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Roomies and Zoomies: Pandemic has sparked new terms, some innovation in law school teaching

Thursday, September 02, 2021 @ 3:01 PM | By Cristin Schmitz


The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on both law students and law professors, but the good news is it is also spurring some welcome and long overdue innovations in the traditionally staid and passive model of law school teaching.

As law schools reopen with various combinations of online and in-classroom learning amidst the pandemic’s rising fourth wave, no one is discounting the isolation or other negative fallout many students experienced last year in virtual classrooms, nor the stress that many faculty members endured in their abrupt mass pivot to online teaching, in particular for teachers who are also caring for children at home.

But some law professors were able to use the pandemic as an opportunity for pedagogical innovation, or to help colleagues grapple with the ongoing extraordinary demands for teaching this fall, in particular for those law professors who are teaching hybrid or “bimodal” classes, and most especially for those who are opting to teach mixed livestreamed classes where simultaneously some students online are interacting with the rest of their class, and with their professor, who are physically in the classroom.

Craig Forcese, University of Ottawa

Craig Forcese, University of Ottawa

Enabling these “Roomies” and “Zoomies” to interact with each other and their professors this school year, and ensuring that all students are offered a rich and dynamic learning environment, whether virtually or in person, has for months preoccupied University of Ottawa administrative law professor Craig Forcese who is cited by colleagues at the common law faculty as a leader in teaching innovation during the pandemic.

With the support of a forward-thinking (now former) dean, Adam Dodek, Ottawa’s law school marshalled the resources to install high-quality omni-directional microphones in all its larger classrooms, as well as to buy good quality handheld microphones for students to use in smaller classrooms. The aim is that the “Zoomies” can fully participate in discussions with the “Roomies” this fall at the common law faculty — where the split between fully online and “hybrid” or “bimodal” (part in-class and part-online) courses is expected to be around 60/40.

While hybrid classes are scheduled at a number of law schools, not all have chosen, or have been able to, invest in microphones. “The irony is that, for active learning, unless you build classrooms that are adequately miked, you’re better off fully online,” Forcese observed.

When the pandemic came along in March 2020, forcing an overnight pivot from teaching in person to fully online, Forcese was among the few law professors familiar with the platform. He had been using Zoom for several years for some international teaching. Forcese quickly put together videos for colleagues on how to use Zoom and a few months later, he and law professor Ellen Zweibel hired a number of tech-savvy law students as “tech fellows” who also helped train teachers in Zoom, Teams and other technologies.  

One of the most important pedagogical developments spurred on by the pandemic is the growing acceptance by law teachers that their courses should include “synchronous” (i.e. live) and “asynchronous” (online pre-recorded) elements, said Forcese, who was among the first law teachers to adopt the use of the “flipped classroom” style of pedagogy (which tries to increase student engagement and learning by having them do readings and hear prerecorded lectures at home, while working on problem-solving during class time.)

As a longtime proponent of dynamic and active legal education, Forcese had for years enabled his students to engage in “asynchronous” learning by posting on the law school’s learning management system prerecorded podcasts, video modules and quizzes (in place of classroom lectures), while reserving classroom time (including his virtual classes during the pandemic) for students’ discussion of hypotheticals, problem solving and other dynamic interactions amongst themselves and their teacher.

Forcese noted law professors are not taught how to teach — and most follow the conventional lecture model — but he said he became frustrated when, despite refining his lectures and coming up with better Power Point presentations, he found his students were not doing better. After researching pedagogy, Forcese said he realized that the classical model of law school teaching is not defensible — which the pandemic has highlighted and underscored.

“In the classroom I have moved away from any sort of teacher-centred or passive learning-oriented interaction with my students,” he explained. “It’s meant to be dynamic all the time. Basically it means taking a large classroom and turning it more into a seminar atmosphere.”

He said he hopes that what will stick in law school teaching after the pandemic is the division between what works best in a prerecorded format and what works best in the classroom. “The pandemic served as a baptism of fire, in the sense that a three-hour class on Zoom where the prof is talking into the camera is devastating for the professor, and even more devastating for the students,” he explained. “I spoke to a lot of students over the course of this [last] semester, and students who were talked at over Zoom found it a very demoralizing experience — and the overall survey data supports that.”

Forcese said there are no data yet on how many law professors were impelled by the pandemic to jettison the traditional model of long professorial lectures during classes in favour of more dynamic interaction. “What [the pandemic] should have done is attune people to the idea that the classic form of post-secondary education has simply persisted through inertia,” he suggested. “The pandemic has forced us to reconsider what is best delivered in a lecture format in a classroom as opposed to prerecorded, versus how can we embed active learning in even a large classroom, in the past year through the medium of Zoom?”

