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Friday, July 24, 2020

Preparing for Fall Teaching: Guest Post on Combining Asynchronous and Live Online Teaching--Reasons and Strategies

This guest post is by Nina A. Kohn, David M. Levy Professor of Law and Faculty Director of Online Education, Syracuse University College of Law.  For the other posts in the series on preparing for fall teaching, see here.

My last post explored why faculty transitioning to online teaching should make live (or “synchronous”) teaching their default option.  Today’s post follows up with an explanation of why law faculty should nevertheless consider incorporating self-paced (or “asynchronous”) elements into their courses.  It also provides practical tips for faculty looking to add self-paced content to courses that are mere weeks away.

As I see it, there are three primary benefits to incorporating asynchronous elements into law courses.

Incorporating asynchronous lessons enhances live class.  Pairing live and asynchronous learning increases the likelihood that students come to live class sessions ready to engage with the material.  Students who have the opportunity to work through asynchronous lessons will tend to have a better understanding of material than they would have if they had only done assigned reading.  This is especially likely when asynchronous lessons include formative assessments that enable students to determine whether they understand the underlying material.  When students have tested their own understanding of foundational information before they join live class, faculty can use live class time more efficiently and engage in discussion of more nuanced and complex issues.

Incorporating asynchronous lessons expands formative assessment opportunities.  Law students tend to crave feedback and opportunities to assess how they are doing.  In part this is because many law school courses rely primarily on a single final exam to provide feedback, and this increases students’ anxiety about their performance and decreases their self-awareness as to their own competencies.  Asynchronous education is well-suited to addressing students’ need for feedback.  By incorporating questions or exercises into the asynchronous class—and providing students with either direct feedback or the ability to compare their answers to a model answer—faculty can help students understand their strengths and weaknesses.  Faculty who review the resulting student work—as should be the norm—can also identify students who may need extra help.

Incorporating asynchronous lessons increases flexibility for students.  Asynchronous instruction allows students to pace their learning according to their own needs and abilities.  In addition, students who would benefit from reviewing a lesson can readily do so.  The ability to review may be especially helpful during the Covid-19 pandemic as students struggle with physical and emotional health and caregiving responsibilities. 

But how can faculty capture these benefits of asynchronous education for their fall 2020 classes?  After all, as I discuss in-depth in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Legal Education, creating high-quality asynchronous courses requires incorporating substantial interactive elements—and that takes a major up-front investment of time and resources.  The answer, I believe, is to: (1) keep asynchronous instruction short, and (2) use it primarily to convey information that can serve as a springboard for live class discussions. 

As a practical matter, in most subjects, this will mean using the asynchronous class time to cover foundational doctrines or frameworks (i.e., the “black letter law”) to be explored in greater depth in live class sessions.  One way to do this is to record a short lecture on a key doctrine or concrete skill, and pair that lecture with a question, problem, or exercise.  For example, faculty members might post a video of themselves explaining a particular doctrine to their school’s learning management system, and then ask students to analyze a problem, draft a reflection, or prepare an analysis using that doctrine.  That resulting work could be shared with the professor for review, with classmates on a discussion board, or during a live class session in which the professor calls on students to share their answers.    

Asynchronous lessons built this way need not—and typically should not—be long.  As Debora Threedy and Aaron Dewald observed in a 2016 article, even a ten minute asynchronous lesson can help faculty make better use of live class time.  And, especially for faculty who lack the time or resources to create lessons with embedded questions and exercises, keeping lessons short helps reduces the likelihood that students will lose focus or stop paying attention.

In sum, law faculty teaching online in the fall should consider conducting a (short but sweet) portion of each week’s class in an asynchronous manner.  This can not only support student learning, but make teaching more satisfying for faculty.  At least in my experience, the better prepared students are to engage in lively discussion, the more fun it is to teach.

Posted by Jessica Erickson on July 24, 2020 at 01:40 PM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink


"One of the major problems in online education is retaining active learning." I don't buy it. Most of my learning in law school was done alone with my case books and computer. The most important thing I learned in class was the professor's perspective and what (s)he wanted to see on the exam. Lawyers learn all the time through asynchronous, self-directed, online means: they read briefs, statutes, judicial opinions, law review articles, and they talk to their peers. I would wager that most of what a praticing attorney knows was not learned in a classroom, but was self-taught. After the first year of law school, once the student learns how to read and process the law, most learning is the result of experiences and activities away from a live professor.

Posted by: Phil | Jul 25, 2020 5:23:09 PM

One of the major problems in online education is retaining active learning. To deal with this problem, I have just issued the second expanded edition of my book Think Like A Lawyer: Legal Reasoning for Law Students and Business Professionals. This book helps law students and lawyers develop their legal reasoning and problem-solving skills through self-correcting exercises. In other words, it provides formative assessment with immediate feedback.

Posted by: Scott Fruehwald | Jul 25, 2020 1:25:50 AM

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