Zooming into law students’ lives

Zooming into law students' lives

Over the last eight months, we’ve probably all seen more of our students ‘virtually’ than in person. In some cases, we might have seen more of our students’ lives than we have before. Webcams let us go straight into students’ studies and dorms. And, for the foreseeable future, it looks like we’ll keep Zooming into law students’ lives for a while. But it raises a real question. Should we demand that students turn on their webcams?

In short, I’m still struggling with this question…

Online teaching isn’t new, but this is

Online teaching isn’t new. It has been around for a while. There is an enormous amount of material out there about how to organise and deliver online courses. And, with the dramatic changes earlier this year, there’s even more. But one thing that hasn’t got a lot of attention is what online learning means in terms of seeing directly into students’ lives.

There are lots of funny and touching stories about visiting pets, interrupting family members and even guest appearances by interested bystanders. But educators, especially in the US, have started to ask questions about what being ‘in’ students’ homes means in terms of revealing inequality.

At one level, that inequality is about access to resources. For elementary and secondary school students in the US, online learning has started to reveal gaps in access to technology. That might be old webcams or narrow bandwidth. You might ask, ‘Well, do we really care if the picture is grainy?’. Not too much, but how does a stuttering or slow connection affect participation, especially if it’s assessable? Or you’re still trying to apply a Socratic method?

At another level, not all students have access to a private study area. Some might not want to reveal to their peers what type of accommodation they are in – which could be tricky in a competitive environment like law school. As one university professor’s son pointed out, it’s different. On webcam, your face is front and centre. Everyone can see you.

Overall, these are some pretty difficult things to approach equitably.

But what about participation?

But I also find teaching online without the visual cues that are in the classroom really hard. The furrowed brow and the gentle nod can help give you an idea of whether law students understand what’s happening. I wrote in another post about the challenges in building relationships in an online setting, especially when cameras are off.

I’ve also now had the experience of talking to a screen of black boxes while trying to keep my energy and enthusiasm up. It can be a little de-motivating.

Some elementary schools in the US have mandated that all students must have their cameras on. Failure to do so can result in disciplinary action. While I’m not aware of it being forced in a tertiary setting, there’s certainly an expectation that if students are expected to physically attend class, then they should physically appear online. But, u.

There is also the awkward question about ‘cheating’, especially if participation is assessed.  Is the student behind the black box the student whose name appears in the caption?

Is it about managing expectations?

One of the consistent suggestions is to get ahead of some of these issues by setting your expectations early on.

Oregon State University has set out some helpful suggestions on how to do this. It includes things like avoiding making webcams mandatory but perhaps making it an expectation in one-on-one discussions or online consultations. That would certainly address some of the privacy concerns – but does it address issues of equality.

While we keeping Zooming into law students’ lives, it continues to produce some tricky questions.

What do you think?

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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