By Barry Yau
Barry is an associate lecturer in law at James Cook University and is also an honorary academic at the Australian National University.
“How can you teach law ONLINE??” screeched the perplexed law lecturer, to whom I introduced myself at an Australian law teachers conference in 2014. I explained to the shocked and sceptical lecturer that I delivered online practical legal training (equivalent to the UK’s Legal Practice Course) to countless LLB and JD graduates around Australia and beyond. In other words I taught online asynchronously (for the most part).
It’s unimaginative to say that six years after the conference, that lecturer and multitudes of law teachers, well-versed in synchronous on-campus teaching, pondered the same question when traditional university teaching was severely upended by COVID-19.
The pandemic was extraordinarily disruptive. But 2020 gave me the unique experience of delivering three teaching modes pretty much contemporaneously. Yes, there was despondency globally, with many seeking solace by bingeing on Netflix whilst lamenting the closure of cinema and theatre. Yet I drew upon these modes of mass entertainment to appreciate my experiences in delivering (at times juggling) three teaching models: asynchronous online, on-campus synchronous, and online synchronous.
Netflix: Asynchronous online teaching
Having taught asynchronously online at the Australian National University from 2010 to 2021, I found the teaching model somewhat analogous to a Netflix series where all episodes are usually dropped at once, for viewers to watch in the comfort of their home or anywhere else, at their own pace and leisure. Teaching resources for my practical legal training students were available all at once. Students had the flexibility to prepare and complete their work in their own space at their own pace (within deadlines of course), even bingeing on study as they approach submission dates. Netflix utilise sophisticated software to measure viewership whereas I drew upon online platform statistics to understand the level of student engagement. However I was never entirely sure how my students genuinely responded to my attempts to engage asynchronously.
But as they say in show business, the show must go on. With COVID-19 shutting virtually all on-campus learning in Australia in the first half of 2020, my asynchronous teaching continued, albeit in a surreal manner amidst a global lockdown in a once-in-a-century event.
Theatre: Synchronous on-campus teaching
I think my first year law students at James Cook University could easily detect my nervous energy when I commenced teaching synchronously on-campus at the beginning of 2020. My superiors at the Australian National University had approved me taking an additional casual teaching position at James Cook University. Even with COVID’s shadow looming over the start of 2020, I was excited that James Cook University kindly took me on board to teach in the first year LLB program. Like a theatre performer gauging the mood of audience, I gained a better understanding of my students’ live reactions in lectures and tutorials to feed off the energy and emotion to engage the audience. I learned to play up what worked and downplay what didn’t, in my pursuit of motivating and inspiring them through the “teaching performance”. Like any theatre performance, mishaps, falls and bloopers are part of the live teaching, with improvisation essential. But inevitably like many theatre performances in 2020, the show was unfortunately shuttered after four weeks due to COVID.
Movies…Synchronous online teaching
At James Cook University I scrambled, along with many colleagues and counterparts on campus and worldwide, to move to online synchronous teaching. On reflection, I feel embarrassed that I was over-confident because of my extensive online asynchronous teaching at the Australian National University. I soon realised that my asynchronous online teaching methods was not going to be entirely transferable to its synchronous counterpart.
Synchronous online teaching was much more demanding and far more exhausting than I ever imagined. Like cinema, the behind-the-scenes of synchronous online teaching can be quite more revealing than what the student audience sees. When I say cinema, I mean the production of films whether we see it in an actual cinema or in the comfort of our lounge room for example. If synchronous online teaching is analogous to cinema, I’d be more specific and draw an analogy to a movie musical performed live on TV. Back in 2013 the Sound of Music was performed live to ratings success but critics noted the musical lacked emotional energy. In contrast, Grease was performed live on TV to popular and critical acclaim in 2016. I think one reason Grease exuded more energy was due to actual audiences interspersed across the studio during the live performance – the connection between them and the performers was very evident.
Of course I had no audience of students sitting with me at home when presenting my synchronous online lectures! So really, I was faced with a Sound of Music style musical where I knew there was an audience, but one I couldn’t see quite literally. This was accentuated by the fact that most students preferred to switch off their webcams, so I had no inkling even of facial cues on a Brady Bunch grid where I was the only one visible. I tried increasing student participation by filling my students with dread that if they didn’t contribute they would be forced to hear me drone continuously for the whole lecture or tutorial! To be fair to my students, they never signed up for online education, yet some made a valiant effort to enliven the performance.
After one week of synchronous online teaching I was incredibly exhausted – zoomed out. Dr Brenda Wiederhold, writing in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, observed the emerging phenomenon of Zoom fatigue, the “tiredness, anxiety, or worry resulting from overusing virtual videoconferencing platforms.” Dr Wiederhold observed that whilst online videoconferencing is extremely useful, it is not completely synchronous because though it appears things are happening in real time, there is a slight delay, even if only a millisecond between when a person performs an action and when the other participants observe it.
We hope there’s never another pandemic on the scale of COVID, even for a millisecond. But if it befalls us to pursue synchronous online teaching again, I really hope to at least present students a movie sequel that’s superior to the original.
1. Wiederhold, Brenda K. “Connecting through technology during the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic: Avoiding “Zoom Fatigue”.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 23.7 (2020): 437-438.