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COVID-19 pandemic brings sea change to law schools as classes shift online

Tuesday, September 01, 2020 @ 9:37 AM | By Ian Burns, Terry Davidson and John Schofield


A new school year can often bring apprehension and anxiety for students, as thoughts go through their head of what their next eight months will look like as they walk among the trees and ivy-covered walls of campus. But this year law students are being faced with a new reality — coping with a massive shift to online learning as universities from coast-to-coast continue to adjust to the new realities brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canadian law schools have largely embraced a hybrid of online and in-person courses, with some making their course offerings completely virtual, using platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom. McGill University law school dean Robert Leckey said his faculty has prioritized the incoming first-year class “for the limited in-person activities we are able to do.”

Robert Leckey, McGill University law school dean

“In terms of remote learning, we have been investing heavily in preparing ourselves for it — since the spring we have assigned one of our faculty members who was particularly experienced using Zoom already coaching people, and we have hired students to be available to run individual training and coaching sessions for the professors,” he said. “We are doing what we can to make sure we are in really good shape for an exciting and enriching remote delivery this fall.”

Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law will start its fall term online, with the exception of the Dalhousie Legal Aid Clinic, which, according to acting dean Richard Devlin, “has a significant experiential learning component and will be delivered safely in person.” He said going all online was a “tough call to make.”

“Although this was not an easy decision, the health and public safety of our students, staff and faculty remain our top priority,” he said. “After months of consideration and consultation with students and faculty, we feel this is the responsible thing to do. We realize this is a significant change and challenge for our students. However, we are confident that we will still deliver a rich and engaging learning experience.”

As for the University of Manitoba’s faculty of law, acting dean David Asper said all classes will be online for the start of this term.

“We will be permitting a range of off-campus experiential and clinical activities to continue, including judicial clerkships,” he said. “All of these activities will have to comply with public health directives. In addition, some professional activities will be occurring, but again, they’ll have to comply with public health guidelines. We aren’t entirely sure how articling interviews will be held — it remains a bit fluid at this stage.”

Asper went on to say that the school is working on a “scaled down” version of in-person orientations for first-year students, who will revert to online classes when the term begins.

“Both faculty and I are working to enhance the online classes, whether synchronous or asynchronous, with individual and/or small group sessions, whether related to classwork or just to establish personal connections,” he said. “We’re also working to enhance our open and private social media channels alongside the Manitoba Law Students Association and other student groups.”

And Ryerson University’s faculty of law finds itself in an unusual situation — facing down the pandemic as it prepares to welcome its first cohort of students. The school will offer its academic program primarily online, while arranging for opportunities for voluntary on-campus activities with appropriate health protocols in place.

Donna Young, Ryerson University’s faculty of law lean

Dean Donna Young said she has spent her entire professional career teaching law students “and there is so much about legal education that I would not change.”

“However, some change is needed and I believe the pandemic will prompt all of us in the legal community to reassess the way we teach and practise law. We are learning the importance of using existing technology to facilitate communication and access to the courts and other tribunals,” she said. “I think we all hope that the shift to online learning is not permanent, however. So much about the law school experience cannot be captured through Zoom.”

One school which seems to be swimming against the tide of online learning is the faculty of law at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., which has decided to resume in-person teaching for the approximately 480 students who will be on campus in the fall. For those who are not able to attend in person almost all of the courses will be offered either entirely remotely or in a hybrid manner.

Assistant dean Phillip Drew said the decision to bring people back to class was not taken lightly, but the faculty believed it is the best method for educating students in professional programs.

“We have been, and will continue to be, in close contact with local health authorities and will abide by their direction and guidance through the fall. To that end, we will be following and enforcing all safety protocols as recommended by regional health authorities and health advisers from within the university,” he said. “While we are committed to providing excellence in legal education, we do so with the understanding that the safety of our students, faculty, staff and the broader Kingston community, are paramount.”

Elizabeth Steyn, Western University law school professor

But whatever method of instruction students face, their learning experience will be markedly different than in previous years. Professor Elizabeth Steyn of Western University in London, Ont., which is also using a mix of in-class and online instruction, said going virtual was not a complete shock to her because she has been running an online hybrid graduate diploma since April 2019. But she did note the cumulative shock of the pandemic for students “was very big” and her relationship with her students has changed.

