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Best of both worlds: The virtual door to opportunity | Bo Kruk

Thursday, August 26, 2021 @ 10:30 AM | By Bo Kruk


Bo Kruk %>
Bo Kruk
The second week of March 2020 forced a dramatic change on a profession steeped in tradition. In a matter of days, classes that had remained much the same since the days of slates and chalkboard were teleported to the 21st century. As COVID-19 swept around the globe, five words became a common refrain: “Hold on, you’re on mute.”

Just under 18 months of virtual learning has led to an increasing debate about the value of virtual classrooms, from both professionals and students. Some see virtual classes as a function of necessity, nothing more than a hiccup in a law student’s journey to become a lawyer. They feel that in-person learning is a valuable, more effective way to learn — it has worked for centuries. Those advocating for virtual classes have recognized their power and seek to leverage the advantages of this new mode of learning.

I was in my last term of law school at the beginning of the pandemic. Those few weeks of virtual classes were a learning experience for all. Professors worked on the best way to deliver the material digitally; students shifted their learning to studying online. With only a few days to change the delivery model, classes transformed and the screen became an effective mode of teaching and learning.

This past summer I was a fellow of the TradeLab international economic law clinic network. As a TradeLab fellow, I witnessed first-hand the power of virtual classrooms. Just because a class is taught from behind a screen doesn’t mean that students making course selections should ignore a virtual option in favour of a traditional classroom. Virtual classes can be a powerful experience for all participants. More importantly, course selection in law school can open unanticipated doors to amazing opportunities. It was my participation in the joint TradeLab clinic between the University of Ottawa and Queen’s University that allowed me to become a TradeLab fellow.

I was one of two fellows who worked with students at the pilot TradeLab clinic at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. This was the first time a clinic in international law was run out of Brazil. Three groups of students worked on complex questions for real-life beneficiaries in Brazil ranging from state-to-state dispute settlement to environmental obligations. They were supervised by professor Lucas Spadano and professor Luiz Eduardo Salles. Since English was not the students’ first language, we helped them with both their legal research and writing in English. Deep exchanges that used to be commonplace in the physical classroom shifted online. While I was working with my small group of students, we had many profound conversations about the different legal traditions between Canada and Brazil.

If the class had not been virtual, logistics would have presented a significant obstacle to the quality of the class. While I was physically in Canada, my colleague was physically in Singapore. The students and professors lived throughout Brazil. Guest speakers, experts in their field, were able to give presentations and lead in-depth discussions from Geneva and Canada without any issue. As professor Spadano explained, “the virtual class enabled people with many different backgrounds to participate. This enriched the students’ experience to make the clinic truly an international clinic.”

Just because a class involves sitting in front of a computer screen does not mean it should automatically be overlooked. Virtual classes can open a door to opportunity by providing students situations that would be difficult, or impossible, to achieve within a strictly physical, in-person classroom setting. Some institutions have tried to remedy the dissatisfaction with virtual classes by moving to a “hybrid model” where some students remain online while others go on campus to log into the same virtual classroom. This ignores the advantages of in-person classes. A purely virtual or purely in-person approach treats law school classes as a binary choice. This perspective ignores the benefits of each form of instruction.

As professor Salles explained: “There’s no dichotomy between virtual and in-person. There’s no need to be 100 per cent one form or the other. Virtual classes have a number of advantages; there’s no need to turn back the clock.”

Called to the bar of Ontario, Bo Kruk is an LLM student at the University of Ottawa. His current research interests focus on the power of technology in the legal-centric world of today.

Illustration by Chris Yates/Law360

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