Self-Made: Introducing Avatars in the Online Law Classroom (Part Two)

By: Joy Kanwar and Kim D. Ricardo

Image Credit: Lunalavandula                      Student-Created Avatar

In Part I, we introduced the idea of an avatar and described how Joy has used avatars to help students prepare for oral argument in the physical classroom as well as an online one.

In Part II of this three-part series, we re-envision the avatar as a tool to enhance law student engagement in the online classroom, as well as how it can be useful to build professional    identity.  First, we focus on how avatars can be used right at the start of the semester for community-building purposes.  The local culture that we create in the (online) classroom matters.  The social norms that we establish can assist students in identifying and addressing inequities in the law.  Here, we encourage faculty to build classroom norms that challenge the notion of objectivity and that value subjective perspectives.  Second, we present reasons that avatars can also help enhance professional identity building during the semester as well, a purpose that is enhanced further if community has already been built in the classroom.

In our final post, we will share ideas of how to apply these concepts.

Why Use an Avatar? 

There are a number of reasons that an avatar can be useful in an online course:

  1. To build community without a physical classroom space;
  2. To help students name their own identities when they enter the classroom;
  3. To help others in the classroom learn about their peers;
  4. To help students name professional attributes that they wish to develop; and
  5. To help students understand that professional role in relation to—not apart from—their clients, the court system, and society at large.

Avatars Enhance Social Presence and Community Building

Students who are actively engaged in the online classroom community are less likely to be isolated and alienated.  This is significant because the research suggests that without social relationships with other course participants, students do not become invested in the course and therefore lack incentives to engage or to learn.  Therefore, online courses should carefully engineer opportunities to initiate and develop those relationships.

The Social Presence model is a useful heuristic for this purpose.  The model contains five key elements: affective association, community cohesion, interaction intensity, knowledge and experience, and instructor investment.  As an initial matter, professors who integrate these elements can increase trust and respect levels and therefore enhance social relationships among the course participants.

The Social Presence model confirms that interaction and engagement is important, but simply being conscientious of these factors is not enough to foster an inclusive classroom environment that is supportive and attentive to all student needs.  Concrete and specific guidelines that prioritize anti-subordination values and principles in community building are critical.  Overall course design should establish local social norms that embrace anti-racist and anti-subordination principles.  A preliminary step is building these expectations into the avatar design guidelines that provide the norms for the initial step in interaction—student presentation through avatars.

The avatar that a student chooses to serve as a physical representation is the precursor to and proxy for any interaction in the online format.  Avatars offer an almost infinite set of options and choices for customizing a physical representation.  Some suggest that avatar use has the potential to increase equality and democracy in the classroom because avatars can cover markers of difference. To the contrary, online classroom and course design ought to take difference into account and create local norms that demand equity and inclusion.

The prior knowledge and experience element of the social presence model refers to a base of common knowledge or set of shared experiences.  Entering first-year law students do not yet have a clear and practiced idea of what law school is nor how it operates.  Most will rely on the cues that are provided by the faculty leading their first semester classes.  Those cues will come from the knowledge and experience that the classroom community builds together with the leadership of the professor.

The law school classroom—as heavily reinforced during the first semester of legal writing—tends to valorize “objective” analysis.  We teach students to “think like a lawyer” by indoctrinating them into a method of legal analysis that establishes the neutral observer as the ideal lawyering figure.  By definition, the neutral observer is a distanced intellectual bystander who discards emotion or other knowledge informed by subjective experience.  Only the facts and the law matter.  We encourage students to take a Janus-faced view of legal issues with the goal of making them better advocates who will be more successful if they can anticipate and defend against counterarguments.  But in the process, law teachers can forget what students might be losing as they gain these new lawyering skills.

They are losing themselves.  Students whose lived experiences do not fit mainstream narratives find it difficult to abandon their subjective knowledge base to “fit” into the model of legal analysis we have structured for them.  When the objective standard for reasonableness is introduced as a foundational legal concept, the “Average Joe” explanation of what or who that figure is excludes the majority of the class.  Students with outsider knowledge want to ask why the appellate courts judging the cases they read do not address what seem to be the most important to them: what about race and gender and class?  How did these characteristics impact the choices available to the criminal defendant?  To the residential lessee?  To the worker injured on the job?  Objectivity is a lie.

But objectivity is a lie that we don’t have to keep telling.  We can set new governing norms in the classroom that allows room for and privileges outsider knowledge and experience.  Avatar design guidelines can assist with breaking old structures by assuming difference and affirmatively valuing those outsider perspectives.  If such guidelines are incorporated early in the semester, students can reflect on what aspects of themselves they want to present, and can create a representation that takes many aspects of their identity into account (for example, Dominican heritage, Bronx born, LatinX, Yankees fan, Introvert, Non-gender ascribed, Gamer, former Spelling Bee champion, Baker, Masters in Social Work).  Avatars themselves can show a multiplicity of chosen characteristics, and can change or modulate as other pieces of self-identity become more important for a student to highlight or foreground. Professors and students can even collaborate on the norms for the classroom and for avatar creation and, if need be, modification.

Avatars Can Enhance Professional Identity Formation in Law Schools

We also believe that avatars have a role to play when developing students’ identities as lawyers.  To really understand what makes students see themselves as budding lawyers, we must understand what role that professional identity plays in the law school context. Importantly, professional identity is broader than just ethics or professionalism.  For lawyers themselves, “professional identity” is the way lawyers understand their role “relative to all of the stakeholders in the legal system, including clients, courts, opposing parties and counsel, the firm, and even the legal system itself (or society as a whole).”  As expressed by Martin Katz, the former dean of Denver Law School, when reflecting on the school’s innovative experiential learning “bootcamp” program, “you cannot teach someone to form their identity. Rather, we as teachers need to create ‘situations’ in which our students can be confronted with ethical questions and reflect on the decisions they make, and be guided by us as they form their own professional identities.”

In fact, since the MacCrate Report and the Carnegie Report came out, professional identity has become a focal point in legal literature.  As stated by John Bliss, “the standard conception of lawyer identity is that it requires “thin professional identity,” whereby lawyers bifurcate between personal values and professional behavior in accordance with a client-centered principle of neutral partisanship.”

The basic concern here is that lawyers, and the law students who become lawyers, do not understand that professional identity is multifaceted and stacks many skills on top of one another, only some of which are expressly taught in law school courses, such as professional responsibility.   Along with the express duties to understand a lawyer’s role as to the legal system, clients, courts and opposing parties, where does the intersection of one’s personal values and ideals go?

Professor Daisy Hurst Floyd has proposed another definition: “Professional identity refers to the way that a lawyer integrates the intellectual, practical, and ethical aspects of being a lawyer and also integrates personal and professional values. A lawyer with an ethical professional identity is able to exercise practical wisdom and to live a life of satisfaction and well-being.”  This is a definition upon which we can build a model, and the use of avatars can help students envision themselves as this kind of “whole” lawyer, as well as a model for expressing their existing identities.

In our final installation, we will take up the discussion of how to use and build avatars for the classroom.   We will provide detailed and specific guidelines on how to engage the concepts above in Part III, out on August 10.  Have a great weekend!



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