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Saturday, April 04, 2020

Zoom as the new normal in the legal academy?

Yes, says Josh Blackman.

As for virtual academic conferences, workshops, and symposia, I wonder if we should separate long-term and short-term. Short-term, I could see schools doing this to deal with coming budget crises. One of the first things to go may be money for faculty travel, conferences, workshops, and symposia. Schools determined to weather the budget problems while maintaining some an academic and intellectual culture may choose this option. Longer-term and once the financial problems (hopefully) pass, how strong will the push be to get real human contact in our lives? Will the current experience make us not accepting of the new normal but longing for what we had? Then the question is when short-term ends and long-term begins.

As for class, I share Josh's bottom-line assessment of "more positive than I expected." I have been able to recreate, more or less, my live class in terms of how the conversation goes, the level of interaction, etc. There is a slight delay and things move more slowly than when we are in the same room. But I agree the students have been flexible and as well-prepared and engaged. I even took advantage of the technology to save class time--posting a recording of me talking about material (the types of civil actions) I would have lectured on in class. (Talking to a blank computer was awful).

Josh says "[u]niversities will demand more classes to be taught virtually." True. But the X-factor is that students hate this. That might be due to the sudden transition or the sense that this is not what they signed up for. But the common refrain that I have heard--and that some of my colleagues have heard--is how inferior this form of instruction is. I hope this gives faculty, like me, an argument to use when "stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop."

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 4, 2020 at 05:58 PM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


I am not sure that Zoom is the future of education as much as (pre-planned) online education that includes Zoom as a component. I don't think students, faculty, or the administration will sufficiently like an exclusively Zoomed classroom. I also do not see how an online class can be scaled up. The students still need to be engaged and graded and, more than live education, the professor should increase assessments (even if ungraded) to make sure students are learning online because the faculty can't just look around the classroom to see if the material is sinking in. That is why you often see online courses capped at a lower number of students than live courses--although I do worry best practices in online teaching will be neglected. In contrast, however, when it comes to faculty scholarship activities, Zoom can definitely save travel costs and time, and I have been enjoying Zooming into meetings/conferences/colloquia that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to attend.

Posted by: Margaret Ryznar | Apr 6, 2020 4:12:55 PM

Those who follow me on twitter know I've beaten this horse to death there, but we do ourselves a disservice when we assume online teaching and conferences are in conflict with their live counterparts.

Most innovations are complements, not substitutes. Online classes and conferences are, right now by necessity, substitutes for their traditional live counterparts. The extent to which they are *perfect* substitutes is highly contingent on other factors, on both the creator and consumer side as well as external factors. At some point, the necessity will end (we hope). I am skeptical online will end up being deemed close to the perfect end of the spectrum, but of course that conclusion is debatable.

If capacity really does get built out, such that a critical mass of the relevant agents becomes more comfortable with this mode even while acknowledging its limitations, I believe the likelier outcome is not outright substitution but rather new forms of virtual collaboration, essentially a new academic product category.

Your school has been thinking of offering a part-time certificate, LLM, or even JD program, but was concerned that faculty and students would have trouble finding a time that works for both groups? Or you were worried that one side or the other wasn't sufficiently familiar with the technology? Now you have an option that both groups have been trial-running in their current jobs. To be clear, the experience will likely be of a different quality—and will need to be designed, priced, and marketed accordingly—but in the best-case scenario it will be better than what is currently available. The same holds for products (whether or not money is exchanged) across the academic spectrum, such as conferences. Just as demand for legal education is higher than enrollment would suggest, latent demand for conferences is higher than attendance alone would suggest, because for budgetary, family, health, and other reasons, many people cannot travel to as many conferences as they would otherwise wish to participate in.

Most of the above has been the case for years. The difference is an exogenous shock, which has forced the relevant agents to become familiar with web video technology in ways they could avoid previously (I certainly avoided it). That opens up a range of possibilities with varying (and shifting) probabilities, with the substitution of online for live classes and conferences as but one (in my view, a low-probability one). The optimistic case—and I count myself an optimist here—is complementarity.

Posted by: Greg Shill | Apr 5, 2020 2:42:07 PM

"I also think law professors should think very carefully about the implications of too casually endorsing this method if they still want to maintain the status and pay they have at the moment."

