Blended Learning In Judicial Education: Increased Effectiveness, Reduced Cost

Distance learning has become more commonplace in the courts, even though most education is still done in traditional classroom settings.  The trend in many states is toward a blended approach, using a variety of education methods, both distance and traditional, to achieve better, more cost-effective results.

John Meeks
Vice President, Institute for Court Management, National Center for State Courts

Diane Cowdrey
Director, California Administrative Office of the Courts Education Division/Center for Judicial Education and Research

This article encourages judicial educators, funding authorities, and policymakers to support the use of blended learning, which is a mix of traditional face-to-face education and distance education, typically provided through a computer link. Many judicial education organizations in the United States have successfully used and often integrated traditional and distance education. The same is true of other professional organizations, such as the American Medical Association (2010), which allows continuing-medical-education providers to conduct a range of live events for which "[p]articipation may be in person or remotely as is the case of teleconferences or live Internet webinars." The AMA also provides for continuing education, "in which a physician engages in self-directed, online learning on topics relevant to their clinical practice."

Blended learning is not a silver-bullet solution to limited resources for education, but it does help resolve the ongoing conflict between those who advocate for more distance education and those who believe traditional education is the only way to teach judges and court staff what they need to know and be able to do. Distance education has been touted as a great way to cut costs and make education easier to access, but there are also negatives—developing an infrastructure and staff expertise can be a daunting endeavor for educators; judges and court staff may not want it; and it may not be an effective teaching tool in all cases. On the other hand, traditional education as a sole form of education is expensive and will not always result in judges and court staff doing their jobs better. Blended learning is a way to take advantage of the attributes of both traditional and distance education.

Later in this article we elaborate on why blended learning can be effective, and we offer several examples of blended-learning programs offered by court education organizations. Before we examine blended learning more closely, however, it will be useful to give some background about how court education has been done in the United States and why it has taken many years for blended learning to be seen as an emerging practice.

Reliance on the Traditional Classroom Approach

Education for judges, court managers, and staff was originally similar to law-school education, which consisted mainly of lectures by experts. Lectures can be delivered in large conferences or in small seminars, so they fit the settings for most court education programs. In the 1980s there was a movement to improve judicial education by adopting methods espoused by Malcolm Knowles, David Kolb, and others. These methods were based on andragogy, the study of how adults learn, and they promoted classroom interaction such as group discussions, role plays, and other activities that could enable attendees to learn from each other and to practice using new information and skills in the classroom. By using new ideas and skills in the classroom, judges and court managers could retain new information better and, most important, transfer the learning to the workplace. Judicial education leaders learned these theories and how to implement them from people like Chuck Claxton and Patricia Murrell, who headed the Leadership Institute in Judicial Education.

This summary of court education reform is too brief and simplistic to convey its full impact, but many judicial educators, judges, and court managers were influenced by these reforms, and the quality of court education in the United States increased dramatically as a result. Most of the education being done during this era was in classrooms, and the principles were often based on how to obtain the best learning outcomes as a result of the activities in the classroom. It is no wonder that there has been resistance within the court community to distance learning, which was usually conceived of as a solitary activity.

There have certainly been other reasons distance learning was not embraced wholeheartedly by the court education community, having to do both with the benefits of traditional education on one hand and with the challenges associated with distance education on the other.

Some of the reasons judicial branch educators have relied on the traditional classroom method include:

  • People learn from social interaction, not just how to do things, but also why institutional norms and values require certain conduct.
  • Judges and court staff need to be able to demonstrate in their work "complex and unique skills in leadership, decision-making, and administration" (National Association of State Judicial Educators, 1991: Introduction). These skills are hard to teach and learn in any environment. Learning with and from peers seems to offer the best hope for success.
  • The classroom is what we know from our own educational backgrounds.
  • Education is often a centerpiece of judge and court staff conferences.

Some of the reasons judicial branch educators have resisted distance education include:

  • Distance learning, especially computer-based education, has usually been seen as one-way communication, limited to "pushing out" information such as new statutes or court rules.
  • Distance education often required a substantial initial investment in a "platform" like WebCT or a video-teleconferencing network and either hiring new staff or developing staff expertise, all for uncertain outcomes.

