Should online legal education be teacher-led?

online legal education teacher-led

Over the past few months, law schools have worked hard to adapt to a new learning environment. Lockdowns, lockouts and distancing mean that law teachers have to deliver classes in new and (for some) unfamiliar ways. That’s meant designing entirely new ways of delivering a pre-COVID curriculum. And often at incredible speed. Its prompted at least some education administrators in the United States to adopt a new focus in taking on new teachers: do they have online teaching skills? Delivery changed, but the required content didn’t. So are we looking at this the wrong way around? Should online legal education be teacher-led? Or should we look harder at the curriculum?

Crash or crash through

It’s pretty plain that the changes in education delivery at all levels over the last six months have been dramatic. But they are also, unsurprisingly, unplanned. Academic social media has been full of stories of teachers changing their delivery within weeks or even days. It has been a case of crash, or crash through.

Both university teachers’ and students’ experience of online learning wasn’t always good. In a survey of more than 1,000 undergraduate students in the United States, student satisfaction dropped significantly. Three-fifths of teachers also reported that they struggled to keep students engaged.

But the change has also come with some surprises. The expectation might have been that teachers would simply record lectures. But teachers worked hard to keep opportunities to actively participate online. The same US survey found that more than two-thirds of students reported that there were still opportunities to ask questions and talk about course content.

There is also a myriad of resources – some happily re-discovered – available and being explored by teachers. Law schools very quickly to share ideas and practices. Students were willing to work with teachers to make the best of a bad situation.

Emergency remote teaching

But before we celebrate a new age in online legal education, we have to remember the circumstances in which this happened.

As one group of online instructional designers points out, there is a big difference between face-to-face and online teaching. Online teachers carefully design their lessons. They explicitly plan for context and platform-specific activities. And those activities link directly to learning outcomes.

They coined a phrase to describe the last six months (and probably the next months): emergency remote teaching.

Teachers frustrations with their new experiences online tend to bear that out. Some activities that worked in seminar rooms just don’t work in Zoom chatrooms. Synchronous learning activities don’t always work with an asynchronous time delay.

There also wasn’t the opportunity to address some of the other issues that dog online learning. Obvious things like uneven access to reliable internet and IT are impossible to fix in two or three weeks. Different levels of technological know-how across teachers and students meant limited uptake of various tools.

But there’s also a cultural shift. More responsibility to understand (and just keep up) with materials moves to students, especially when there is no live online interaction. There is also sometimes a general unease among students and potential employers about the quality of online learning when its compared to face-to-face teaching.

How do we move from ’emergency remote teaching’?

The assumption that at least some elementary and secondary school administrators in the US make is the ability to deliver teaching online is a skill set that they can recruit. That might be true for things like tech know-how and familiarity with new or existing platforms. But if law teachers have to carefully plan for online, what are they planning on?

Instructional designers emphasise that good online teaching starts from the curriculum. Researchers like Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris have argued long and hard that curriculum and curriculum materials that deliver the intended learning outcomes in an online space, as well as in-person, are fundamental. Rather than adapting the curriculum to fit existing technology, they argue that the curriculum should create the demand for platforms that support learning outcomes.

The ed-tech tools feel overwhelming because it’s “ed-tech first.” The stumbling block has been the marriage of curriculum and tech, delivered in a way that is accessible.

More specifically, Soloway and Norris predicted that technology would support more project or inquiry-based approaches to learning, rather than direct instruction. That would bring with it skills like teamwork and collaboration.

Teacher-led or curriculum-led?

The existing law school curriculum in Australia hasn’t changed significantly since the mid-1990s. A recent review updated a lot of the concepts and introduced some important ones.  But does the curriculum lend itself to project or inquiry-based online learning? Do the learning outcomes and materials support that style of learning?

There’s likely to be a tremendous amount of experience to come from the current emergency remote teaching environment. But should online legal education be teacher-led? Or, rather than relying solely on law teachers to adapt, could this be an opportunity to review the curriculum?

About Andrew Henderson

I am a law school teacher in Canberra and a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, researching the 'hidden' or informal curriculum of law school. I am passionate about developing engaging and authentic educational experiences for law students.

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2 Comments on “Should online legal education be teacher-led?”

  1. As I have now lived through ’emergency remote learning’ as a 1L, certainly this is a good summary of some of the struggles with engagement. I wonder if curriculum based teaching wouldn’t also be a solution to the unreliable testing methods I saw last Spring, which I feel are the biggest concern. Grades have a real life impact and most (and possibly all) of the student achieving honors in my honors/pass/fail system were cheating throughout the exams.

    1. You make a good point about curriculum-based assessment. Ongoing assessment is generally considered to provide the best outcomes for students as well as teachers, and also tends to discourage some academic misconduct because of its context-specific nature. I have strong views about academic misconduct leading to admission. If you are aware of misconduct, I would strongly encourage you to bring that to the attention of whoever is best placed to deal with it in your school. I realise that can be a challenging prospect, but it is fundamental to preserving the reputation of the profession generally.

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