Erika Chamberlain, Western University

Erika Chamberlain, Western University

Erika Chamberlain, dean of law at Western University in London, Ont., is another professor who innovated in her teaching last year. “For me it was a real highlight of the week to teach students because we didn’t have a lot of [other] things to be happy about last year,” she noted. “We had great discussions.”

In 2020, first-year law students at Western were mostly taught in-person in physical classrooms (except during two lockdowns) due to the law school’s conviction that first-year students greatly benefit from interaction and engagement with their professors and each other. (First-year classes were also livestreamed on Zoom for the 10 of 190 students who opted to do all their classes online.)

“Western did a really good job with safety protocols. My [tort] class was 124 students,” Chamberlain said. “But because of the gathering [and distancing] limits I had to split them into three, and then we taught it in a very, very large classroom — a room that normally would seat 700 students — and I had about 40 to 45.  ... So for me what would have been three hours of teaching a week became nine hours.”

Chamberlain opted to teach in the classroom each of her three sections for two hours a week, with the remaining hour spent on non-live online teaching. “Instead of recording lectures, I tried … a change from what my normal teaching would be,” she said. “I found things like podcasts, documentaries and shows like [TV Ontario’s] The Agenda, and I gave [students] episodes of that to watch or listen to that were dealing with contemporary examples of things that we were looking at in class, and then that fit into our discussion.”

Chamberlain noted it can be difficult, at the best of times, for students to see the relevance of some of the very old case law they are studying at law school. So when addressing, for example, the defence of person and property in tort law, Chamberlain sparked discussion by having her students listen to a CBC podcast series on Gerald Stanley’s trial for the death of Colten Boushie. “It kind of brought some of those things to life in a way that I hadn’t [pre-pandemic] when I just looked at the cases in the textbook,” she explained. “It was something that just made them think about the issues in a different way, for the most part.”

Audrey Macklin, University of Toronto

Audrey Macklin, University of Toronto

Last year University of Toronto law professor Audrey Macklin forged ahead with an idea she had in mind pre-pandemic. “I was going to be teaching administrative law online for the first time and like many people I was concerned about how I was going to do that,” she said. “I had often thought that it would be wonderful if there were a way in which law teachers around the country, who all teach in a common subject area, could actually collaborate on pedagogy beyond simply putting together shared cases and materials, or textbooks or whatever.”

Macklin said she was interested in professors sharing not just what they teach, but how they do it. “What kinds of techniques can you use to engage students, to review material with them, to test knowledge and to evaluate them?” she said. “I suppose what the pandemic did in its shift to Zoom and online teaching, and also online meetings and so on, is it enabled me to try to do something about that.”

Macklin proceeded to facilitate a fruitful collaboration amongst fellow administrative law professors across Canada to collaborate on, and exchange, various learning modules on a dozen particular subject areas, such as procedural fairness or substantive review. “People were wonderfully imaginative,” she said. “There were people who brought all sorts of interesting ideas and perspectives,” including valuable collaborations on Aboriginal and Indigenous law.

Professors worked in teams of two or three, and often got to know people they otherwise would not have, she noted. Administrative law professors with subspecialities (Macklin is an immigration law expert) shared examples, assignments, quizzes etc. in their areas of particular expertise. “Being able to have a meeting on Zoom made it possible for people to get together without having to try to fly everybody to one place,” Macklin said.

The upshot was the creation of a pedagogical “buffet” available to enrich the teaching of the law professors.

“What happens is that in each of these [subject area] folders … people just dropped in what they created and then there was a little kind of form in each of the folders where they could describe what they had created,” she explained. “As an instructor using this resource it wasn’t like a set of cases and materials that you walk through. It was more like a buffet. You’d go into each of these folders … pick and choose what you thought would work for you, your students, your class.”

Macklin said the project was not about trying to make every professor teach the same thing, or to develop a shared approach “or to enforce anything. It’s a way of providing creative, innovative resources that instructors can use in their own teaching to enliven their pedagogy.”

Looking ahead, Forcese told The Lawyer’s Daily he believes that the future of law school teaching will be hybrid — a prospect that the pandemic has made more probable.

“To have that diversity of options, I do think that’s the future,” he reflected. “Look, I teach administrative law on a Friday afternoon from 1 to 4,” he observed. “There’s a lot students who want to go home for the weekend. And I’m committed to the view that I can teach them as well whether they are in Zoom or in the classroom with me. ... So I want to create a system where the quality of education is as good — regardless of whether you are Roomie or Zoomie — but give you the flexibility to decide that you don’t want to drive into the school through a snowstorm or whatever.”

Illustration by Chris Yates/Law360

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for The Lawyer’s Daily please contact Cristin Schmitz at Cristin.Schmitz@lexisnexis.ca or at 613-820-2794.