Legal education in a (not yet) post-Covid Australia


The question of what we can expect university and specifically legal education to look like after July has certainly been playing on my mind (and plenty of others!). This is obviously becoming a pressing issue, not just in terms of the proximity of semester 2, but also in the context of what seem to be growing pressures from the Federal government here to return to some kind of business as usual. Such pressures, in my view, when added to the serious economic hit the sector has taken (my own institution for example is projecting a 25% loss of revenue), inevitably increase the risk of bad decisions being made for the wrong reasons. So, for what its worth, here are my thoughts on where next.

Whilst I acknowledge the real economic and (related) political pressure to re-open the sector, the bottom line is that we need to move carefully and consistently with the best health advice. It is good to see that this is still the basic government message. Australia is, overall, doing very well thus far, but that in itself creates a risk of complancency and push-back against the fairly stringent measures adopted so far. The risks of a second wave, on my reading of the science (see, eg, here and here) are real, and highly contingent, but there is clear historical precedent on the risks if we move too fast in lifting restrictions, or fail to move quickly enough in re-imposing them. Universities are self-evidently places where large numbers of people are in relatively close proximity for extended periods of time, so the risk factors are pretty obvious. We need strong levels of community-based testing and tracing. We seem to have done well at this on the whole so far, but the number of cases has been small, so the system has not been tested at scale. The Covid tracing app has achieved about 20% take-up. Unless something fundamental changes in social attitudes (see here for a preprint of some interesting research on social attitudes to such apps), I’m actually sceptical that it will go significantly higher – Singapore has struggled to achieve even 20%, and while there have been well-known technical problems with their app, I wonder whether that is the primary reason. The above-cited social research is interesting on social trust and related influences on these decisions, notwithstanding broad agreement that tracing is a ‘good thing’.

We also have to take the problem of incubation periods and asymptomatic transmission seriously – that means careful space management to enable and require social distancing, and probably some routinisation of deep cleaning. Social distancing is the real challenge, given the configuration of many teaching spaces, meaning individual class sizes will likely need to be reduced by between 50% and 75% on my (very rough) reckoning. The work modelling and resource implications of that are significant. In these conditions, if we do not choose to be strategically risk averse, then we will need to be highly agile in dealing with what could be rapidly changing local conditions. Historically, I don’t think universities, like most large social institutions, have been built for that kind of agility!

At best, then, I could see a partial re-opening for some essential clinical and lab-based type work. This would be consistent with the government’s (rather ambiguous) call for a gradual return to f2f teaching that prioritises skills-based learning. But, as I’ve indicated, even this is not going to be easy to manage if social distancing requirements are to be maintained. In sum then, I would argue that the main task ahead of us should be turning semester 2 into a better digital learning experience, as opposed to what I think has been fairly described as ’emergency remote learning’. This means pivoting from a lot of just-in-time design (a kind of minimum viable product model in design thinking terms) to something better (and even then recognising it won’t be perfect!). I’d favour a base model using well-structured asynchronous learning with some on-line tutorials and back-up virtual drop-ins to maintain some degree of community/social learning. This is a lot of work. It ideally needs to start now (if not some weeks ago!), so holding off on institutional decisions is doing no-one any great favours. Kudos to the University of Queensland for dealing with the uncertainty by announcing last week its determination to stick with online teaching in Semester 2.

If I’m on the right track, then (at risk of stating the obvious) the basic challenge we face now is one of learning re-design. We are not just delivering material in the same way via a different medium, there is a lot of redesign required, particularly in chunking down material (five minutes of online content is very different from five minutes of lecture!), finding ways to build and maintain engagement, etc. This is easier, I think, if you’re familiar with flipped classroom and blended approaches, but still different. A big part of the answer lies in going back to the basics: focusing on what constitutes a good learning experience. I found this blog post a really helpful prompt in re-visiting the fundamentals for designing a topic, session, or a set of online learning materials. Some specific points around the shift online also seem to deserve emphasising; you might find these relevant, shared in a spirit of experience-sharing rather than prescription – I certainly don’t consider myself an expert in online:

Social connection really matters: I had a great reminder of this in a staff development session we had at MLS last week. Time spent building relatedness, especially in fora like discussion boards is not time-wasted it is valued and does seem to impact participation, so long as the social engagement and participation seems purposeful. On the other hand online learners tend, if anything, to be even more punishing of (perceived) timewasting then their f2f peers.

Synchronous is not necessarily ‘better’: one of the interesting things I’ve heard from semester 1 is that our students’ preferences have switched from synchronous to asynchronous learning. This seems to fit with theory and prior knowledge of experienced online teachers. Recognising this gives students more control over when and where they learn. It makes sense to use synchronous opportunities more sparingly and purposefully, eg, for oral skills development, feedback, community building.

Scaffolding seems critical: most online platforms require a pretty linear ‘page’ structure (though there is obviously scope to link concepts and loopback to earlier material). This is useful, and sometimes a limitation, but always something we need to factor in, not least because of the ways in which material needs to be chunked down into smaller bites, meaning that the current destination may be less obvious. Giving students a clear map of the overall pathway and each stage of the pathway is important. It is also better not to add links and materials without some explanatory context.

Increase the value-added emphasis in our teaching: when students are sitting at their computers, they can probably find most ‘content’ faster than we can discuss it. Reproducing content is of (even more) limited value in the online context. Frameworking ideas and ways of thinking, highlighting deeper connections/contextualisations, and modelling analytical skills is likely to be a more successful approach, hopefully also fostering greater engagement.

Learning is still assessment driven: perhaps even more so: if you are changing modes of assessment, do you need to factor this in to your learning design – eg, what do you need to do (newly) to support your students with any unfamiliar features of the assessment? Should you be changing elements of the assessment as well to provide a better fit with the online mode of learning?

2 thoughts on “Legal education in a (not yet) post-Covid Australia

  1. Julian, your last five paragraphs are marvellous. I think that, both for those who are facing online for the first time, and “revision” for those with experience, the value per word in your suggestions is remarkably high. All the best, Scott

    1. Thanks so much for that Scott – very much appreciated. I hope you and your wonderful colleagues at York are doing OK. BTW If you have any further thoughts/advice you’d like to add, I’d happily host a guest post!

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