By Professors Rosa Kim and Dyane O’Leary
We often tell law students not to expect to “get it right” the first time doing something new. Our recent experience teaching online legal writing courses revealed just how true that is.
Distance education in law schools is exploding. The American Bar Association’s decision last year to allow more student credits for online courses has propelled schools to encourage faculty to explore converting courses to hybrid or fully online formats. Many programs are expanding offerings to maximize the benefits of online courses, such as greater flexibility and access for students. Some critics of distance learning in legal education express concern about potential detriments, especially where some data indicates that students with weaker independent learning skills may struggle outside of the physical classroom. Nevertheless, the distance education train has left the station and law schools are aiming to stay aboard.
How do you design an online writing course? Law professors have different views on the best way to approach course design, but almost all agree that designing a new successful course takes considerable thought, time, and effort. Integrating a significant online component to a skills-focused course with many assessments brings an additional set of challenges, so careful preparation is key.
Suffolk’s legal writing program took a 50/50 approach. Unlike courses that are completely online, the hybrid model—retaining face-to-face teaching in addition to online learning—strikes a happy medium, allowing for personal connections between professor and student as well as flexibility for students. For the professor, however, determining new learning outcomes, developing online assignments that test those outcomes, devising proper pacing to maximize learning, and allocating course content between in class and online are just some of the considerations a new hybrid course requires.
In the spring of 2019, we taught new hybrid advanced writing electives, one focused on Intellectual Property law (Professor O’Leary) and the other on International Law (Professor Kim). The experience affirmed many of the expected challenges and also revealed some surprising benefits. Here are the top five lessons we learned:
- Plan thoughtfully but be flexible.
Online teaching requires earlier, more deliberate course preparation. It can be hard to gauge the pacing for the syllabus, and assignments and dates may need to be adjusted along the way. Organizing the syllabus in broad strokes instead of including too many specifics provides more flexibility. Having a clear vision of the order and flow of online course content is critical, but there should be space built into the syllabus that the timing and precise nature of activities will shift as the course progresses. For example, understanding the link between the traditional syllabus and individual online course “modules” (topics) on a course management system such as Blackboard or Canvas is important. At times they work together, but they can also be disjointed and potentially distracting for students.
- Take advantage of (but don’t overuse) online tools.
Using a platform like Blackboard is convenient and efficient for any type of course, but some tools create learning opportunities that are not available in the traditional format. For example, teaching legal writing in a hybrid format has a special benefit in that there are many different opportunities for informal writing online. Short writing assignments using these tools can create interactive engagement (e.g., discussion boards) or individual communication with the professor (e.g., journals). Students seem less burdened by these formats and more able to express their thoughts in insightful and thoughtful ways. Students who tend to be less vocal in class, for example, can have seamless access to these alternate modes of expression and participation. On the other hand, too many tools and assignments can create clutter and become hard for both the professor and students to manage. Using fewer tools but maximizing their impact is an effective approach.
- Communicate with consistency.
Having only one class meeting per week makes it harder to establish a rapport with students. Many law students (such as evening students with full-time jobs) value the option to not be physically on campus. But regular online contact with students is crucial to maintain some connection and continuity. For example, the option of a video conference or group discussion using a tool such as Zoom can continue building relationships while still providing convenience and flexibility. It’s hard to “over communicate” with students. Students seem to crave and appreciate, rather than begrudge, reminders and “at a glance” summaries highlighting the online work each week. Students who may be less confident with the course material, or less engaged in online activities, may need more frequent contact and encouragement.
- Disclose inexperience.
If you aren’t an expert in online teaching, don’t pretend to be. Share with students that this is your first hybrid teaching experience and that feedback from students is desired and essential. Offer anonymous evaluations to gauge how students feel about the course. The “we are in this together” approach establishes a connection from the start and makes an impression of realness and eagerness on the professor’s part – not a sage on the online stage who has it all figured out. Students appreciate transparency and the knowledge that their input is valued. It can be frustrating or disappointing when things don’t go as planned, but having a sense of humor and an open channel of communication with students takes the edge off.
- Don’t go at it alone.
Using resources is an important piece of any good teacher’s preparation in the brick-and-mortar classroom – but even more so when navigating a new online learning environment. Instructional design and technical support within the online course management system are key, both at the outset and throughout the course as issues arise (for students and the professor). Seek out opportunities to learn what it’s like to be a student online. We were fortunate to enroll in an Online Course Design Institute by Suffolk’s Center for Teaching & Scholarly Excellence. Having a chance to sit in the student’s chair (or, in this case, the perspective from a student’s laptop!) was revealing. Finally, check out other online classes – whether a doctrinal law course or undergraduate statistics course or high school algebra lesson. Good online teaching is good online teaching, and the more we explored different ideas, the more we were able to successfully shape our own legal writing courses.
Is gearing up to teach a hybrid course challenging? Yes. Time-consuming? Indeed. Did we get it “right” the first time? Nope. But it’s been well worth the effort, and we look forward to continuing the community dialogue about good online teaching. After all, our next hybrid writing courses start in just six months. Time to get to work.