Thursday, November 12, 2020

Some observations about conducting student conferences via Zoom during a pandemic

These are historic times. Me and every other legal educator is having to learn new ways to teach due to the pandemic and do it fast. Zoom is now a permanent part of our collective teaching repertoire. This blog has been a good opportunity for me to jot down some observations and impressions about how the semester’s going while they’re still fresh in my mind. There’s no doubt that Zoom as a teaching modality will be with us long after the pandemic ends. So I thought it might be helpful to those interested in law school pedagogy to record some of these impressions here. Who knows? Maybe these anecdotal observations will later prove useful to commentators and scholars of law school pedagogy.

As I’ve blogged before, when the semester began I really didn’t like Zoom at all. It was unclear to me how, and whether, I’d be able to adapt many of the things I do in the classroom to an online platform. In part that’s because I have a very “physical” teaching style in that I like to frequently move between the whiteboard and podium as well as walk the aisles to better engage with students. But as I also said at the time, these extraordinary circumstances present a challenge that will require us to grow as teachers. We’d have to find ways to innovate and improvise, and ultimately become better teachers to overcome some of the shortcomings of Zoom as an educational platform. Among other things, I purchased several portable whiteboards, some dry-erase pens, an easel, and a pointer, to put myself on camera as much as possible during class to replicate for students the physicality of a traditional classroom. Students have told me they prefer this approach to the marathon slideshow presentations that comprise some of their other classes. While I’m happy my students are enjoying class, I still believe that a physical classroom is the best place to teach a legal skills class like LRW.

But when it comes to other aspects of my class like the individual student writing conferences, I’m liking Zoom much more than I expected. Having just completed a full round of half-hour conferences with twenty-two students, I’m quite pleased with the overall result. I can’t say Zoom is better than meeting in-person, but I definitely have the impression that it’s a very good alternative. One thing that’s missing from the Zoom experience is the ability to read some student body language and other visual cues that let me know whether they’re getting it and what they’re getting hung up on. On the other hand, the video conferences seemed to establish a more relaxed atmosphere compared to meeting face-to-face that enhanced their effectiveness. Whether it was due to the convenience of students not having to rush between classes to get to my office or instead the benefit to them of being surrounded by the comforts of home, the conferences definitely seemed to have a subtly more relaxed vibe which helped, I think.

Another aspect of the conferences which worked well on Zoom was reviewing drafts with students. I always require students to submit a rough draft of the pending writing assignment before meeting with me. As I’m fond of telling them: “No shirt. No shoes. No draft. No dice!” Despite the fact that a traditional in-person conference works well when we sit side-by-side to go over their drafts, it may have worked even better with my dual monitor office set-up that lets me put the student’s draft on one screen while we talk about it on the other. I also used the digital highlighting function in Word to great effect by using various colors (i.e. yellow, green, and blue) to highlight and make distinct points. Even the students who don’t like learning via Zoom said they found the writing conferences a much better use of the platform.

The experience has made me think that when we eventually return to classroom teaching sometime next fall, assuming the new vaccine works as expected and there's adequate distribution, I’ll likely continue to offer students the option of conferencing via Zoom instead of in-person. As of this post, it’s nearly the end of the semester for me, at least with respect to my LRW course which ends a bit earlier than my other, upper level class. Looking back over the semester, I can definitely say that having to teach under these circumstances has pushed me to think hard about my classroom approach over the years, reassess those methods, and try new things. Offering students the option of writing conferences via Zoom, especially with a dual desktop monitor set-up, is definitely going to be an valuable addition to my teacher’s tool box going forward.


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