Emma Flint, Michael Doherty and Lydia Bleasdale. With thanks also to Emily Carroll and Dionne Barton for their contributions to the hangout and to this blog.
Our 12th ‘Connecting Legal Education’ (CLE) hangout was with students from a variety of universities, who kindly shared with us their perspectives on how law schools responded to the Covid-19 crisis. Many key messages came out of that session, one of the most important being the reliance & significance that all of the law student panel placed on their relationship with their personal tutor to help navigate the strange new post lockdown environment. However, the lack of consistency around personal tutoring was also flagged up as a heightened concern for those law students during this period. Whilst this did not surprise any of our community of legal academics, equally we wanted to spend some time reflecting on the challenges that the pandemic imposed on personal tutoring during the ‘emergency’ pivot online. By doing this, we can use our shared insights to help plan and design the ways in which our personal tutoring systems will need to be adapted to work within the new blended learning design environment that seems more and more likely for the coming academic year. To help guide our discussions, for our 13th hangout we were kindly joined by Emily Carroll, Senior Tutor and Head of Student Development and Support within Birmingham Law School and Dionne Barton, from HEFi (the Higher Education Futures Institute at University of Birmingham) who leads on academic support for personal academic tutoring across the institution. Dionne is also a member of the board of UKAT, the UK Academic and Tutoring association, which is a body of professional practitioners and researchers interested in all aspects of student advising and personal tutoring in Higher Education within the UK.
The emergency ‘tumble’ online and the impact on personal tutoring
The student panel from CLE hangout all reported feeling completely disoriented and lost back in March this year when the emergency lockdown took effect. This was not a feeling lost on any of our community and was one we all associated with in many ways. Like our law students, our community have all reported struggling with the logistical changes in switching to working from home, whether that be with digital and connectivity issues, to the struggle of juggling of caring responsibilities for children ‘co-workers’ and wider family. Equality, diversity and inclusivity issues within our student cohorts came sharply even more into focus than ever before. But the context of personal tutoring threw up new challenges that we perhaps had not anticipated as being problematic, largely around actually finding out where our students were when the lockdown took hold. Some students had elected to go home; others chose for a variety of reasons (including shielding from their own family) to stay on campus. Practically finding out where our students being a pressing first concern for many, particularly if, as discussed by Emily, there are under 18 students in your undergraduate cohort, which adds extra levels of safeguarding protection issues that need to be taken into account.
- Where are our students?
- Communication channels
- Consistency of support
- Wellbeing support for students
- Lack of access to student records
- Changing emergency assessment framework
- Lack of ‘online’ resources
- WFH as tutors and own wellbeing
Image summarising some of the key challenges & impacts on personal tutoring arising from the emergency pivot online – items in bold indicate issues also raised by our student panel in CLE Hangout 12
The challenge of how to best communicate with our students was also reported as a struggle at first. Overwhelmed and bombarded by email overload, some students stopped communicating by emails entirely. However, in the ‘working from home’ environment, alternative methods of being able to take calls or offer ‘drop in’ office hours became more complicated than ever. Some institutions were better placed than others to respond, having communication channels such as Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams or Zoom already in place. Others were more behind the curve, with few of these systems in place, which meant having to give out personal contact details to students in order to be able to talk together. And even if staff/students had access to those online systems, we should not assume that our students are ‘digital natives’ able to make sense of and use these resources without further support and instruction. Digital and connectivity ‘poverty’ issues were also barriers for some students. Other students were in strict quarantine conditions on returning home from the UK, with only limited access each day to wi-fi.
Other challenges centred around the logistics of offering personal tutoring – lack of access to the ‘basics’ such as student records or letter headed paper to write references. Concerns around access to well-being support (both for students and staff) and how to ‘signpost’ students to resources/services that were struggling themselves to adapt to this new way of working were also raised by colleagues. So how did our law schools deal with these common concerns we all faced as personal tutors?
Responding to the challenges
The challenge of adapting and modifying existing ‘communication’ channels with students was a recurring theme. At Birmingham Law School, one of the responses put in place was the creation of new central email address to which students could direct queries on the new emergency assessment framework and the move to working from home. The inbox was ‘manned’ by a team of experienced academic staff volunteers, who had experience of dealing with some of the more complex queries that were coming in from our students. This central inbox dealing with repeated similar student queries allowed for spotting patterns and themes, which in turn was then fed into the creation of ‘FAQ’s’ hosted in a new Canvas (our VLE) space. We also used those FAQ’s to host synchronous conferences using our VLE (at that point, Birmingham did not have institutional access to either Zoom or Team) where students could post questions in a live forum environment. These processes helped to ensure consistency of support for all students. It also minimised email volume to individual colleagues, which created space for personal tutors to then reach out individually to their tutees, to offer more ‘bespoke’ guidance on issues relevant to that student’s own personal circumstances. Although this new communication strategy worked well, there are issues associated with this model. The initial response was staffed by academic colleagues who volunteered meaning inevitably only the same ‘few’ respond and the literature on this shows ‘service’ like this to often be unfairly gendered. For these types of system to continue to be of effective use, workload allocation needs to addressed and work around this has taken place at BLS, for example.
