Stunning change has swept across the globe in 2020, rewriting the language of everyday conversation. “Coronavirus,” “N-95” and “COVID-19” are now firmly entrenched in the lexicon, as are concepts such as “social distancing” and “flattening the curve.” New realities have set in everywhere, including at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, where legal studies for the spring semester have been accompanied by crash courses in virtual learning, breakout rooms and Zoombombing.
As infectious disease spread across the nation in March, schools closed their doors and went to work on continuity plans. ASU Law faculty quickly converted an entire law school to a remote teaching operation. Over 170 classes were moved online with 154 instructors mobilized, teaching from all corners of the state, Washington, D.C., and California. For Professor Charles Calleros, who has been teaching at ASU Law since 1981, it was an abrupt and drastic change. Calleros said what followed were several days of crash courses, trial runs and adjustments in pedagogy.
An adjustment for all
Associate Professor Laura Coordes is among the ASU Law faculty members with previous experience teaching classes online. But those online classes were asynchronous — instead of holding live classes via Zoom, her students reviewed prerecorded lectures and submitted work to her through Canvas. She said she was nervous to learn a new system but has been pleasantly surprised by the user-friendliness of Zoom. Coordes is dealing with two distinct audiences, currently teaching a Chapter 11 bankruptcy class with 13 students, as well as a secured transactions class with 72 students.
“The students have been very conscientious about keeping up with their work, asking questions and staying engaged, so I have been really impressed with how they’ve been handling all of the challenges and changes,” she said. “This experience has really brought to light how much the students care for one another and for the faculty here. It’s very encouraging to know that we have such a compassionate community of future lawyers here at the law school, and I am proud of the work the students and my colleagues have put in these past few weeks to adapt to online learning so quickly.”
Like Coordes, Professor Rhett Larson had taught online before using prerecorded lectures, and was new to the real-time remote environment of Zoom, which he said was a big adjustment.
“One thing I’ve noticed is that students communicate very well with one another in this format,” Larson said. “They answer each other’s questions through the chat function, and offer help and encouragement. They also bring a great sense of humor — I love it when they have funny Zoom backgrounds, and I love to see their families and pets. I worried that this remote teaching would combine intrusiveness with isolation, but in many ways, it has created a uniquely warm intimacy for the class as we see a little corner or our homes and home life.”
Associate Professor Kaiponanea Matsumura said his seminar class, with just 14 students, was able to make an easy transition to the virtual realm because of the strong rapport the small class had already established. For his 36-student Family Law class, he made more adjustments — and took full advantage of Zoom’s capabilities.
“First, instead of cold-calling, I notify the five to eight students who will be on call the afternoon before class,” he said. “It obviously reduces the incentives for everyone in the class to prepare, to the extent that cold-calling provides those incentives, but at least it raises the quality of discussion over Zoom, which would otherwise be stilted.”
Matsumura has also been utilizing the breakout room feature on Zoom, but with one important requirement for the students.
“I tell them that they must appoint one person on behalf of their group to report back to the class what the group’s ultimate position is on the particular issue they are discussing,” he said. “I’ve found that the additional accountability gives them at least a little bit of focus.”
“I take the poll, share the results, and then we have a discussion,” he said. “I’ve found that they like to see how other people are feeling about the issue, and it generates enthusiasm for the question itself.”
Seizing new opportunities
Associate Professor Ilan Wurman had never taught online before, and he still prefers in-classroom instruction. But he says the Zoom technology provides some useful tools he would not have in the classroom. He says it’s important for instructors to do whatever they can to help students in the present circumstances.
“The breakout rooms, for example, are quite nice,” said Wurman, who is teaching a Constitutional Law class with 60 students. “It forces students to chat with different classmates each time I have them discuss some question or problem.”
Calleros says the best consultants for online instruction might be the students. Larson echoed the idea that students can be a great resource for the faculty, and he encouraged them to be proactive in giving feedback to their instructors.
“We made this transition very quickly and are still learning and adjusting, so if you see something that you think would help us teach better, don’t be shy and let us know,” he said. “Along that same line, be generous in helping others. A lawyer is above all other things a servant — we help people in need. This is a great time to develop that skill and attitude.”
“We’re in a time of social distancing and isolation, yet by using these online class platforms creatively, we’re able to provide a space where students can know that they’re part of a team,” she said. “They’re not alone. We’re all in this together, and we’re all facing struggles, and still we’re also showing up. The students and professors are together creating a space for learning and growth, even in the midst of uncertainty and national challenges.”
Necessity is the mother of invention, especially in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. And Calleros is excited about the expanded opportunities that now await when life returns to normal.
“Using Zoom, I may not need to reschedule a class again when presenting at a conference out of town on a teaching day,” he said. “So long as I can get away during the scheduled class time, I am now convinced that Zoom offers an effective means of convening class in the cloud. It still doesn’t fully substitute for the more immediate and engaging experience in the classroom, but it will do in a pinch — or a pandemic.”