University of Newcastle’s School of Law

Female teacher sits at desk in office surrounded by bookshelves

Gowns and wigs are still the order of the day for many lawyers practising in our courts and the image of the law is that of conformity to tradition – but students no longer need to fear that studying the law will mean years of poring over dusty tomes.

Bronwen Jones is a lecturer at the University of Newcastle’s School of Law. She wants to show her students that the law is something that people can feel passionately about in the modern world – though it may be rooted in the past. And she wants to make their learning experience stimulating and relevant to 21st century issues.

Bringing Law to Life

Land law in particular can be a difficult topic, especially for first-year students,” says Bronwen. “It’s not an easily accessible subject, nor one that come across as particularly interesting.”

But Bronwen has a trick up her sleeve. Newcastle University has a system managed by their Language Resource Centre enabling staff to create their own “TV stations”, an online repository of clips and programmes which can be retained and used thanks to their ERA licence. Using this, she created a repository of material that students watched – and many were duly inspired by.

“I wanted to illustrate the opposing philosophies about ownership of land – on the one side, that the land is part of the natural world and those who inhabit it do so with as light a touch as possible. On the other, the idea is that ownership can be based on the labour which has altered the natural landscape significantly. The latter was proposed in particular by John Locke, in the context of colonial ownership of land inhabited by indigenous Americans,” explains Bronwen.

“So my first-year students were told that their homework was to watch the film Avatar – a perfect illustration of these opposing philosophies.”

Avatar pits these two philosophies – and the groups that hold them – against each other and depicts the conflict between opposing sides with compelling drama.

Improved Outcomes

Bronwen went on throughout the rest of the year to identify other audiovisual material that was either directly relevant to her students’ law studies, or provided a stimulus for discussion.

Interestingly, though the number of students needing to do retakes of their examinations is no different to previous years, there has been an increase in the numbers graded 2:1 and higher. The quality of written assignments is also up.

“We’ve had some really excellent papers at the top end of the scale of written work,” comments Bronwen, “I feel that the material used has helped students to engage in a much more effective way.”

w plans to go further and use audiovisual material to make engagement with students more active in lectures, saying: “I’m excited about the possibilities and keen to make more of the potential of this fantastic resource”.