Blended LearningAll of these factors led to an "either/or" debate—should judicial education be provided in the traditional way or via distance education? The environment has changed. Despite lingering resistance to adopting distance education methods, most judicial branch education organizations now have courses or resources online. Two factors have contributed most to an increased use of distance learning in court education. The first is the gradual emergence of lower-cost, easier-to-use distance-learning technology and an increased willingness by educators and judges and staff to use distance-learning technology. The second is less funding for and greater scrutiny of judicial branch education.

With respect to the first factor, judges, court staff, and educators themselves are more comfortable using technology, the technology has become easier to use and less expensive, and educators have become aware that they can use different kinds of technology for different purposes. With respect to the second factor, some states have canceled education conferences because of reduced funding, some have cut their education staff, and some have been questioned or even attacked about the value of the education programs they provide. Court education organizations have responded by looking for ways to provide education at a lower cost, especially without the expense of travel and time away from work associated with face-to-face programs. Distance education has been proposed as a solution to the challenges created by reduced funding. A consequence of all these changes has been an environment in which the concept of blended learning can become part of routine course and curriculum planning.

The Emerging Trend of Blended Learning

We can now examine more closely what we mean by blended learning and consider how it has already been used in the United States. At its most elemental, blended learning is designing a single education event or experience using two or more delivery methods. These may include the traditional classroom experience, as well as online courses, videos or broadcasts, webinars, conference calls, or self-study.

Future Trend: Blending Multiple Delivery Methods

Rather than relying solely on the traditional classroom experience, states that offer blended education challenge the assumption that effective, high-quality education can only be provided in the traditional classroom. Practitioners and researchers are finding that developing blended education programs can be beneficial in many regards. The U.S. Department of Education conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis of online learning in K–12 to assess its effectiveness, and had surprising conclusions for those of us who always favor the traditional classroom approach. The study concluded that the most effective type of education program was a blended approach. A program that combined live education with online education was considered superior to either online or traditional classroom teaching on its own (Means et al., 2009).

Deciding to Use Blended Learning

Multiple factors must be assessed in deciding to use blended learning. Each factor will have differing weight depending upon the specific situation; however, educators can use some criteria and ask the right questions to come up with the best approach. Bersin (2004) provides eight criteria to use when selecting the right blended approach for a program:

8 Criteria for Determining a Blended Approach

1. Program Type (What is the overall goal of the program—enhancing skills and competencies, providing information to a large audience, etc.?)

2. Cultural Goals (Are there additional subgoals that the program wants to accomplish, such as building relationships or communicating shared values?)

3. Audience (This includes factors such as size of the audience, comfort with and access to technology, motivation, and time availability.)

4. Budget (What are the available fiscal resources for development and delivery?)

5. Resources (What are the staff resources available, and do they have the expertise necessary for certain types of distance education? Are subject-matter experts available?)

6. Time (How much time before the education is needed, how much time can learners spend away from their job, and are there completion deadlines?)

7. Learning Content (This is the heart of the program—how complex is the content; does it need to include a lot of interactivity in the design [see Instructional Activities Matrix], can it be broken up in segments?)

8. Technology (What technology infrastructure is available, are there equipment and/or training needs of the learners, bandwidth issues, security concerns, etc.?)

Blended Learning

Complex knowledge/skill building, interactive, preferably smaller audience size. Acquiring complex knowledge and/or skill building typically requires more formal instruction and/or mentoring with small numbers of learners. Face-to-face classes, live video/Web conferences, and instructor-led online courses are best suited for content that requires significant interaction between participants and instructors.

Basic knowledge, one-way delivery, unlimited audience. Basic knowledge and information can be learned on one's own by providing learners access to books, electronic resources, self-directed online courses, job aids, etc. Satellite broadcast and lecture-type methods can also be used to deliver basic knowledge, particularly to large audiences where interaction between participants and instructors is not critical to learning the content.

Advantages of Blended-Learning Designs

What are the advantages of blended learning? First, it enables the learner to stretch out the learning and thereby have a richer experience. The study above noted that this was an important factor in the effectiveness of blended learning—it allows learners to have more time with the program material and interact with it in a variety of ways. In addition, one of the primary goals of any education program—transfer of learning—is enhanced when there are multiple methods of delivering the education. Daffron and North (2011) emphasized the importance of using a variety of delivery methods during a course of study to enhance transfer of learning. Daffron, Cowdrey, and Doran (2007) found that even within a traditional classroom approach, using a variety of teaching methods increased judges' satisfaction with the program. Using multiple methods of delivering education to judges increases satisfaction and effectiveness and elongates the learning experience.

