Paul L. Caron

Monday, March 16, 2020

Schwartz: Towards A Modality-Less Model For Excellence In Law School Teaching

Michael Hunter Schwartz (Dean, McGeorge), Towards a Modality-Less Model for Excellence in Law School Teaching:

Online legal education is really in its infancy. Even as undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs increasingly innovate and enjoy success with online teaching that rivals and even exceeds brick and mortar results, legal education remains stuck in an outdated image of online teaching while continuing to champion a rose-colored image of what happens when students and their professors are in the same rooms.

Our image of online teaching is pretty grim. We tend to imagine online professors recording lengthy, mind-numbingly unstimulating lectures via video or voice over slides with instructional goals no more ambitious than the hope that the lectures magically pour knowledge into the brains of students. We imagine the students isolated in their homes, dressed in their pajamas, lacking connection or inspiration. And we assume that hordes of online students are hiring experts to take their exams for them.

Likewise, we continue to elevate in-person teaching as if the elegantly constructed, carefully sequenced, engaging, crystal clear Socratic questioning, characteristic of each of our best law professors (as we remember them), is the overwhelming majority rule. We envision each student deeply prepared for class, actively engaged during class, and, by the end of the class, joyfully inspired to study more so they can better understand. And we assume they come to the final exam feeling well prepared for a great intellectual challenge.

Neither image reflects reality. In this essay, I take on these myths in an effort to contribute to a maturation of our thinking about online and in person teaching that I am hoping this symposium, as a whole, will further.

In Part I of this essay, I explore the myths of in-person law teaching and suggest the ways in which in-person teaching falls short. In Part II, I do the same for the myths about online teaching, suggesting concrete examples of how excellence is achieved in online law school classes. In Part III, I have a short discussion of why the inaccuracy of both sets of myths is problematic. Finally, in Part IV, based on learning theory and the four-year study of great law teaching reflected in What the Best Law Teachers Do, I offer a modality-less model of law teaching excellence and suggest how it can be and is achieved both in person and online. ...

Our myths about in person and online teaching have distorted our thinking. Unquestionably, many in person law school classes meet and even exceed our preconceptions about optimal in person classes. Many fall short, and a significant number fall far short of the ideal. Likewise, online classes can be excellent, mediocre, and poor. The modality, however, plays an insignificant role. Rather, factors including professors’ course and class session design, class preparation, connection with their students, communication of high expectations, engagement of students, and assessment and feedback practices are much more significant to student learning.

The ideal would be to teach in person those subjects best taught in a brick-and-mortar setting and teach online those subjects for which a live teacher is not essential.

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