Michael Doherty, Lydia Bleasdale and Emma Flint (with thanks to Fiona Boyle, University of Cumbria with student panel participant support) have prepared this blog post summarising the 12th #ConnectLegalEd session
It has been great to have some student involvement in our online hangouts, but in this session we were looking for some key insights into the student experience of the pivot to online during the spring and their hopes, fears and expectations for the coming academic year. We were lucky enough to hear some really thoughtful and perceptive reflections from a panel of five brilliant law students from three universities. Our thanks go to;
- Liz Park and Lizzie Molloy (University of Cumbria) both completing their second year LLB and working towards a career at the Bar.
- Chloe Hall (University of Leeds) just returned from a study abroad year at Waterloo University, Canada and entering the final year in September.
- Adam Basinski (University of Birmingham) completing second year LLB and aiming for a career as a solicitor.
- Meaghan Parent (University of Birmingham) just completed LLB (awaiting final results!) and holding a training contract offer.
We had over 45 participants in the hangout from 30+ law schools and there was a real sense that the experiences and insights were applicable to all of us. The feedback, both positive and constructive, could have come from students from law schools around the country. Our discussion focussed on three areas.
The quick pivot to online delivery in Spring 2020
A central point that emerged from our discussion of the experience of entering lockdown in the course of this academic year was the importance of relationships. Students really valued the support they could access from staff members who they knew and trusted. In some respects, the online pivot showed up even more starkly something that is a recurring issue across law schools; the differential between more and less supportive academic staff. Where it was possible to do so, one-to-one phone or video calls were seen as a fantastic (and often efficient) way of clarifying issues and providing meaningful support.
In some respects, the shift to digital delivery felt quite basic but the panel really appreciated how quickly this had been achieved. This points to the need for a more considered and ‘online pedagogy informed’ approach to 2020-21 delivery. The panel had really felt the strain of quickly moving up the learning curve on use of new technologies and there had been tech problems. There was a marked preference for live Q&A sessions rather than asynchronous discussion threads which felt like a rather blunt instrument for clarifying issues and providing feedback. They would like to see this extended into 20-21 and have specific events or times for have questions addressed by staff rather than relying on email. The panel noted that there had been positive efforts to expand the range of e-resources but would have liked clearer outlines of what was available and how to use it.
Positive aspects of the new modes of delivery in 2020-21
Our discussion initially centred on how to build relationships (student-student and staff-student) that had not been established pre-Covid. The panel thought there was a need to build in activities across years involving new and returning students and that there should be social activities, or more precisely activities that combined a social and academic element. These could include virtual coffee mornings that were very relaxed but had some law/learning theme. It was also important to have a mix of spaces so that there could be staff-student interaction, but also student-only conversations.
The question of the most appropriate platform for these activities was explored by panel members and our participants. There was some support for utilising existing social platforms, particularly Facebook, but also Instagram Live and Twitter, as established and accessible ways of connecting with each other. The preponderance of views was against this; participants wanted to separate the academic parts of their lives from the completely social elements, and some said they planned to make best use of their VLE or Teams spaces for these sorts of learning community building activities.
Some of the student panel, in a remarkably insightful part of our discussions, asked us not to be downbeat or excessively apprehensive about the next academic year. They pointed to the real benefits of digital and blended learning for those with long commutes, those with caring responsibilities, and students who needed to fit their studies in with the part-time work they needed to make ends meet. They drew our attention to the different modes of working they had seen in the legal service sectors they hoped to join and welcomed the opportunity to practice their digital and remote-working skills. The opportunities for development in 20-21 go beyond this. They said that the lockdown had really brought home to them the value of social connection, and that there were new and different ways of making those connections. The existing law school experience, for some of their peers, had been competitive, functional and a bit isolated. If law schools can bring attentive focus to the wellbeing, academic support and community building aspects of the student experience then there will be positives that can be sustained beyond the borders of the existing crisis.
Hopes and expectations for 2020-21
The panel alerted us to their experience of University communications during the lockdown. They told us stories of overlapping and slightly inconsistent messages coming from the central university, faculty, school and individual staff levels. At a time of heightened stress there needs to be even greater efforts to ensure timely, consistent and clear communications on important issues.
These communications need to include giving students as clear a picture as possible on how they will learn in the new environment, and how they will engage with tutors and other students. The organisation of teaching materials and clear pathways through those materials, whether on a VLE or Teams, will be crucial.
The picture on careers was mixed with some opportunities continuing to be advertised. The panel were really impressed with the efforts of some law firms and chambers to continue to provide virtual internships and other innovative work experiences. They had also heard stories of both work and work experience offers being withdrawn or postponed and would really welcome law school support on building employability and scoping out new career opportunities.
In relation to teaching, the panel would also like to see clear learning maps for each new module or subject, and for the most important learning points to be available in a variety of media (text, slides, recorded lecture, podcast etc). Their experience of long recorded lectures led them to strongly recommend breaking lectures into smaller sections.
As a sector, law teachers say they have been practicing student-centred learning for many years and we have our standard module and programme feedback processes and staff-student liaison events. A session like this though really brings home the value of inviting students to share their experiences and to reflect at a more strategic level as to what they hope to get from their legal learning and how we can make that as rich an experience as possible. The real lesson for us law teachers is to listen, listen, listen.
Future #ConnectLegalEd sessions
Next time (30.06) we will be hosting a session on personal tutoring in a digital/blended world with our guests Dionne Barton and Emily Carroll (University of Birmingham). Future sessions will include a reading group on building Communities of Inquiry, and on how academics can connect with the work of the Law Commission and policy clinic initiatives in some law schools. All sessions are at 1100BST and are on MS Teams; as ever, if you wish to join the Teams space for future #ConnectLegalEd hangouts, please drop Michael Doherty (firstname.lastname@example.org), Lydia Bleasdale (email@example.com), or Emma Flint (E.E.Flint@bham.ac.uk) a line.