Second, blended learning reduces the cost of education for courts if distance education replaces some portion of the face-to-face component, typically the more expensive segment. Budget limitations are the "new normal," and educators must be flexible to continue providing education to the judicial branch. For instance, rather than cancel an annual statewide judicial conference, educators should consider if it could be shortened and some of the content offered online or through a webinar. In large states, portions of the program could be conducted regionally rather than as a large, statewide event.

Blended LearningThe third advantage to using blended learning is that a blended approach allows educators to use the most appropriate method of delivering the education. For instance, most people would agree that judges should learn about ethics in a setting where they can have interaction and talk frankly with the instructor. Live, face-to-face education would be an appropriate choice for this topic. However, instruction about recent state supreme court cases could easily be conducted via webinar, where participants could listen to the presentation and type questions to the instructor from computers in their chambers or home.

The key is knowing when to use live, face-to-face education, as it is usually the most resource intensive. Once that is determined, states can turn to the distance education technologies available to them to augment and enhance the live program. What delivery method best meets the needs of the audience in each particular situation?

Using Blended Learning in Two States

Some examples of states using blended learning will illustrate this process. Washington State wanted to include additional content in their judicial college for new judges and to cover other topics in more depth. It was not possible to increase the length of the program, so the judicial educators decided to focus on one additional topic—search and seizure—and teach it in greater depth via distance education. They created three webinars, using the product Adobe Connect and a retired judge as the faculty. The webinars were lively and interactive, and included homework and outside assignments that the judges sent to the instructor. Webinars were chosen over an online self-study course because they wanted the new judges to interact with each other and with the faculty. At the college that year, participants could participate in a three-hour session on search and seizure, creating a complete blended-learning experience.

Washington State also created blended-learning programs for court staff, one in the area of dealing with difficult people. In this blended program, staff participated in three separate webinars. These were recorded, so individuals could choose to participate live or listen to the recording at their convenience. There was a short online course to illustrate basic concepts of the topic, using Adobe Presenter, and finally there was a four-hour live program, which completed the blended program.

In California, blended learning was used in a program for presiding judges and court executive officers by using two separate distance education segments to more fully cover a topic—the Commission on Judicial Performance (CJP). The CJP is the state agency responsible for investigating judicial misconduct. Distance education provided basic information about the CJP before the live program, using Moodle (an open software program) to create a short online course, and broadcast satellite transmission. These two distance segments preceded the live, face-to-face program, where faculty focused on questions and issues generated by the distance programs. Feedback from participants about including distance components before the live program was positive.

Similarly, in a California program for new supervising judges, a short online course on the basics of caseflow management was created using Moodle. After completing the online course, participants attended a live program, which covered the topic in greater depth. The faculty could quickly move beyond the basics, knowing that basic information had already been covered in the online class.

Blended Learning for a Multiyear Program

At the national level, the Institute for Court Management (ICM) Fellows Program provides a robust example of blended learning. The program uses distance education in two ways—first, participants work independently by watching videos, doing assignments, reading, and completing a court project; second, they work collaboratively by participating in webinars or online discussions. ICM uses both asynchronous and synchronous distance education methods. Asynchronous means the participants do their course work independently, at different times; synchronous means the participants learn at the same time, typically logging into a webinar and having a conference call.

ICM Fellows Program Blended-Learning Design

Blended Learning

Distance-Learning Phase (Asynchronous)

  • Videos: students watch 12 video presentations on ICM's Web site on various topics; videos are later discussed during the webinars and at the residential program.
  • Reading: students have several reading assignments, provided on ICM's Web site.
  • Writing: students are given six writing assignments.
  • Online discussion groups: students respond to questions on a common chat page.
  • Court Project Phase: students conduct independent research on court administration policies and procedures. Students also have supervisors for the duration of the Court Project Phase, who review and comment on their work and provide guidance.

Distance-Learning Phase (Synchronous)

Webinars: five one-hour programs, for which students log on to a learning site and call a conference number. Faculty interacts with students over the phone and with slides and other visual aids on the computer.

Residential Phase (Traditional)

Traditional classroom: while instruction takes place in a classroom, the program is highly interactive.


In conclusion, blended learning is a trend that may enable judicial branch education to fulfill the promises of both traditional classroom education and distance education. The key to using blended learning effectively is to match the best methods to the educational goals and the audience. As judicial branch educators gain more proficiency with distance education technology and with matching the right learning technology to educational goals, we will continue to see more blended learning for judges, court managers, and staff.