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Virtual Paper Chase — Law Schools Transition to Online Classes

Posted on Mar. 19, 2020

With students deserting university lecture halls and classrooms to halt the spread of COVID-19, many law professors are having to teach their classes online, and not all of them are comfortable with the idea.

Marlies van Eck, a law professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, where the government has closed all of the country’s educational institutions until April 6, said she is waiting for clarification on how to transition from in-person classroom lectures. “I assume Leiden University will try to facilitate the teachers in online teaching, but we have to see how soon this can be [done],” she said. “For now, everything is on hold till March 31 and [the government] asked us to do online teaching where possible.” 

Leiden University said March 15 that it had purchased Kaltura Live Room software for use with interactive work groups. 

Emer Hunt, a chartered tax adviser and assistant professor of law at University College Dublin, said she has been reviewing her course modules to prepare for online classes after spring break. “So far, it is pretty time-consuming because I’m having to do a crash course in the available" IT, she said. 

Hunt said her school is providing support for prerecorded lectures and virtual classrooms. “I heard of one lecturer in a virtual classroom who laughed upon seeing 46 [students] in the virtual classroom, saying that  . . . was a better attendance than in a physical classroom,” she said.  

As law schools scramble to keep classes going while their campuses clear out, the American Bar Association has offered guidance to universities on adjustments they might make to remain in compliance with the basic academic requirements for a JD program in the United States. 

Under ABA Standard 107(a)(1), a law school would normally request a variance “in extraordinary circumstances in which compliance . . . would create or constitute extreme hardship for the law school and/or its students.” In a February 28 memo, the ABA recognized the extraordinary circumstances confronting many universities. “By their very nature, many disasters and emergencies require quick decisions and action, and resort to such a process may not be possible,” the ABA said. “In those cases, a law school must rely on the good common sense of its leadership.” 

The ABA said Standard 306, which allows up to one-third of a law school’s degree requirements to be offered online, states that distance education may often be a good solution to emergencies that leave law school facilities unavailable. The standard provides that a law school must consider whether distance learning is appropriate for a course, whether the faculty member has the necessary experience and training, whether the school has the technological capacity to support online classes, and whether students have or can be provided with the technology needed to access the course. “Simply moving a classroom-based course to a video conference call or to a school’s learning management system that supports other courses may be relatively easy, but unless factors such as those set out above have been considered, [it] may not be an appropriate accommodation compared to, for example, adding extra days to the term when a regular schedule can be resumed,” the ABA said. 

Barry A. Currier, managing director of accreditation and legal education for the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, told Tax Notes that when his organization has issued guidance in the past, it was always specific to a particular emergency or disaster. “It is a good idea to have something broader out there for schools, which we try to do here, but the timing is certainly connected to questions we are getting about the coronavirus," he said. 

Lost in Transition

While some professors will have an easier time than others switching to online courses, many see a downside in the transition. 

Hunt said the sudden emphasis on online classes could become more permanent after the health crisis subsides. “But I would be very disappointed to see a wholesale move to online classes, because the intensity and fun of face-to-face exchanges would be lost, as would the opportunity for water-cooler moments with students and faculty from other disciplines,” she said. “Surely the necessity of coronavirus isolation will bring home the importance of human contact.” 

Benjamin Alarie, a professor of tax law and Osler Chair in Business Law at the University of Toronto, said he wouldn't have much difficulty switching to online instruction. “The central challenge would be that it would be nearly impossible to gauge through students’ body language and facial expressions how well the concepts are being conveyed,” he said in an email. “Body language is a huge cue to me as a lecturer, and I would struggle to know if students are following closely (and thus I am not at risk of losing them, but rather at risk of boring them) or not following well (at which point I’m at risk of moving past a crucial point before they’ve assimilated it).”

Kalliopi Terzidou, who is pursuing an LLM at Leiden University, told Tax Notes that she is somewhat apprehensive about switching to distance learning classes. “I am worried that I will not be able to focus properly, and that the quality of the lecture will be lower due to lack of interpersonal conversation and [question and answer] periods," she said. 

Terzidou said both students and staff must be more flexible in their schedules. “Especially the staff must be ready to answer questions that would otherwise come up in the lecture,” she said. “An alternative mode of communication, like a discussion board, should be in place besides the traditional email, [which] cannot satisfy the needs for the time being.”

Terzidou’s classmate, Aditya Singh Chawla, said the online courses being planned in response to the coronavirus pandemic are different from the massive open online courses he has taken in the past; those internet courses were available to anyone, including non-students. “I'm apprehensive . . . whether the technical tools will be able to facilitate a suitable environment for learning and engagement,” Singh Chawla said. “I believe the course materials and instructions can be suitably delivered online. But I believe class engagement and interaction is likely to suffer. This could possibly be remedied by employing other methods, such as discussion forums. A move to written engagements might also prompt students to be more measured and specific in their [responses].” 

Singh Chawla, who is pursuing an advanced LLM in law and digital technologies at Leiden, said the pandemic has made his degree plans uncertain. “I would have expected to graduate this August, but given the circumstances . . . I can't really say for sure now,” he said.

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