James Parker, who is responsible for creating online training content in law for the School of Advanced Study’s PORT learning platform, summarises the findings from a survey of the research needs and confidence levels of postgraduate law research students.

The Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS) is engaged in a project with the School of Advanced Study (SAS) designed to create free, online resources for its new learning platform, postgraduate online research training (known simply as PORT).

To make the resources as useful as possible, it was important for us to understand the needs of our target audience. And we recognised there was scope for the IALS Library to offer a wider audience access to its existing specialist skills training for law researchers, which it provides on-site at 17 Russell Square. The online platform would not only allow us to continue sharing this expertise on-site, it also meant we could extend it to researchers across the UK. We decided that the best way to identify the needs of postgraduate researchers was to conduct a survey.

From July through to October, the Library’s academic services team set about compiling the opinions of students as part of the project to create online resources to support their research. The purpose of this survey was to collect data on the kinds of resources they felt were lacking in their institution and online. In addition, the questionnaire collected data on the confidence levels of research students in carrying out various legal research tasks we thought they would be likely to conduct during their MPhil or PhD in law. More than 130 students took part, of which 128 were registered at UK institutions and 2 at overseas universities. The responses to the user needs survey is available online as a report.

Below is a short summary of the survey’s findings:

  • The data indicate a need for interactive resources for UK postgraduate researchers. IALS Library therefore has an opportunity to be one of the first to offer open training courses on various law topics and thesis writing support
  • The survey results have reinforced our decision to create training modules on sources of public international law and OSCOLA (Oxford Standard for the Citation of Legal Authorities)
  • Countrywide, postgraduate research students highlighted a lack of courses on research methods, legal subscription database searching, writing and communication skills, and keeping up-to-date with changes in the law
  • Some postgraduate research students at IALS are unaware of the online resources and face-to-face support offered in the library, so they need to be promoted in law PORT and vice versa

These conclusions have directly influenced the priorities of the project and we have decided to initially focus on creating courses on public international law research skills and OSCOLA. Our aim is to launch the first online training modules on these topics in early 2016.

Following the deployment of these courses, we will conduct another survey to collect data on how successful they have been and how we can improve them. Additional courses will be created as part of the ongoing project and we hope to be able to fill some of the skills gaps identified by the postgraduate researchers in this initial survey. Please keep an eye on PORT and follow us on Twitter for updates.

James Parker is learning technologist with 7 years’ experience of developing eLearning content and facilitating training and support for stakeholders. He is drawing on the skills developed at institutions including the Universities of Aston and Cardiff, King’s College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, to produce high quality materials for PORT, an open online learning platform run by SAS. The project is for 12 months and involves training staff and building a platform so the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies can offer specialists support to PhD law researchers.

Photograph © Copyright Lloyd Sturdy / University of London