snappy a line, either of them, but it all comes back to Doc Brown. Never thought that much of the sequels, though.

We’ve come a long way, our longest running online programme, our online LLM, we’ve delivered to students in every continent except Antarctica. What was once the College of Law of England & Wales has become The University of Law of the World. Let the world be the campus. 

Check out our website for more information on online law and online business courses.