Friday, June 26, 2020
Last week, I wrote the first in a series of posts with tips for teaching online. I expect many more law schools to join Harvard and now UC Berkeley by doing all Fall classes online. I’m already teaching online this summer and will teach online in the fall. Our students deserve the best, so I’m spending my summer on webinars from my home institution and others learning best practices in course design.
Here are some tips that I learned this week from our distance learning experts. First, I need to adopt backward design. I have to identify the learning objectives for my courses, then decide how I will assess whether or not students successfully met the learning objective. Effective learning objectives are active, measurable, and focus on different levels of learning (e.g., remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, creating). Some people find Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives helpful.
Once I figure out my learning objectives, I will work backwards to determine what kinds of activities the students will work on either online or face to face (which for me will be Zoom). For more on this topic, see this guide to backward design from Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. By the way, if you’re wondering why I’m not just saying click here, it’s because descriptive text is better for accessibility.
Then I will figure out the technology, which is important, but shouldn’t drive how or what I teach. Although we think our students are tech savvy, we still need to keep it simple and intuitive. We have to think about how to engage the students and facilitate learning without taking up too much bandwidth.
Finally, I need to ask myself some hard questions.
What do you want students to know when they have finished taking your blended course? What are the intended learning outcomes of the course?
- This actually takes some thought. We all have our mandated ABA learning objectives but what do they really mean, especially in today’s environment? How do I make sure that the learning objectives are pedagogically sound? What do students need to learn to be practical, strategic lawyers? What kinds of people, process, and tech skills do they need for the “new normal” when it comes to delivery of legal services? Yes, I want my students to know how to communicate more effectively to clients, counsel, and judges in my legal writing course. I want my students to know how to draft, edit, and negotiate contracts in my upper level skills courses. I want my compliance students to understand the law and the soft skills. But what other skills matter now? How will I communicate those over Zoom?
As you think about these outcomes, which would be better achieved in the online environment and which would be best achieved face-to-face in class?
- How much harder will it be to teach people skills and impart complex concepts online? I don’t have the option for face-to-face classes in the Fall and many of you won’t either, sorry to say. In the Fall, I will have one online asynchronous course and another hybrid. It will be all online but I will record some lectures and use the synchronous time for simulations, peer review, and discussions. I’m trying to determine how to make the synchronous time as engaging as possible – even more engaging than I would if I was standing in front of the room. I will have to compete with barking dogs, the comforts of a couch, and other electronic distractions that I would not have in an in-person environment. I’ll post more about keeping students engaged online in a subsequent post.
Blended teaching is not just a matter of transferring a portion of your existing course to the online environment. What types of learning activities do you think you will be using for the online portion of your course? For the face-to-face part of the course?
- Each week, I plan to use discussion boards and no-stakes short quizzes to ensure understanding for the asynchronous portions of my courses. My pre-recorded videos will be no longer than fifteen minutes, and ideally seven minutes or less. As stated above, for the synchronous Zoom sessions, I will use polls, breakout rooms, and panels of students. Because I will have a flipped classroom, the students will have learned the concepts so that we can apply them in class. As for class discussions, I have found that I sometimes have a more intimate connection with students in a class of fewer than 25 on Zoom than I did in the classroom, but large classes are much tougher. Professors appear to have mixed views on using the Socratic method on Zoom. Since my face-to-face classes are on Zoom, I require cameras on so that I can see their faces, unless they have permission in advance from me or temporary bandwidth issues.
Blended courses provide new opportunities for asynchronous online discussions. How will you use asynchronous discussions as part of the course learning activities? What challenges do you anticipate in using online discussions? How would you address these?
- I have used pre-class discussion boards and have required students to reply on two other submissions. These count for class participation so students can’t just write “great comment.” I have also experimented with post-class discussion board submissions. They key is to follow up and comment myself so that students don’t feel like they’re in a black hole. I also plan to have one or two students per week post a current event to the discussion board that relates to what we are doing in class. During class time, I will ask another student to discuss or summarize the current event.
How will the face-to-face, online and other “out of class” learning activities be integrated into a single course? In other words, how will all the course activities feed back into and support the other? How will you make the connections between the activities explicit to students?
- This will be tough and this is why I will spend weeks this summer planning. I need to make it clear what the students need to read, watch, and do pre-class, in-class, and post-class. Teaching online takes much more pre-work than most people realize. But this planning is critical to ensuring that the students have a seamless course experience.
When working online, students frequently have problems scheduling their work and managing their time. What do you plan to do to help your students address these issues and understand their own role and responsibility for learning in the course?
- Students really need structure, and even though they don’t like to admit it, they prefer it. Online learning means that students must have more discipline than they are used to. I plan to recommend a workload course estimator so that students can plan appropriately. I will also have to cut back on the work I give because economic and health issues will continue to plague my students during the pandemic. Our university and others have rolled out tools for students to manage their time, and more important, manage their stress. I also plan to do frequent check-ins and increase office hours.
Students can have challenges with using new instructional technologies to support their learning. What specific technologies will you use for the online and face-to-face portions of your course? What proactive steps can you take to assist students to become familiar with your course website and those instructional technologies? If students need help with technology later in the course, how will you provide support?
- As I mentioned in the last post, it’s best for all professors to use the same platforms for the learning management system. You can add bells and whistles for team communication or polling later. As for helping students get familiar with the website, our university has instructional designers and lots of webinars, but I plan to test drive my eventual set up with my research assistants over the summer and ask them to be brutally honest. Fortunately, we have several online resources for students as well.
There is a tendency for faculty to require students to do more work in a blended course than they normally would complete in a traditional face-to-face course. What are you going to do to ensure that you have not created a course and one-half? How will you evaluate the student workload (and your own) as compared to a traditional class?
- This is my biggest concern. I spend many more hours prepping my online courses than my traditional courses, and I haven’t even been doing anything particularly sophisticated. Now that I’m learning more tools and techniques, I anticipate that I will be spending more time prepping. In my zeal to make sure the students have a great experience and learn as much or more than in the traditional classroom, I will likely give them more work as well, if I’m not careful. The key is to use the findings from learning science to find a balance.
In my next post, I’ll talk about what I’m learning about how students learn. In case you can’t wait to see what I write, check out Learning How to Learn, Small Teaching Online, and Online Learning and the Future of Legal Education. If you have suggestions or comments, please leave them below so we can all learn from each other.
 Our instructional designers attributed these questions to the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.