I understand the point and I'm not mocking it. I like my job, among other things. But I should think that we should treat that as irrelevant. "What do law students need for a good legal education" seems like a fair question, and "What should they pay for a good legal education," and "What room is there, if any, for online as well as in-person learning in legal and/or professional education," and so on. But the consequences for law professors seem orthogonal to any legitimate concerns. Of course they're important to *me* and to other people currently benefiting from the way the system has been structured--and perhaps also to those who get less status under the current system, or who don't get *into* the system even though they might contribute a great deal as teachers. But how well or poorly current doctrinal law professors fare now or might fare in the future doesn't seem like a question that should drive policy arguments here. Certainly they should think carefully before speaking, but that's true of lots of things--grading policies, bar exam policies, and so on: we should be wary of drawing larger policy conclusions from urgent or unusual circumstances. It's true here too, but not necessarily because of status and salary concerns.

Let me add that I share Orin's view that there is a disconnect between "it's bearable" and "it will be the new normal," and a further disconnect between either of those two points and a third conclusion, the one we should care about most: "it works well for training lawyers." And I might add that although Josh's conclusion is sunny, I don't think online teaching is going as well as in-person teaching. It isn't for *me*, in any event, although it certainly is bearable and both the teacher and the students certainly improve with time. People being what they are, moreover, more people are likely to speak publicly about how good a job they're doing than about how poorly they're doing or how much they're phoning it in, so to speak. I don't draw strong policy conclusions about any of this, since it could be that more training would make a tremendous difference or that hiring a different set of job candidates could make a difference. But "bearable" doesn't mean "right for law teaching," and there may well be a more silent number of professors and students for whom it's not even bearable, except in a make-do-with-what-we've-got-in-extraordinary-circumstances way.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Apr 5, 2020 12:03:46 PM

Yeah, this is really going to go over well in "laboratory-like" coursework, ranging from the faux-laboratory of Trial Advocacy courses to the uncontrolled chaos of clinics. And those are the easy examples, because they don't involve controlled "experiments" (let alone "field work" or "experimental design").

Betsy DeVos and her "a degree is just job training for jobs we knew about five years ago" ilk must be smiling. A lot.

Posted by: C.E. Petit | Apr 5, 2020 10:28:50 AM


Dr. Phil is your daughter?

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Apr 5, 2020 5:21:23 AM

There's just as much chance the collective disappointments with it and poor and haphazard rollout during its one big trial kill its future as there is that the genie isn't going back in the bottle because people have gotten used to it and it's more cost effective in some ways.

Remember not all higher ed is as well endowed as law schools, to say nothing of students' internet access abilities across the board. There are much more substantial difficulties for this model of education in other parts of the industry. Scientific lab courses are mostly suspended (or making due with poor substitute methods) for now. These problems will impact perceptions of teaching in all disciplines.

I also think law professors should think very carefully about the implications of too casually endorsing this method if they still want to maintain the status and pay they have at the moment. If MOOCs are reintroduced, it will reduce individual faculty substantially as thousands can join a single course. And even if they're not, why would students acquiesce to high tuition bills for a Barbri-fied law degree?

Posted by: anon3 | Apr 5, 2020 1:23:52 AM

The train's left the station. I'd expect 75% of all higher education to be online by 2030.

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Apr 5, 2020 1:06:38 AM

I found Josh's post a little bit confusing because he jumps from saying that it is bearable (a point he nicely documents) to saying it's the new normal and we're not going back (a point he just asserts). I suspect our shared experience is that online is inferior to in person but is good enough for some purposes and not others.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Apr 5, 2020 12:32:40 AM

Isn't the broader question "is this what the student paid for?" I think we all remember not so long ago when massive open online courses were the wave of the future for college education. As my daughter would say, "How's that working for you?"

Posted by: Paul Sonnenfeld | Apr 4, 2020 9:43:35 PM

Whether students (and professors) hate this or not is one thing -- another, perhaps more critical question, is one of educational outcomes. 100% Zoom instruction is definitely not the future of education, but a well-planned and sophisticated use of technology to complement face-to-face instruction certainly is. As Howard notes, off-loading a certain amount of lecturing to asynchronous delivery frees up valuable, and scarce, classroom time for much more productive and effective use.

Posted by: Kevin Lapp | Apr 4, 2020 9:32:45 PM

It would be great to see data establishing that "students hate this," which we will be able to use to push back if universities push us to make a more permanent move to online teaching. I personally find it to be an inferior form of teaching and of learning, and anecdotally, I think that students do, too. But it would be a good idea to gather data on this.

Posted by: Elizabeth Inglehart | Apr 4, 2020 8:44:51 PM

No matter how good the technology nothing beats person to person.

Posted by: sam tenenbaum | Apr 4, 2020 7:40:42 PM

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