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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