I write this post both as the Deputy Editor of the Law Teacher, the Association’s journal as well as a law teacher struggling to react to the move to online teaching during the pandemic. I have been relatively lucky with virtually no face to face teaching left to do as our campuses closed so I didn’t experience the same levels of panic, rush and chaos as some of you will have done. As universities now plan for what is to come for the 2020/21 academic year, I think it is clear that all of us will be doing most things at a distance for some time and that we have very little time to prepare. I have been thinking about online teaching a lot. I don’t have experience of teaching online, I worry that it will be less meaningful, more focused on content delivery, less able to react to student needs and concerns and an altogether less inclusive learning environment. In order to address some of those worries and help overcome some of those concerns, I have been trawling the Law Teacher archive for helpful materials. I was hoping to be able to pull together a virtual special issue but unfortunately Routledge are not able to produce that at the moment so here’s a slightly condensed version.
I have chosen 4 articles covering different aspects of online learning and teaching which are helping me think about my modules and which Routledge have made freely available to help support us as we try and make sense of what legal education looks like in 2020/21. I introduce those 4 articles next and then I point towards some other Law Teacher articles which might be helpful. While those latter ones are not open access, ALT members do of course have access to the archive as part of membership. I am keenly aware that for many of us the priority right now is working out what technology and resources we will have and what frameworks and structures we will be expected to teach within. That is obviously important and maybe future posts can help deal with some specific and practical concerns (get in touch with us if you want to write something or if you would like us to source some expertise on a particular issue) but in all of this we should try and not lose sight of the fact that what we do should be driven by our desire to provide positive learning environments and opportunities for our students. The selection of articles in this post tries to help us think about that within the context we find ourselves in.
When thinking about our move to online, I was concerned about 4 key issues really:
- the impact on community, collaboration and learning generally
- the ability to support students who are struggling, who have missed things or just didn’t ‘get it’ within the scheduled sessions
- the assessment of students
- perhaps most importantly, the impact on wellbeing for students and staff
A 2017 article by Lisa Bugden and colleagues titled ‘Online collaboration as a pedagogical approach to learning and teaching undergraduate legal education‘ provided a valuable starting point for thinking about how we can facilitate and encourage collaboration and why we should do so. While they frame this partly in an employability context and as developing important team working, time management and leadership skills, I was particularly interested in their comments about online collaboration fostering deeper understanding and having social benefits. The paper highlights the importance of online community and I was struck by how important some of the things suggested in the paper might in this (post?)pandemic world – like encouraging students to work out how best connect in addition to and alongside the formal channels we provide – whether through Skype, What’s App or whatever application works for them to aid their collaboration. The paper also draws attention to some of the problems with online collaboration, the lack of synchronous communication for example and provides lots of food for thought.
The second paper I have found useful in helping me think about how to set up and frame my modules is a paper by Stephanie Pywell ‘Bridging the gap: online materials to equip graduate entrants to a law degree with essential subject knowledge and skills’. This paper examines how we can use online materials to equip graduate entrants with essential legal knowledge and skills. While the paper is set in the context of recognition of prior learning, the discussion helped me think about how we can provide materials which help our students get the basics and/or bring them to a common starting point where their experiences differ. I was thinking about this for my second year module but it perhaps applies even more so for the first year where students come to us with a variety of backgrounds and experiences which shape their knowledge and skills. I was particularly interested in the fact that the paper focuses on optional learning materials and activities and how best to design and frame these so that students can and do make effective use of them and that so many students, including those who will have had previously studied some of these topics made use of them.
The debate about online assessment has been going on for quite some time and I therefore enjoyed looking back at a now 10 year old paper by Andrew Hemming which in some ways highlights how far we have come in terms of the technology available to us and our students and how little progress we have made in terms of our debates around assessment. The paper prompted me to think both about how we might use Multiple Choice tests to help students learn and about how our thinking about online assessment must be much more creative. That creativity though must not overshadow considerations around availability of hardware, software and internet connections for all of our students. The paper ‘Online tests and exams: lower standards or improved learning?’ can be accessed here
My final but perhaps most pressing concern was about the wellbeing of students and staff in this new online world. Those of you who were able to join the #ConnectLegalEd Hangout with Emma Jones or the one with Caroline Strevens already heard a lot about this from both a student and staff perspective and I would encourage you to read the full paper on mental wellbeing of online distance-based students by Emma Jones, Rajvinder Samra & Mathijs Lucassen . The paper gives a real sense of some of the wellbeing challenges for law students and online distance-based students in particular which will be particularly relevant to our students while we cannot welcome them onto campus or can only do so in a limited way. Read ‘The world at their fingertips? The mental wellbeing of online distance-based law students’ here
In addition to the 4 articles above, the Law Teacher archive contains lots of papers relevant to us as we prepare for new online or blended approaches and here is a list of some of the ones I have gone back to recently – I am sure there are others and I would love to hear what you have been reading. Please do have a browse in the archives generally. Perhaps the key thing for us to remember is the importance of putting pedagogy at the centre and then working out how best to create opportunities for learning and support with the infrastructure provided rather than getting caught up in debates about what the technology we are asked to use can and cannot do.
- Anne Hewitt(2015) Can you learn to lawyer online? A blended learning environment case study, The Law Teacher, 49:1, 92-121, DOI: 1080/03069400.2014.991484
- Michael J. Draper, Simon Gibbon & Jane Thomas(2018) Lecture recording: a new norm, The Law Teacher, 52:3, 316-334, DOI: 1080/03069400.2018.1450598
- Marcus Smith(2019) Integrating technology in contemporary legal education, The Law Teacher, DOI: 1080/03069400.2019.1643647
- Francine Ryan(2019) A virtual law clinic: a realist evaluation of what works for whom, why, how and in what circumstances?, The Law Teacher, DOI: 1080/03069400.2019.1651550
- Rachel Killean & Richard Summerville(2020) Creative podcasting as a tool for legal knowledge and skills development, The Law Teacher, 54:1, 31-42, DOI: 1080/03069400.2019.1568675
- Ian McCall(2010) Online enhanced problem-based learning: assessing a blended learning framework, The Law Teacher, 44:1, 42-58, DOI: 1080/03069400903541336
- Sarah Field & Lucy Jones(2010) Innovations in assessment: an investigation into the role of blended learning as a support mechanism for assessment, The Law Teacher, 44:3, 378-390, DOI: 1080/03069400.2010.524038
While the articles highlighted above can be useful for prompting us to think about our module design and how we might set up our learning activities and assessments, much depends on the platforms our institutions choose to use and the framework they put in place. Most of us have little influence over that or over the resources available to us and our students. Nonetheless I hope that you will find something useful in this selection and I would encourage you to share your thoughts and ideas and/or favourite resources in the comments. For almost all of us this is a steep learning curve which will be much easier to navigate if we help each other.
If anyone would be interested in writing a blog post focusing on some of the more practical does and don’ts of online teaching and/or reviewing some of the resources and platforms available to us please get in touch with the ALT news team.