CONTRACT LAW lecturer at Queensland University of Technology Des Butler has his students playing computer games, learning valuable real-life negotiation skills in an online world of his own creation.
Law firms have long lamented that the nation’s top graduates are lacking real-life skills and experience, so it seems ironic that the latest solution to age-old dilemma of theory versus practice is a virtual one.
Air Gondwana is a skills tutorial focusing on the running of a fictional airline. Just as in players in Second Life engage in bartering with other players, in Air Gondwana students negotiate airline contracts with staff and suppliers run a successful tourist resort. The transactional focus of Second Life makes it well suited for legal education, Butler explained.
“Second Life is more about transactions between people, rather than [players] scoring points or going on quests. It can be used in education certainly from a law perspective in at least two ways.
“You can actually get the student and lecturer to go in and have your virtual personas interact ‘in world’ as it’s called. Or you can actually record video of what the virtual characters are doing and then you can show the video and that’s the use I’m putting it to.”
Butler’s cost-effective production technique of filming his characters in Second Life has been developed through many years of trial and error. Butler has been working on computer-based learning tools for more than 18 years.
In the past, the cost and complexity of online programming have hindered his projects. Now, building upon the university’s online Blackboard interface, he has been able to harness the power of the internet, university hyperlinks and statistics with the creative functions of Second Life to create a virtual playground for educational institutions.
After watching an instructional video acted by real people, students take the helm to navigate their way through four units of negotiation with an airline in the virtual world.
“So what we’re doing is replacing the more traditional method of giving a lecture, having some prep materials and then just doing role materials, with a better opportunity for a proper training experience …” said Butler. “They get the opportunity to break down the principals and to apply them in a range of situations.”
Feedback from students involved in the initial trial has been positive. Completion of Air Gondwana is a mandatory part of the first year QUT contracts course. While students typically leave such assessment requirements to the end of semester, a large number of students had completed the program within the first two weeks of classes, he said.
“I think by the end of a month, a quarter of the class had done it, so it was very enthusiastically received. I’ve had a number of emails and anecdotally word of mouth is that they’re finding it a much more engaging and effective learning experience for them,” said Butler.
The program may also have a commercial application, with potential for it to be used in law firms to train staff in the key practical skill areas they may not have learnt at university.
“No doubt [there’s a commercial application]. There are generations of lawyers that didn’t have the opportunity of going through [contemporary] law schools [with their] greater focus on not just the content but also the skills — and [those lawyers] may benefit going through these sorts of skills programs.”
The sky isn’t limited to virtual airlines or lawyers either, according to Butler; “It’s really something that is adaptable to any other disciplines that involve negotiation.”