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Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Keeping DL on the DL?

One of the pieces of advice I received early on as a law teacher from a senior colleague was to never, ever, admit that a recording of your class could substitute for a live presentation.  If that notion gained widespread acceptance, the number of full-time teaching jobs out there would surely fall, and your own might be one of the ones that ends up on the chopping block.  To protect our own turf, law professors advance the entirely defensible position that there's no substitute for live teaching -- for the interaction that occurs in a mildly "Socratic" method, for the ability to ask spontaneous questions on the part of students, and for the teacher's opportunity to gauge the comprehension and engagement of the audience using non-verbal cues.

My early experiences with Distance Learning, primarily involving web based training of various kinds, made me a skeptic of the medium.  Some of the courses I've done on line, for instance, involved rapidly "clicking" through each slide until I was able to take a somewhat silly quiz at the end of the course, which I could retake if I failed, that was used to verify attendance.  And I've seen the use of random "codewords" on various on-line CLEs that appear intermittently, which a viewer has to type in to verify that s/he didn't just start the video and then go out to mow the lawn.  One gets what one needs out of such approaches, but if learning isn't the viewer's goal, it's relatively easy to avoid.

Technology, though, keeps making the virtual classroom more like the traditional one.  The gentle move towards accepting Distance Learning in legal education can be witnessed at dual-campus schools, where professors on one campus may broadcast via an Oprah-esque video presence to another campus, with the emergence of all-on-line schools, and certainly with the competitive pressure on-line bar review courses have begun to put on traditional prep offerings.  But compared to other aspects of higher education, such as education for working professionals, where distance learning has become commonplace if not dominant, legal education lags behind.

I had my first real taste of distance education last week when I recorded a section of first-year Torts using our newly installed "Echo" system.  Essentially, this system captures my voice (and the voice of students), as well as anything on the Smartboard at the front of the room.  In my case, this means power-point slides that are annotated using the Smartboard's pens as we go through class.  The recording is then converted for streaming video accessible via the World Wide Web.

"Watching" the "tape" was a bit eerie.  First, you get to see ghostly (though somewhat indecipherable) letters appear on the screen as they were written.  And of course you get to hear every mistake you made during lecture -- stumbling over words and the like -- once again and with agonizing clarity. 

But the advantages of this method -- which I used to avoid having to schedule a make-up class for our busy PT evening students in my other section -- are obvious.  Gone are the hard to-listen-to cassettes of yesteryear, or the video recording that requires the presence of an AV tech (to record) and can only be watched by one student at a time in the library's AV room.  Instead, a whole section can watch the streaming file, from the comfort of their own homes.  For limited use, to avoid make-ups or help out students with conflicts (like a moot court competition out of town), I'm sold. 

Posted by Geoffrey Rapp on October 5, 2010 at 04:14 PM | Permalink

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I am using Echo this semester, and I "tape" all of the classes, even if it is a "regular" class (instead of a make-up). I decided to record my class sessions because, in the same course, 50% of the class sessions already are (or will be) distance learning sessions. This semester, I'm teaching Federal Income Taxation as a 50% "distance learning" course. (Luckily, I've taught the course 13 times before -- I don't think I could do it with a new prep.) The format for the on-line classes is a pre-recorded lecture by me (no visuals, except old-fashioned references to pre-distributed handouts), followed by an on-line quiz which might be multiple choice or might be essay (or a combination). I added the Echo capture to the mix because I already had taken the plunge and committed to preserving my errors for posterity with the pre-recorded distance ed classes. So why not record the live ones, too? ( Admittedly, I find it tortuous to listen to my own recorded voice; I hope its less painful for the students.) Feedback from the students has been overwhelmingly positive. Those I have asked like having control over when they attend the second class "meeting" of the week as well as the ability to stop, take notes, go back, etc. So far, recording the "live" classes does not seem to have impacted attendance. That likely is attributable to the difficulty of the subject matter (and not my extra-compelling live teaching) or the familiar format. A 50% distance law school class is already a big experiment for most of the students, too.

Posted by: Bridget Crawford | Oct 5, 2010 5:17:08 PM

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