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. Continue reading “Self-Made: Introducing Avatars in the Online Law Classroom (Part Two)”

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Self-Made: Introducing Avatars in the Online Law Classroom

By: Joy Kanwar (Brooklyn Law School) and Kim D. Ricardo, (UIC Law) (JMLS Chicago)

This article is the first in a three-part series.

Photo Credit: Lunalavandula

Law school in Fall 2020 will be different.  Many law teachers will meet their students for the first time through an online platform because of COVID-19.  And following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain and the reinvigorated social movement led by Black Lives Matter, our society is also reckoning with systemic racism more profoundly than ever in the past.

This historic moment presents challenges for both law teachers and their students.  How can you genuinely get to know your students at a distance?  Are there ways to facilitate student interactions to replicate the social networks of support that otherwise would have happened organically in the physical law school?  What is the best way to create a classroom culture online?  In what ways do the norms established in the online classroom either reify or help dismantle oppressive power structures?

Drawing on Joy Kanwar’s 2018 article, and in this series of three blog posts on Teach Law Better, we use the avatar framework to address these questions about online course development.  The avatar framework offers research-backed and field-tested strategies to foster law student socialization and community building in the online classroom.

In Part I, we define “avatar” and describe how Joy has used avatars as scaffolding for professional identity development in her classroom.  We then propose extending the use of avatars to frame all community-building efforts in an online class.

In Part II, we will contextualize our proposal to introduce law school avatars early in the year by diving into the relevant literature on distance education.  We specifically consider how the local social norms that faculty establish in the online classroom can help address inequities in the legal system and in law school.  In Part III, we will provide model avatar design guidelines with step-by-step instructions. 

Part One

What is an Avatar?

Joy’s Avatar

Avatar (pronounced “Ah-vuh-Thar”) originates from the Sanskrit language and Hindu Mythology and is defined as “the descent of a deity to the earth in an incarnate form or some manifest shape; the incarnation of a god.”  In the non-Hindu context, an avatar is “an embodiment or personification, as of a principle, attitude, or view of life.”  A third definition, and the one that may resonate the most for our students, is that of an avatar in the digital space: “a graphical image that represents a person, as on the Internet.”  In this last context, the avatar is a character that “stands in” for the real person and may or may not resemble the actual physical person. Continue reading “Self-Made: Introducing Avatars in the Online Law Classroom”

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Legal Citation and Pop Culture

By: Jan M. Levine, Professor of Law and Director, Legal Research & Writing Program, Duquesne University School of Law

Every academic year, legal writing professors grapple with the problem of how to best teach citation to 1L students.  Although several print- and computer-based sources of exercises are available for students, regardless of the citation guide the school requires (such as the ALWD Guide and the Bluebook), many professors develop their own exercises to expose their students to the myriad complexities of citation.  Experienced teachers know that the most enduring lessons on citation come from students preparing actual documents, such as office memoranda and appellate briefs, because students understand the issues and analysis being explored and have read the sources to be cited.  However, stand-alone exercises are helpful for introducing basic concepts of citation and explaining the more technical aspects of citation, such as full citations, short citations, signals, citation relationship to text, abbreviations, and parentheticals.  To be successful, stand-alone exercises need to have some “hook” that engages students in the otherwise dry topic of citation.

In an effort to make stand-alone citation exercises more enjoyable and realistic I have for many years created exercises based on aspects of media and pop culture that are familiar to me and to my students. I couple them with PowerPoint presentations that include associated visuals and music.  As a long-time science fiction and fantasy fan, in the past I used Star Trek and Lord of the Rings in my exercises. My latest citation exercises are based on case law and other sources that cite to the omnipresent Star Wars franchise and the DC and Marvel comic books, movies, and television shows. Continue reading “Legal Citation and Pop Culture”

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Embracing Online Teaching with a Growth Mindset

By: Professor Heidi Brown (Brooklyn Law School)

I have a confession: I am incredibly technologically challenged. My Apple TV no longer turns on unless I yank the little black box thingy out of the wall and plug it back in. My Bissell vacuum cleaner won’t stay charged. Every clock in my Brooklyn apartment shows a different time of day. My watch battery is dead. I still have a landline. I would rather converse on my landline than my cell phone . . . that is, if I speak on any phone at all (#introvertproblems). All signs would point to me being the least likely law professor in the universe to be enthusiastic about shifting to online teaching. Yet somehow, I am excited to take on this challenge. I’m eager to figure out a way to help our students navigate these uncertain times in their 1L year, which is already a stressful life experience. Continue reading “Embracing Online Teaching with a Growth Mindset”

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Hindsight is 20-20: Perspectives on COVID-19 Course Interruption from a Law Professor in China

By: Professor Ray Campbell (Peking University School of Transnational Law) with contributions by Professor Abigail Perdue

My school, the Peking University School of Transnational Law, and the city that hosts us, Shenzhen, China, both like to claim a reputation for innovation. This spring, we’ve been innovating in online education, just a step ahead of the rest of the world, but only because the COVID-19 pandemic hit China hard and early. As many U.S. law schools are only now transitioning to online education, I’ve decided to share the perspective of a law professor who is just a few steps further down the road with regard to COVID-related course interruption.

