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.