Six Lessons in Creating an Online Self-Study Course for New Judges

By William Brunson, Esq.

In the Fall 2012 issue of NASJE News, I highlighted the content of Taking the Bench: An Online Course for New General Jurisdiction Judges. See The online, self-study course is for newly elected or appointed general jurisdiction judges to educate them about their new role. The course takes a judge between seven to nine hours to complete, and it includes readings, interactive quizzes, videos and case studies. This article addresses the six lessons that I learned from creating the program. Some of the lessons are obvious (at least now they are) and some are more obscure. However, to fully understand how The National Judicial College (the NJC) created the program, a little background information is necessary.

In 1999, the NJC began its journey into distance education. In doing so, the NJC wanted to ensure that the participants in those courses could participate in “the NJC experience” – a safe, comfortable environment where judges can speak freely about their fears, accomplishments, and backgrounds and share ideas about how they do their work in their different states and jurisdictions across the globe. To capture the NJC experience in its distance learning courses, the NJC’s staff reviewed distance learning efforts around the country to find what was working and what was not.

The NJC reviewed the efforts of both national and state organizations. More specifically, it reviewed the efficacy of satellite broadcasts, videoconferencing, learning management systems, and webcasts. The NJC elected not to use satellite broadcasts because they were mostly one-way communication, and they were expensive to implement requiring an upload site and satellite dishes at all download sites (which, for a national provider, was not financially feasible). It also found that at many download locations, judges were not participating because there wasn’t the possibility of interaction with other judges or with the instructors. Likewise, videoconferencing required that the sending site and the receiving sites all have videoconferencing hardware. While videoconferencing allowed for two-way communication, it was still quite expensive, and it was not financially feasible to install videoconferencing equipment at the receiving sites. For these reasons, the NJC elected to use both a learning management system and web conferences and webcasts because the vast majority of judges had access to internet-connected computers.

In 2001, the NJC’s first foray into distance education involved the creation of a small claims course called “Handling Small Claims Cases.” The NJC created the course in WebCT, a learning management system. In that environment, the NJC is able to create a variety of learning activities including readings, quizzes, small and large group discussions, debates, role play exercises, etc. Indeed, the environment in a learning management system such as WebCT is conducive to creating an infinite variety of learning activities just as it would be true in a face-to-face classroom. To create the NJC experience in this environment, the NJC’s staff and faculty created learning activities that enabled two-way, faculty-to-participant and participant-to-participant discussions. Further, after one year of trial-and-error, the NJC instituted weekly web conferences in which the faculty and participants could interact in real-time as well.

From 2004 to 2007, the NJC and a partner tried to launch a 40-hour curriculum for attorneys who wanted to be judges. Unfortunately, the NJC could not locate a foundation to fund the project. The NJC also approached states without success. Consequently, President William Dressel decided that we would create a shorter course (no more than 10 hours) which would educate judges who were recently elected or appointed. Most importantly, the course would not have assigned faculty. Rather, it would be self-study. The big question for the NJC was, “how do we create the ‘NJC experience’ in a self-study course?”

I began creating the course with help from long-time NJC faculty members. I chose the judges for my advisory committee because they were always willing to assist the NJC and because of their diligence. In hindsight, this was a mistake. Lesson 1: Choose committee members with the subject matter expertise and recent experiences concerning the topic being addressed. While diligence and willingness to work are excellent qualities, the committee members lacked one quality that was necessary for success in the overall project: a clear insight into what new judges would want to know. I selected committee members who had, on average, more than 15 years of experience as judges. I realized that I should have selected judges with two or three years of experience; in other words, I should have chosen relatively new judges who had very recent experiences about what new judges needed to know.

In March 2007, we held our first conference call. As we created the course, I still had doubts whether anyone would ever complete the course. There would be no faculty to persuade the participants to complete it. I felt that the participants would have to be incredibly self-disciplined. Also, since the course was going to be free for the participants, it would be easy for them to procrastinate or entirely fail to do the work necessary. In other words, I felt that there was not much incentive for the participants to complete the course and no sanctions for failing to complete it.

I initially chose six committee members to work on the four modules, although it wasn’t clear then that there ultimately would be four modules. I chose six members because that was, in my experience, a good working group size. This also was a mistake. Lesson 2: Choose enough committee members with expertise in the different areas of the curriculum and give them the opportunity to lead themselves.

The committee of six and I ultimately refined the curriculum into four modules: (1) transition from the bar to the bench; (2) in the courtroom: explores the role of a judge in the courtroom and what new judges can expect; (3) behind the scenes: explores the work that a judge does in chambers that even trial lawyers wouldn’t necessarily be aware of; and (4) the judge, the court, the community: explores what judges should (and should not) do in relating to their communities.

I assigned topics to committee members based upon their interests. I felt that they would do a better job if they had a passion for their assigned topics. Interestingly, no one chose Modules 3 and 4, arguably the most important modules. This leads me to the next lesson. Lesson 3: Ensure you have a clear vision of how you’re going to create the distance learning course and have internal personnel available to complete the project before involving outside resources or personnel.

In this case, with no funding source, the NJC’s funded projects took precedence and the project received very little attention over the next couple of years. Ultimately, we decided to consolidate the committee’s efforts to complete module 1. We also found a source of funding to support the NJC’s efforts: the NJC’s Pillars of Justice. This pushed the project forward again.

In 2010, the NJC learned that the State Justice Institute (SJI) could be interested in funding the completion of the project. Consequently, we proposed to pilot test Module 1 and complete all other modules under a grant.

