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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Preparing for Fall Teaching -- Guest Post on Law School Online: Choosing Between Live and Asynchronous Teaching

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.

Law faculty nationwide are grappling with how best to teach courses that are online for all or part of the semester.  The single most important decision most will make is what format to use. 

Should they teach synchronous (or “live”) classes, using a videoconferencing platform such as Zoom?  Should they teach asynchronous (or “self-paced”) classes, recording lectures or other content that students can interact with on a more flexible schedule?  Should they combine the two formats?

As someone who led the design and implementation of an online JD program, spent the past several months training faculty transitioning to online teaching, and has taught both a traditional, doctrinal course (Torts) and a seminar (Aging and the Law) online, my recommendation is actually very simple:  law faculty should make synchronous (live) teaching their default. 

As I explore in depth in my new article “Teaching Law Online: A Guide for Faculty” (forthcoming in the Journal of Legal Education), there are three primary reasons for making live law teaching the default even when classes are online.

Ease.  With training, reasonable class sizes, and the right technology, law professors teaching live online can employ the same teaching techniques that honed in their residential classrooms.  By comparison, unless faculty use exclusively a lecture format in their courses—and plan simply to record lectures for students to watch in lieu of live class (not recommended!)—moving to an asynchronous format requires faculty to fundamentally rethink how they teach. 

Resources.  Excellent live teaching can be accomplished with less up-front investment by schools and faculty than can excellent asynchronous teaching.  With some training and an appropriate videoconferencing application (e.g., Zoom), faculty can readily conduct high-quality live online classes without other new resources. 

By comparison, creating high-quality, self-paced lessons requires a substantial investment of time and resources.  This is because, as education experts have long agreed, high-quality education involves active learning so that students retain skills or knowledge conveyed during instruction.  In an asynchronous environment, active learning can be facilitated by incorporating questions and exercises that require students to apply what they are learning. Such integration, however, is resource-intensive. 

Faculty who do wish to develop asynchronous instruction that follows good practices, including sufficient interactivity, cannot simply rely on old teaching notes.  Rather, they must deliberately design lessons that strategically build in questions and exercises that can be completed asynchronously.  Moreover, since (as Michael Hunter Schwartz explained in a recent article) best practice is to intersperse interactivity at least every ten minutes, fully asynchronous classes should have embedded applied learning exercises.  They should not simply rely on long videos with exercises for students to do at the end.  But building this type of asynchronous classroom experience requires faculty to collaborate with professional online course builders or learn how to build interactive courses themselves.  And faculty may find that their schools lack the staff or technology resources to support either.

Quality.  The relative ease of live teaching, combined with the limited required investment of resources, means that faculty—especially those seeking to rapidly pivot their courses into an online format—are more likely to teach well live than to teach well asynchronously.  In addition, live teaching lends itself to dialogue and discussion-based teaching, which helps students build and practice the analytical, argumentative, and real-time processing skills that are core to the successful practice of law. 

Unfortunately, although best practice is to treat live teaching as the default even when online, many universities continue to treat asynchronous education as the default form of online education.  This tendency reflects the historical roots of online education.  When online education arrived on the higher education scene, it was largely asynchronous with limited interactivity.  This approach reflected the limitations of videoconferencing software and the role that online education played at the time.  Online education was not seen as a substitute for elite education, or central to the mission most universities.  Rather, especially among elite universities, online education was used to provide bulk training and enrichment opportunities, and new revenue streams that would support core programming.  Having tenure and tenure-track faculty record lectures, but otherwise limit their involvement in the online education space, was a way to leverage faculty resources without unduly diverting faculty attention away from more central endeavors. 

As universities move core degree programs online in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important not to blindly accept the assumption that asynchronous education should be the default mode of online education – an assumption that is based on largely outdated considerations. 

Law faculty, in particular, should make live online teaching their default because live teaching is well-suited to teaching analytical and communication skills that lawyers need.  Asynchronous education should only be used in law courses when faculty are willing and able to build asynchronous content that fosters active learning.  Stay tuned for my next post where I break down some ways that faculty can build asynchronous lessons that do just that.

Posted by Jessica Erickson on July 22, 2020 at 03:27 PM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink


Good information.

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Posted by: Nithin | Nov 12, 2020 2:41:40 AM

Nice article.

Posted by: Kiara | Nov 12, 2020 2:39:14 AM

These are great points for the short term when law schools are poorly equipped to rapidly develop asynchronous online courses; however, asynchronous online courses represent an exceptional opportunity for legal education -- an opportunity that law schools should not overlook. Traditionally, legal educators have eschewed online and virtual education for a variety of reasons. Going forward, we must embrace it as our future.

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