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Importance of not undervaluing virtual legal education | Daniel W. Dylan

Tuesday, September 01, 2020 @ 2:02 PM | By Daniel Dylan

Daniel Dylan %>
Daniel Dylan
If one talks to Ontario Crown attorneys, defence counsel, civil lawyers, academics and legal professionals in general, one is very likely to hear laudatory and celebratory sentiments and/or comments respecting the emergent modernization of the province’s legal system (both civil and criminal) brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sure, there is much work still to be done, and those changes — “improvements” even — which have thus far been implemented are not perfect. Many real concerns respecting the biological safety of court officers and personnel still exist and hopefully these will be resolved soon.

That said, in some cases court and other legal matters are effectively and safely being heard and held via telephone and online via P2P streaming platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WebEx and GoToMeeting, among others. Thus, while the COVID-19 pandemic could have brought the legal system to a grinding and crashing halt it did not, because lawyers, legal professionals and courts adapted as quickly possible, and despite some backlog have kept the legal system functioning.

Reinforcing the practical reality that legal practice is inextricably trending to virtual settings, Ontario, for example, published a guidebook respecting the resumption of court operations, and the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta published an etiquette guide for online hearings.

It is lamentable that it took a worldwide pandemic to precipitate these changes, which lawyers in Ontario and other provinces have long called for and which are not solely the result of governmental will or court policy/rules. Yet it is good that these changes happened and hopefully will remain a part of a larger, continued court and legal system modernization and improvement efforts.

Although all of our lives have been upended by COVID-19 in some way, these changes to Ontario’s legal system illustrate that it is possible for us to innovate, adapt to and create new realities. One of these opportunities to innovate, adapt and create new realities is found in legal education.

Justifiably, there is much concern and consternation, fears of Zoom fatigue and burnout among faculty, students and administrators about how legal education — and all levels of education, not just law school — will unfold as Canadian society continues to live with COVID-19 anxieties.

Some law faculties in Canada have chosen to adopt online/virtual classrooms exclusively, with synchronous or asynchronous modalities, while some have chosen hybrid models, with mostly online/virtual classrooms and a limited number of in-person courses held face-to-face in classrooms.

While we can interrogate and criticize the traditional face-to-face model of legal education outside COVID-19, such tasks have been performed extensively elsewhere and need not be repeated here. Instead we can, for at least three reasons, recognize and celebrate even the pedagogical and practical value that emergent synchronous online/virtual education in law faculties holds for law students and the legal profession as a whole.

In the first of this series, I will discuss the first reason, and in part two I will discuss the second and third reasons.

Online/virtual education is far from a new concept. “Distance” education has been around for a long time and is used (mostly asynchronously) by a number of universities in a variety of contexts. For example, several Canadian universities, offer Executive MBA (and other) programs online. Other universities, notably some of the best in the United States, offer the same as well as massive open online courses (MOOCs), which are typically unlimited in enrolment, free and delivered exclusively online.

Furthermore, one can learn just about anything through videos found on the ubiquitous YouTube. Other videos, educational and otherwise, exist on multiple other social media platforms. We keep in touch with friends and family through FaceTime and Skype. In short, we are familiar with and generally experienced in video communication in one manner or another.

Moreover, the quick and rapid response that faculty members and students around the country undertook in the spring of 2020 to ensure that university and law school courses would be successfully completed, although at times challenging and stressful, and with the preparations undertaken for the 2020-2021 academic year, only aggrandized the realities that differently abled students have been advocating for for years: that it is just as possible to deliver education outside the classroom as it is to deliver it inside the classroom.

Learning by video is thus not new, and we have been doing so for quite some time. Therefore, while many universities and law faculties have spent the better part of this summer developing resources for both students and faculty that will enable both to succeed in an online/virtual environment, we need not treat the online/virtual classroom as entirely sui generis. Stated differently, a synchronous modality of teaching does not require much change in teaching and learning styles and can adequately replicate the “traditional” classroom experience.

Nevertheless, by recognizing that we all have experience engaging in video communication, we afford ourselves a more relaxed and conducive mindset by which to approach online/virtual legal education.

In part two, I will discuss the legal profession’s trend toward virtual lawyering and how law students can maximize virtual learning in the “new” pedagogy of legal education and legal practice.

This is part one. Part two: Virtual legal education: How students can maximize online learning.

Daniel Dylan is an associate professor at the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law, Lakehead University, in Thunder Bay, Ont. He teaches animal law, contract law, evidence law, intellectual property law and Indigenous knowledge governance.

Illustration by Chris Yates/Law360

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