With SJI’s funding, I was able to choose a committee of relatively new judges. I used recommendations from the course administrator and program attorney who oversaw our General Jurisdiction course because the course is designed for new judges. From a list of nearly 30 recommendations, I was able to locate 11 judges who were interested in the project and who had been on the bench for less than three years in most cases. I asked them to note their preferences for which modules they wanted on a scale of 1 (most interested) to 3 (least interested). Some of the judges volunteered for the modules (Modules 2 and 4 were most popular), so I had to assign judges who didn’t respond to Module 3. This was a problem later on.

In writing the proposal, I prepared a timeline of activities that kept us fairly well on time. Scheduling the first web conference was difficult because we had to coordinate 11 schedules; nevertheless, I knew that I would only have to do this once since my plan involved splitting them into three subcommittees. I sought volunteers to serve as chairpersons or leads for each of the subcommittees. Again, for module 3, I had to pick one of the judges. This was a sign of problems to come. Because the committee members were geographically dispersed, we only met via web conference; there were no in-person meetings.

With this leadership structure, two of the three subcommittees worked well together. They held conference calls with their members. I provided potential articles and materials for them to review for each of the modules. In some cases, I forwarded materials that were not a perfect fit, but I was hopeful that the judges would either find another resource or create an article of their own.

Two of the three groups met their deadlines, but the third subcommittee was not responsive. The subcommittee members were not meeting, and they were not reviewing the provided materials as far as I could tell. I re-set deadlines on a number of occasions. Ultimately, I had to seek an extension to the grant term to complete the module. Lesson 4: When a subcommittee is not responsive, don’t continue to give deadline extensions to the members. Rather, readjust the committee composition, so it can be effective.

Meanwhile, one of the subcommittees surpassed my expectations. Not only did the members locate articles and a video scenario, one of the members also drafted quiz questions to assess whether the students understood the articles.

Joseph Sawyer and I created the course structure and added the content into WebCT, the NJC’s learning management system. I also drafted quiz questions for module 2 and supplemented the module 4 quiz questions to include student feedback with references. Since one of the subcommittee chairpersons was going to be in Reno, we were able to shoot a video welcome for use on the course site.

After a few missed deadlines, I decided to ask two eager members from module 4 to join the module 3 subcommittee. Also, I spoke with Program Attorney Susan Conyers who gave me some excellent suggestions for content and provided those resources to the reconstituted subcommittee. Lesson 5: Utilize all available resources to assist you in creating your course. The new hybrid subcommittee was quite productive and met its deadlines. After they had finished their choices for articles, I drafted quiz questions for the readings.

The NJC pilot tested each of the modules to determine what should be modified by assigning modules to groups to assess. During this process, we had to make very few changes. Now, the course was finally ready for judge participants.

As I mentioned earlier, I expressed concern about judges completing the course because of a lack of sanctions or incentives. Consequently, the NJC created some incentives. If a judge completes the course, she or he receives three incentives: (1) a tuition reduction of $250 off of their first NJC tuition-based course; (2) a certificate of completion; and (3) a nice NJC pen.

The NJC gives the judges five weeks in which to complete the course which contains approximately nine hours of material. The rationale is if the completion date is left open-ended, the judges will procrastinate and never finish the course. Likewise, the NJC sends a reminder notice to the registered participants after two and one-half weeks to remind them of the deadline. The sanction is if a judge fails to complete the course within five weeks, the NJC will withdraw that student. To give appropriate notice of this event, the NJC sends a withdrawal notice to participants one week prior to the end of the course stating that they will be withdrawn from the course unless they finish. In actuality, the NJC waits one week after the finish date to actually withdraw participants because once the NJC withdraws participants, their data is lost and they must re-take the entire course.

If a participant requests an extension or two, the NJC liberally grants the request because the overriding goal is to motivate the judge to complete the course. While the incentives may persuade some judges to complete the course, I believe the reminders and the sanction of withdrawal pressure the judges to complete the course. Also, chief justices in many states prompt their new judges to take the course, so this may serve as a motivating factor as well.

From August 1 (the course’s start date) to November 30, 2012, the course had a total of 108 enrollments, with 52 participants withdrawn from the class due to non-completion, two participants who withdrew on their own, and 53 participants who completed the course. This amounts to a 49% completion rate, which is a substantially better success rate than I expected with no faculty or peers involved with the course. Lesson 6: For online courses, set a deadline for completion and utilize a staff member to send reminders about the completion date.

The evaluations for the course have been admirable overall. In response to the question whether the modules are worthwhile learning experiences, the average score is 4.3 out of 5 or 86%. While I would love to see a score in the 90s, I’m content with it considering that there are no faculty members or peers. While the course is not a true NJC experience because it lacks faculty and participant interaction, the evaluations testify that it’s substantively important, interactive, and provides much needed information to new judges embarking upon a new career.

William J. Brunson is director of special projects for The National Judicial College (NJC). In this position, he performs business development, conducts faculty development workshops, manages international programs, and oversees numerous grant projects primarily related to curriculum development for judges. Prior to this position, he served as the College’s academic director for more than three years and assistant academic director for more than four years. He also served as a program attorney for four years and as a program coordinator in 1992. He served as NASJE’s president in 2004-2005 and continues his involvement in the association. He is the co-author or co-editor of numerous curricula and publications. He has educated faculty both nationally and internationally on adult education principles and practice (also known as train-the-trainer) and curriculum development. Mr. Brunson joined the faculty of NJC in 1997.