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Connecting Legal Education: Wellbeing of online distance learning students

Month three, #ConnectingLegalEd hangout number 10, and we’re still going strong! Thank you to everyone who has joined in along the way and kept us all going during this often fraught and definitely weird times. As attention starts to turn (for some) from marking and towards next year (hopefully with a break and some research time between…), we’ll all be thinking about hybrid/online models; how on earth you get students to work with each other online when it can be hard enough in a seminar room; and how we’re going to assess. In amongst all of that though, there are other important factors to consider – albeit they don’t always pop up on module approval forms, or audits of assessment. One such thing is student wellbeing and for this session were lucky enough to be joined by Emma Jones from the University of Sheffield, who took us through some recent findings from a research project conducted with Open University LLB students.

Wellbeing of online distance learning students

by Emma Jones

When my colleagues, Mathijs Lucassen and Rajvinder Samra, and I began a study into the wellbeing of online distance learning law students, our focus was on the significant group of learners who had opted, either out of preference or due to their personal circumstances, to study for their LLB online. Fast-forward to 2020 and we have entire cohorts of law students in the UK and elsewhere who originally opted for a face-to-face option, but are now being forced to navigate online and blended alternatives.

The potential impact of this ‘online pivot’ on law students should not be under-estimated. During our focus groups, conducted with level 6 (i.e. final year) Open University LLB students, participants clearly indicated that it was the online nature of the programme, rather than law as a particular discipline, that was having the biggest impact on their mental wellbeing. In particular, participants highlighted the fact that they felt isolated as learners, lacked opportunities for peer learning and support and did not perceive themselves to be part of a wider academic community.

It has to be said, participants did also emphasis the positives about online learning, including the flexibility and the benefits of being able to study in a home environment where they felt comfortable and relaxed. Indeed, a significant majority of students felt their experience had been somewhat or very positive for their mental wellbeing. However, for law schools currently planning online or blended provision for the next academic year, it is the concerns these participants raised which are perhaps the best guide to what is required to support students’ mental wellbeing effectively.

During the initial ‘pivot’ the focus for many law schools was, unsurprisingly, on the practical. In particular, how to convert lectures, seminars and other events into appropriate online formats. However, going forward, our findings suggest that it is the wider student journey and developing an online student community, not individual learning events, which requires greater emphasis, planning and reflection.

In terms of academic support, this could mean providing students with a range of ways to participate in their learning, from synchronous lectures and seminars to asynchronous discussion forums, podcasts, educational interactives (including online multiple choice-based quizzes) or ‘twitter chats’. Thinking about ways to promote small group work to facilitate peer learning and connection will be key in this, to foster a virtual learning community. There are also tensions to consider in trying to establish a supportive learning community in a competitive academic field such as law. However, integrating group work and collaboration can go at least some way to ameliorating these.

Law schools also need to ensure students are given the support and opportunities develop the particular skills they need for online and blended learning, to enhance their sense of autonomy and competence (both of which are closely linked to mental wellbeing). This could well involve training or guidance on time management, as well as sessions to introduce students to the different types of technology being used or increase their confidence in learning and communicating online with tutors.

It is also important for law schools to also think in terms of pastoral and social support, particularly as it is so heavily interlinked with academic progression and attainment.  Thinking about the student journey needs to acknowledge those new students who will be starting next academic year in a radically altered environment, and how to manage their uncertainties relating to new ways of teaching and learning. Appropriate communications pre-entry and a well thought-out induction programme are likely to be vital in assisting new students as they adapt. For returning students, it is also worth thinking about their transition to a new online environment and how to scaffold that appropriately and in a timely manner..

More broadly, pastoral and social support throughout the academic year could involve emphasising (or even re-thinking) the role of the personal tutor, holding digital coffee mornings, setting up programme wide discussion forums and providing students with clear points of contact for any personal issues they may be experiencing.

In making these suggestions, I am mindful that there are implications in terms of time, resources and also staff wellbeing. There may also be a feeling amongst some that such work is out-of-proportion to what may potentially be a ‘one-off’ situation. However, although many of the themes our participants raised were perceived by them to be caused by the online delivery of the LLB, in fact they are also echoed in the wider literature on law student wellbeing. For example, our students attributed a lack of social connectedness to the distance learning format of the programme, but in related research law students in face-to-face settings have also raised this as an issue. Any work that is done to promote law students’ mental wellbeing is therefore likely to be valuable and important in the much longer-term.

As a result of the study my colleagues and I carried out, we put together two videos (kindly funded by The Open University) which may be of use to colleagues. One of these provides top tips for wellbeing when studying online:

The other provides top tips for wellbeing when studying law (regardless of the mode of delivery):

As well as focus groups, Mathijs, Rajvinder and I also conducted an online survey on the wellbeing of online distance learning law students, which is published in The Law Teacher:

Jones, E., Samra, R. and Lucassen, M. 2018. The World at their Fingertips?  The mental wellbeing of online distance-based learning students. The Law Teacher, 53(1), 49-69.

I hope these are a useful starting point for thinking about student mental wellbeing. Our findings suggest that for law schools it is necessary to ensure wellbeing considerations are integral to each decision and plan that is made in relation to online and blended learning. The current ‘online pivot’ raises new challenges and potentially difficulties, but also an opportunity to explore and discuss these issues more widely.


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