by Ashley Ahlbrand
Online learning is an increasing trend in legal education. Although there are schools that hopped on this wave years ago, there are many, like mine, that are still treading in the more traditional waters. However, our administration has an eye toward the online horizon, and this summer, my colleague and I administered our first fully online, three-credit Advanced Legal Research course. It had its highs and lows, but overall it was a very positive experience (for both us and the students).
- Conversion process – It took an incredible amount of time to convert our course to an online format. We were fortunate to get to work with an instructional designer, meeting with him weekly for the Spring semester to hammer out our learning outcomes, discuss assessment strategies in an online environment, and work out the organization of the course. After that, we still had to create all of the content. Ours was (mostly) an asynchronous course, so the content included reading selections; assessment creation; and lecture writing, recording, and editing.
- ABA standards – The ABA standards were an interesting adjustment for us. Not only did we have to comply with the standard on distance education (Standard 306), but our course also satisfies the skills requirement at the law school, so we had that standard to tackle as well (Standard 304 – ours qualifies as a “simulation”). It was this last one that gave us pause, because it requires a “classroom instructional component.” Some of the questions we had to tackle included: What does “classroom instructional component” mean for an online course? Are our recorded lectures enough? Does it require synchronous activity? In an effort to cross our t’s and dot our i’s, we added a weekly chat session to the course that gave us some regular, synchronous time with our students to discuss the week’s lessons and assignments. The sessions caused some scheduling difficulty (with students taking the course while working all across the country), and students have since mentioned that this was one of the less popular features of the course.
- Time constraints (on both ends) – It was no surprise that time was an issue in this course. Students occasionally stressed about the amount of work the course posed while juggling their summer jobs. We, at the same time, stressed about preparing materials for the students or getting grades returned while juggling conference travel and other summer responsibilities. In theory, it’s better to have all of your materials ready before the online course begins, but that simply wasn’t a reality for us. For future iterations, time on the instructor side will be less of a struggle, because we now have the foundation of “version one” to build upon.
- Technology glitches – It seems cliche to talk about technology glitches for an online course, but it does happen. I spent a lovely 48 hours at the CALI conference wondering where all of my video lectures had disappeared to, only to have them mysteriously reappear a day after they were meant to be available (lesson learned – always have a back up plan!).
- Cost to students – Because our school has no other summer offerings (online or in person), our students could not meet the 4-credit-hour minimum to qualify for financial aid. This was the most unfortunate low, because we could do nothing about it. This resulted in a small, 10-person class.
- Small size (for now) – As mentioned, we did end up with a small class, which gave us greater opportunity to get to know the students and offer meaningful feedback. If the cost issue is overcome, we may see greater demand in the future, at which point the course may need to evolve.
- Variety of assessment types – Online education requires significantly more assessment than its in-class counterpart, which was time-consuming on the one hand, but gave us the opportunity to be creative on the other. In addition to weekly quizzes, we included a variety of written assignments. There was an ongoing written research assignment that built over several weeks, a separate administrative law written assignment, and a choose-your-own-adventure style assignment, in which students were advising us on recommended research resources and challenges in one of three areas of law/research (foreign jurisdictions, IP, or business/corporate). This variety kept things interesting, both for us and for the students.
- Freedom to experiment – The new online format emboldened us to try new things and restructure the course to be more process-oriented, rather than the bibliographic/hybrid format the regular 16-week course takes. As these students were our guinea pigs, we also experimented a bit throughout the course, reorganizing our content, redesigning our lectures, and trying out different methods of chat, first in Canvas, and later in Slack.
- Point of need – The greatest advantage to the course, by far, was its timing. While juggling the course with their summer jobs was a challenge, the students also seemed far more engaged, came to us with more reference questions, and shared several “victories” with us throughout the summer. One such victory was being asked to train the entire firm on how to accomplish a particular research task because no one else knew how, and the student had just learned it the previous week in our course. This point-of-need appreciation for the course made up for the time pressure.
As “version one,” the course had its bugs, but we made it through relatively smoothly and successfully with lessons learned and several ideas to apply in version two. The students have given us constructive feedback to incorporate in the future. And, while ALR has always been a popular course at our school, we have never received the praise that we have from our students this summer. We were concerned that the level of education would suffer in an online format, but our students’ performance on the assessments proves that wrong. It would be interesting to do an experiment and compare the online course to an in-person course. Perhaps we could give the same post-test to both an in-person and an online class and see how each set of students perform. Who knows? Perhaps in version two…