Another issue flagged up by the emergency pivot online was how tutees booked appointments with us – old ways of working such as the ‘sign-up sheet on your office door’ become quickly redundant when WFH. Great suggestions from CLE community members on this included using online booking systems such as doodle, calendly, although caution around the (GDPR) compliance of such systems does need to be kept in mind. Your institutional VLE may well have booking systems that can be used and the booking system in Microsoft 365 (if you have institutional access) updates to a linked outlook calendar in real time (super useful!). At Birmingham Emily worked with the digital instruction team to create a temporary (until Teams is fully rolled out) ‘bespoke’ GDPR compliant solution using a WordPress site. Other useful resources and simple ideas for checking in online with students can be found via this Microsoft education page too.
Planning for personal tutoring for the coming academic year
Moving forwards, it looks like that for all institutions, the role of personal tutoring is going to be ‘front and centre’ in terms of the new blended digital learning world of the coming academic year. However, some places seem to be further forward in relation to both institutional and school level planning on this than others. Some CLE community members reported personal tutoring being embedded within the curriculum, with new first year ‘personal tutoring’ modules growing in use. There was useful sharing of curriculum & materials for these types of modules to save having to ‘re-invent the wheel’ taking place within our Teams space (another benefit of joining our ever-growing CLE community!).
At Birmingham, institutional planning for 20/21 around personal tutoring requires all UoB students (not just in law) to engage in weekly group academic online tutorials with their personal tutors. Whilst an opportunity to embed the importance of personal tutoring and align it more with the curriculum is welcomed, operationalising this within the Law School is a big task. To help with this, Dionne is working with Emily and other Senior Tutors to support this process through a new HEFi teaching online teaching resource on personal academic tutoring. Reach out to the academic development team within your own university to see what similar support is available to support you & colleagues. UKAT have also put together a new Online Tutoring course to help staff to work through changes and develop resources accordingly. They are also holding a series of webinars in the summer on engaging students with technology and ensuring students can engage with their personal tutor. UKAT also have an archived webinar resource of past sessions on coaching approaches for remote tutoring and helping students to cope with remote tutoring – all are well worth a watch. One common message that stands out, however, is the need for our students to be given clear guidelines and expectations around new personal tutoring systems to enable them to engage fully with any changes.
Ideas to adapt and use in your own personal tutoring practice
Dionne ended our hangout with sharing some useful suggestions of things to do that can make a difference in our personal tutoring for the coming year – you can find more detail on these ideas via the UKAT website. Which ones from this list could you adapt and use to help make a difference in your own personal tutoring practice?
Things to make a difference
- Consider preparing a short welcome video to re/introduce yourself.
- Ensure tutees are properly introduced to the software you are using.
- Be clear before the tutorial takes place in terms of managing boundaries and setting expectations.
- Think about your own IT skills – do you feel confident with the platform, do you need any equipment? And the students?
- Consider so-constructing the tutorials with your tutees to give them a sense of ownership of learning and the content.
- For group tutorials use virtual breakout rooms for short interactive activities. You and/or your tutees can lead a breakout room.
- Consider using quizzes or polling to encourage engagement and interaction.
- Plan activities to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to speak.
- Consider using ice-breakers to promote engagement.
- Experiment, work with your tutees to find out what works for you and them.
- Consider ways to ensure your online tutorials are accessible and inclusive.
- Communicate, communicate, and communicate. It is important to consider how to communicate with students in this new learning environment of educational provision.
Future #ConnectLegalEd sessions
By the time you read this blog, we will have already held our interactive reading group hangout on building Communities of Inquiry. Our next scheduled #ConnectLegalEd hangout will be Tuesday 14 July with Professor Nicholas Hopkins (Law Commission) and Liz Hardie (OU Law) & Dr. Rachel Dunn (Northumbria University), who will be exploring how academics can connect with the work of the Law Commission and policy clinic initiatives in some law schools. All sessions are at 1100 BST and are on MS Teams; as ever, if you wish to join the Teams space for future #ConnectLegalEd hangouts, please drop Michael Doherty (email@example.com), Lydia Bleasdale (firstname.lastname@example.org), or Emma Flint (E.E.Flint@bham.ac.uk) a line.