“I have a great sense of grieving from the student community and from the students that I've been talking to for all the loss of community, the loss of contact — particularly the final year students who finished their last term in limbo, so to speak,” she said. “They didn't choose to study online, much as we didn’t choose to teach online. And somewhere in collaborating we need to find a happy medium where faculty can be comfortable with their level of communication and technical expertise and the students are comfortable with how they are being communicated with and the efforts being made for them, and then everybody’s fears and insecurities will be addressed.”

Kevin Limbombe, a first-year law student at the University of Windsor, said he is comfortable with remote learning but agreed that it is “difficult to actually get to know people online.”

Kevin Limbombe, first-year law student at the University of Windsor

“I’ve had an easier time meeting the upper year students because I’m familiar with some of them. But with the people in the incoming class I’ve had a little bit of trouble because you can’t really meet them,” he said. “But in terms of preparation, I would say they’ve done a great job of telling us what to do to be prepared for orientation, at the very least. And then on top of that I think I’m much more mature than I was coming out of undergrad. So, I think I’m definitely more prepared in that sense.”

The University of Toronto faculty of law is offering a combination of remote and in-person teaching, with almost all classes having a remote learning option. Robert Nanni, president of the university’s Students’ Law Society, said class capacities at the school are being reduced dramatically, with students entering single file through one door of a classroom and exiting through another door, ensuring people don’t pass each other while taking their seats and trying to ensure people stay six feet apart.

“But I think students are apprehensive about what the plan will look like for a few different reasons,” he said. “I think there is a question about what will the quality of education will be between in person and remote learning — a lot of students are very nervous having seen how remote learning was conducted in March and April. We’re hopeful professors have taken the summer to really prepare for an online learning experience which is at least similar to an in-person experience, but I think there is a little concern about how that will turn out.”

And Tony Basu, president of the Law Students’ Association at the University of Alberta, which is also teaching its courses virtually with some very limited exceptions, said there is “a kind of a perception” that students are getting a fundamentally different product by watching a recorded lecture or reading an online document versus getting in-person class time.

“We are still more or less paying the same fees we were paying before. And of course, a lot of anxiety has been exacerbated by the economy and external pressures on law students as well — they are dealing with COVID-19 just like anybody else,” he said. “And I know there is a little anxiety about whether a person in an online class is going to be at a disadvantage compared to the people who can go to the in-person part.”

What other law schools across Canada are doing

  • Lectures, small groups and tutorials at the University of Victoria faculty of law will be online. The only exception is the school’s clinical program at the law centre in the Victoria courthouse, which will allow for some in-person client interviews and appearances.
  • Thompson Rivers University (TRU) law will move fully to online, remote delivery for fall 2020. The university has not yet announced a decision on the winter 2021 semester.
  • The University of British Columbia will primarily offer larger classes online with selected smaller classes conducted in person, adhering to physical distancing and other public health requirements. The Allard School of Law is currently exploring opportunities for a limited and optional in-person classroom experience for first year law students.
  • All classes at the University of Calgary faculty of law will be online for the fall semester. Students volunteering with some of the school’s clinics (student legal assistance and public interest law clinic) will have some in-person classes, ensuring proper social distancing measures are followed.
  • The University of Saskatchewan’s college of law will be starting its fall session with all classes being delivered online. However, when it comes to “experiential learning” courses, school administrators will consult organizations and instructors before deciding whether these classes will proceed.
  • Classes at Osgoode Hall Law School will be predominately online during the fall and winter terms. The law school’s remote synchronous learning facilitator program will assist Osgoode faculty to deliver meaningful online teaching and learning experience to students during the fall term.
  • At the University of Ottawa’s faculty of common law, classes will be entirely online for the fall semester.
  • Lakehead University’s Bora Laskin faculty of law is offering all courses for the entire academic year with online access, with the notable exception of clinical law, where instruction is online but client meetings may occur in person with appropriate social distancing measures. The school is offering some in-person instruction for students who prefer to be face-to-face, to the extent permitted by provincial and local public health rules.
  • Courses at the University of New Brunswick’s law school are also going all-online via Microsoft Teams and Zoom — at least for the start of the school year. According to information from the school, three “virtual classrooms” have been set up, each with 60-inch monitors, webcams and microphones “to ensure an interactive experience between professor and student.”

Illustration by Chris Yates/Law360

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for The Lawyer’s Daily please contact Ian Burns at Ian.Burns@lexisnexis.ca or call 905-415-5906. For Terry Davidson, contact him at t.davidson@lexisnexis.ca or call him at 905-415-5899. John Schofield can be reached at john.schofield@lexisnexis.ca or call him at 905-415-5891.