Connecting Legal Education returned after our short summer break. We hope that members, amidst the resit marking and boards, the summer storms, the course re-writing, the educational tech learning, the A-Level omni-shambles (and so forth and so on), had some time to relax and re-charge. A key theme of the first phase of CLE was that we could lean on each other for advice, support and even some basic understanding, and we can see the continuing need for that in the coming months.
This will be a shorter than usual blog because the CLE session was directly inspired by a blog posted on this site last month. We were looking for guests and for session topics that would be timely for our members facing large elements of online teaching. We were very happy therefore to read about the research project undertaken at the Open University on teaching online law seminars and tutorials and that the authors, Carol Edwards and Andrew Maxfield, kindly agreed to present at this session. Carol and Andrew are experienced tutors and Student Experience Managers at the OU.
Their research project looked at learning practices on the Introduction to Law module and focussed on student use of microphones in online seminars. The Open University uses a blended learning approach where students can elect to attend a face-to-face class in their home region, but they can also choose to take online seminars, delivered via Adobe Connect. Their blog post on The Challenges and Opportunities of Online Tutorials can be accessed here. It is not our intention to replicate that post but rather to summarise the discussion in the CLR session and highlight some particularly valuable messages from the OU team.
The research findings
Most of the online tutorials at the OU are recorded for students who are unable to attend or for students to listen back, but the team recently introduced the option of attending a non-recorded seminar in each topic. This helps those who are nervous and who may have a general fear of making mistakes that will be preserved for posterity.
Carol and Andrew’s research found that a majority of students had their microphones enabled during seminars but only a minority contributed via mic. A significant minority say they have no microphone or that it is broken. Yet some of the same students will happily chat to their classmates in breakout sessions via microphone!! Participants in the session reported the same reluctance to contribute verbally to online session in their online programmes.
The key takeaways for staff teaching online seminars in 2020-21
Our discussion broadened out to explore the experiences and challenges of teaching small classes online. Interestingly it focussed not on the educational technology but on the more human side of encouraging interaction and engagement. The key points were;
- Students love to use the Chat function. We can get contributions from a wide range of students via the Chat function of whatever platform we use (Teams, Zoom, Adobe Connect) but this does call on multi-tasking skills of the tutor and adds to the challenge and stress of running online classes.
- We need to be alive to the social and physical context of our students’ learning environments. Many students do not have a home office or similar private space. Many will be taking classes in a space shared with other family members. They do not want to invite the tutor into their home or their family life. This will have implications for how students contribute to seminars and also what they contribute.
- We need to similarly acknowledge, without having any easy response to, the distractions in their physical environments and from the online environment (the easy temptation to have multiple browser tabs open, to browse and answer emails, etc).
- Tutors should be encouraged to get used to the learning tools before the session. Carol and Andrew described how they invite tutors to run dummy classes for each other to check that everything works and to see the materials from a student perspective. This is particularly useful as students tend to join the virtual classrooms increasingly early.
- Classes need a human face. Even if the tutor does not have video on all the time due to bandwidth issues or because they are sharing their screen, it is really important to have video enabled at the start of class. Students need to feel that they are engaging with a person.
- Consider using tutors who have greater experience of online learning to mentor less experienced colleagues; something the OU is exploring through a new role of Online Champions.
- Tutors need to accept that things take more time in online compared to face-to-face, and to adjust the content of classes accordingly.
- Similarly, tutors need to learn to be comfortable with silences and long gaps in online interactions. You will not always get student contributions straightaway, but it is important to hold off the temptation to fill the silences with extemporary lecturing.
- Use simple tasks, such as drop and drag or ordering exercises, to get momentum in the learning. You can use this engagement as a stepping stone to more sophisticated critical discussion.
Future #ConnectLegalEd sessions
The 19th #ConnectLegalEd hangout was on Tuesday 15 September. It was hosted by Ishan Kolhatkar, Director of Group Educational Technologies at BPP, on the theme of digital literacy.
This post was written by Michael Doherty, Carol Edwards, Andrew Maxfield, Lydia Bleasdale and Emma Flint