Bringing law courses online – the unique challenges of COVID-19

Bringing law courses online – the unique challenges of COVID-19

The pandemic has brought about monumental change in the way universities operate. Alex Morrice, Senior Tutor at the University of Law, shares her experiences of teaching during a global pandemic, and looks to the future of legal teaching.

Law is one of those subjects which is steeped in institution and resists change like the plague (if you’ll pardon the pun). Enter COVID-19. Against the backdrop of the unfurling global pandemic, universities had to make sure teaching continued in whatever way they could. 

Perhaps we are lucky that this happened in 2020 and not 1980. Online study resources have greatly evolved and law students are much more used to them. However, in-person teaching remained the backbone of many university courses.

Juggling everything – how law courses coped at first

Between ever-changing Government directions, and the possibility that a group would have to go online for two weeks if an infection occurred, timetabling became a nightmare. We needed to create options for students who did not want to study in-person. This could be for many reasons – anxiety, needing to shield, having a vulnerable family member, or extra childcare responsibilities. And of course, tutors faced those same issues.

We often ran several different sessions of the same class, which pre-pandemic had been just one class. A mixture of in-person and online sessions was vital, but we had to transform how in-person teaching was delivered. In the on-campus delivery model, we taught in much smaller groups to allow for social distancing. Tutors could not circulate in class. Students sat in exam style format, and were not able to speak to each other during the sessions. Any collaboration had to take place via an electronic medium, even when we were physically together in the room.

Course materials had always been accessible to students online, but they were also provided in hard copy at the beginning of each module. This was no longer possible, so universities had to arrange for these to be distributed via an ordering service directly to students’ homes. This was not always timely or reliable.

Library spaces had to be booked ahead of time, making paper resources less accessible to students. Thankfully, universities had online databases that students could use instead.

Many institutions decided to run lectures online, since they don’t require as much interaction as workshops. That said, the style of the lecture delivery changes depending on the cohort. For example, undergraduate lectures have a vastly different format to those delivered to postgraduates – they are much longer, and more interactive, and more time is set aside for questions. Students also have different needs – whether due to different learning styles (think VARK), because they are anxious, or have a learning support agreement to help with disabilities, or because they suffer from digital poverty. All this needed to be considered in the online delivery of sessions, whilst relying on materials which had been designed for in-person teaching.

What’s missing from online teaching?

The engagement and interaction we achieved in this COVID world is simply not the same. Online sessions depend entirely on the cohesion between the students. Students who knew each other before the transition to online teaching tended to be much more engaged during sessions than those who had never met before. The effect was much bigger on first year undergraduates – these students suffered from having to work online with people they had met only briefly (and without the benefit of being able to get to know each other socially).

Part of effective teaching is making sure that students are happy, engaging, and invested in the course. First year undergraduates needed much more attention as they were already mentally wounded by the A-level debacle. It simply was not possible to give these students the face-to-face support they needed. Instead, tutors would arrange Zoom calls to speak to these students on a one-to-one basis – which largely worked, but could make the student feel they were being singled out. It is always easier to support students holistically as part of the classroom experience – and that has just not been possible this academic year.

Many students would not turn their screens or microphones on during sessions. Some tutors decided to call students’ names out to answer particular questions, in an attempt to force engagement. This technique can work, but can risk exacerbating existing anxieties, or can make them feel even more excluded if they are suffering from digital poverty.

Students' and tutors’ body language plays an enormous part in effective teaching and building trust. Many tutors take their cues from facial expressions, and use personal expressions to convey their point during teaching. When teaching online, the most that the student sees is the tutor’s face, and when a slide is displayed, the tutor’s face shrinks to the size of a postage stamp. The only consistent connection that the student has is with the sound of the tutor’s voice. Unless the tutor is able to make their tone varied and expressive, students can find the experience dull, which can sometimes lead to negative feelings towards the tutor.

There is more to university than studying

The student services, welfare, pro-bono, and employability support for the students is absolutely essential. The vast majority of these services had to transfer online last year. Although the provision is still freely accessible and works in the same way as before, the human contact element – which plays a vital part in building rapport – is missing.

Pro-bono opportunities have also greatly reduced, not only because of social distancing concerns, but because the demand for pro-bono has generally decreased.

Other activities such as clubs and societies, law fairs, and on-campus socials also had to move online. While there are platforms which can provide an effective virtual experience, the energy is naturally not the same.

University is not all about teaching – it is also about building friendship groups and professional relationships, and participating in activities. It would be detrimental to lose sight of the important life experiences that students have at university, and the opportunities for personal and professional development outside the classroom.

What does this mean for the future?

There are many advantages to online teaching. From a practical point of view, travel time is drastically reduced, so more work can be done (or more sleep can be had!). It is easier to get from one session to another, and easier for students to attend alternative sessions where necessary. 

There are many disadvantages however, not least in the drastically reduced personal contact between students, and between staff and students. This is vital not only to mental health, but also to learning. It is proved through pedagogy that we learn from each other just as much as we learn from instruction, and more generally, that is how the human race evolves and grows. 

Even so, it has become evident since March 2020 that there is an awful lot to be said for having more of a balance between online and in-person support and teaching. Universities are always striving to find ways to accommodate students’ learning needs, and some students do prefer the online provision. Here’s the thing, though – it does not have to be an either-or situation. There is plenty of room to allow for blended learning.

We are relying more and more on technology in every aspect of our lives. It would be a disaster to completely remove human interaction from university teaching, which relies on the sharing and discussion of ideas, sometimes in a very emotive way. Balance is the key.



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About the author:
Alex is a Senior Tutor at The University of Law Bristol Campus, having joined when it opened in 2010. Before becoming a tutor, Alex was a commercial real estate lawyer for 7 years.