Just Do It. Before we went online, the folks at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, which has run a pathbreaking online program for a few years under ABA observation, were kind enough to meet with us virtually. They had spent a tremendous amount of time (18 months in fact!) thinking through various ways to make online education just as effective as in person teaching and to do it in an auditable way. During this time, they had slowly and thoughtfully developed comprehensive matrices, learning goals, and more.

Their process was impressive, but my first thought was, “There’s no way can I do this in the time allowed.” After all,  my first class was just a few days away, and I still wasn’t sure how to navigate Zoom competently. I feared being the slightly higher tech version of the professors from my youth who couldn’t figure out how to turn the slide projector on!

That may be where you find yourself now. But with the benefit of hindsight, I can tell you — don’t worry — you and your students will figure it out. No matter how hard I work at being a good teacher, the students substantially learn or don’t learn largely based on their own efforts and engagement. My class performance is just one component in a much bigger educational formula – i.e., reading the text, taking notes, listening, talking with classmates, reviewing hornbooks and supplements, using various self-assessment quizzes, and so on.

So no matter how gifted you are as a teacher, don’t forget that your students must take ownership for their education. They learn on their own as much as we teach them, and marginal deviations in your teaching performance caused by unforeseeable circumstances may not matter all that much in the long run. Clarify what they are expected to learn and don’t obsess over the small glitches, which are inevitable.

Think about Your Objectives. Take this unprecedented teaching moment to recalibrate. Consider what you really want to achieve in the class. If you teach the same class from the same podium year after year, it’s easy to become fixated on the minute details rather than the big picture. Online learning disrupts that script and provides an opportunity for change.  Let go of how you’ve always done things while hanging tight to your core learning objectives.

Embrace the Differences. During this thought-provoking process, you’ll probably realize, just as I did, that much of what you  already do in class can be done just as easily online. For example, if you teach with powerpoint, just use Zoom’s wonderful “share screen” feature to virtually share your slides with the class. You can put students on screen and have them answer in a Socratic fashion if that’s your style. You can even draw on a whiteboard if you have the right kind of touchpad.

However, there are a few things you can do online that you cannot do in class. Take advantage of these unique learning opportunities! For example, the anonymizing feature enables students who might be too shy to raise a hand in class to type an anonymous question and put their question in the Q&A flow while the class proceeds. The microphone I use makes me easier to hear than in a large lecture hall, and Zoom even permits students to download a video of each class with a transcript! Embrace the positive differences that online teaching can offer.

Based on nearly a decade of participating in Law Without Walls online, I have also decided to bring in virtual guest panelists. Different ‘thought leaders’ can  address our class topic from different perspectives. Zoom’s chat feature allows an ongoing commentary on the presentations so students and panelists can interject their own insights, share links to additional resources, and more.

So be creative. Try something new. Experiment with the platform.

Remember the Student’s Situation. This is a life-altering experience for you and your students.  It is hard to overstate how stressful and disruptive it can be. They’ve gone from seeking employment and internships in a booming economy to looking for work in an uncertain world.  For third years, the celebration and closure events that usually come at the end of school probably won’t happen this year, disappointing those who were very much looking forward to enjoying those milestone moments with family and friends.

Then there is the issue of being effectively restricted to a house or apartment, perhaps alone, which has been the situation in China for months now and may be the situation for much of the U.S. quite soon. It can be hugely psychologically disorienting to be sent home from school to live under what amounts to house arrest, sometimes with others are also under immense physical and mental stress. People are under tremendous strain, socially and emotionally.

So what can you do about that? Be accessible, warm, and empathetic. Look for creative ways to create and preserve a sense of community. Take some time to tell them about your life. Let them see your pets or those sharing your space. Invite students to a virtual coffee or non-class-related chat session. This goes a long way to create a tiny sense of community in an increasingly isolated and dispersed world. Simply put, be human.  Don’t succeed at the analytical level and blow it at the human level.

 

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