Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Engaged Learning and Collaborative Teaching

A few weeks ago, my face appeared in real-time on a screen at Drake Law School in a room of eager students of Professor Jonathan Rosenbloom’s sustainability course, called Sustainability & the Law.  As a guest, sitting in my office before a computer screen and video camera, I engaged Jon’s students on issues of ecosystem governance and watersheds.  The students were spectacular, and in my view, it will be worthwhile to share some thoughts on my experience.

First, a note on the course: Jonathan has really pushed the envelope of innovative teaching methods with this course.  The course description for Sustainability & the Law provides as follows:

This course is an excellent and unique opportunity to make a positive impact on your community. You will be introduced to a diverse, emerging, and innovative area of the law, as well as creative practitioners and public officials working in this area. The course is designed to operate similar to a small firm focusing on issues relevant to sustainability. We have a real client, The Greater Des Moines Partnership, who has asked for our help. Through our representation of the client, we will explore the concept and practice of sustainability and its integration of economic, environmental, and social considerations. Students will draft actual proposals to advance issues relevant to sustainability and receive feedback from public and private sector officials, including the Des Moines City Council.

In his article that describes the teaching methods employed, Jonathan suggests that engaged learning provides a productive path toward professional competency in law students:  “The combination of practical application, collaborative learning, formative evaluation, and peer review in teaching sustainability has the potential to give the students a real understanding of the law, to get them engaged, and to have them take ownership over the content.”  The students’ successes were acknowledged last year, and due to (what I perceived to be) a great mixture of the student’s energy and Jonathan’s professionalism, I am sure this year’s students performed at least as well (and they present to the Des Moines City Council on Thursday).  Jonathan has managed to engage his students at a fairly demanding and sophisticated level of professional problem solving, and their interest may be, in large part, the impressive consequence.   Jonathan has posted the students’ final reports from this year. 

Second, I recognize that I may be a newcomer to this type of distanced participation, but I think I can still say that I found the technology surprisingly effective.  Innovative teachers have already developed uses and opportunities for video chatting in the classroom, including: experimenting with collaborative project-based learning between students at other schools; enabling access to guest speakers; conducting interviews with authors, activists, or other subjects of study; engaging students in lessons on cultural difference; allowing students to share experiences or performances; and a host of others.  Students are, or need to be, comfortable with today’s communication technologies and the accompanying opportunities, and we should be willing to bring technology into the classroom.  (As an aside, I was made aware that the projection of my image on the screen in the classroom magnified my face to extent that should have made me self-conscious.)

Both during the class meeting and in subsequent conversations, Jonathan suggested that all players win in this exchange and provided me his perspective on the additional benefits of assigning articles that were authored by the guest speaker (in this case, a piece of mine on watershed governance). The experience was interesting to Jonathan because I brought my research interests to the classroom in a way that added to the course knowledge.  For the students, participating with the author of their assignment was an honor and fostered a demanding, professional atmosphere in the classroom.  The students clearly rose to meet me at a high level of competency through their preparation.  And, although we would all love to think of our own scholarship as universally true and insightful into everything, Jonathan also reminded me that my watershed governance ideas sounded different in Iowa than in New York or Oregon.

Ultimately, the distance separating me from the Drake students may have fostered more engaging and open dialogue on the issues presented because of the newness (and uncertain boundaries) of the relationship, but it also forced us to address important cultural and norm-based differences (that we tested and tried throughout our 75-minute meeting).   These students were forthcoming on both their intrigue and skepticism about the governance model I had proposed, but through an engaged dialogue I believe we were able to find common ground on a number of issues.  Notably, much of our discussion pertained to water issues (flooding and drainage tiles) that have particular importance in Iowa. 

This was a great experience for me, and I learned a great deal about remote guest speakers, teaching in general, and my own scholarship.  My experience suggests we would all benefit from reaching out to one another as Jonathan did.   

- Keith Hirokawa

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/environmental_law/2012/04/engaged-learning-and-collaborative-teaching.html

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Comments

Good post Keith. I developed an Intro to Renewable Energy course this semester that was taught to law students (live) and simultaneously videoconferenced to UMaine graduate students and one Honors undergraduate 2 hours away. I used KK DuVivier's new book, The Renewable Energy Reader, supplemented by recent reports, articles, etc. For each of the renewable technologies we debated, I brought in someone actually running a company engaged in them ie solar, wind, hydro, tidal, buofuels--again, with speakers in 2 locations. Also with videoconferencing, I divided up students into teams of 4 or 5, a mix of law and non-law students to make them learn to talk with each other, to present on the pros and cons of a given technology. While there were some IT hassles several classes,and definitely a lot of extra effort for the instructor, overall I believe the class worked well for all. I am going to do similar courses next year on energy economics-policy-law, and on climate change science and law.

Posted by: Jeff Thaler | Apr 26, 2012 4:19:06 AM

Your post resonated with my experience teaching water law this semester. I brought in - via Skype - the main litigator in the Nestle bottled water case in Michigan and the students were engaged and enthusiastic about the opportunity to speak directly with the lawyer whose arguments they had just read. It brought the law to life for them. The technology was very easy to use.

Posted by: Melissa K. Scanlan | Apr 25, 2012 8:26:47 AM

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