Closing Argument

Issue: Winter 2022

An abrupt shift to online learning

When a worldwide pandemic shutdown the S.J. Quinney College of Law last spring, there was little time to prepare for virtual teaching. IT professionals jumped into action to move courses online and professors quickly changed their course plans to better accommodate a new format.The unexpected circumstances unveiled new ideas for delivering legal education.

Res Gestae spoke to professors about the rapid shift and how they pivoted to keep pace with a changing world.

In her own words: RonNell Andersen Jones used out-of-the-box thinking to move Constitutional Law online

The new online teaching environment provides many exciting new ways to interact with students, assess their progress, and teach with multiple learning styles in mind. But it also requires us to think really carefully about the ways that meaningful student-teacher relationships are formed and how central they are to excellence in learning.

In March, when I transitioned my Constitutional Law class from a traditional in-person classroom setting to an online format, I found myself grateful every single day that I had already developed a real, personal relationship with my students. When things went wrong with the technology or problems emerged in the content delivery, the students were almost uniformly patient and forgiving, because we already had a rapport, and they’d seen from our exchanges in the “real world” that I was devoted to them as people and had their best interests at heart. The online setting robs you of some of the small but meaningful opportunities to make those connections and build that rapport. Zoom meetings don’t have the naturally occurring before-and after-class chitchat. The norm of keeping everyone on mute robs you of some of the inside jokes that emerge and give a class a group identity. The ability to read faces and respond in real time to reactions is diminished. So when I launched my summer semester course, which was entirely online, I did everything I could to try to replicate that personal connectivity and build those teacher-student bonds. In the three days before the class started, I had a short one-on-one Zoom meeting with every student in the course. They were only 10-15 minutes long, and I had no agenda other than meeting the student, putting a name to a face, telling them how much I wanted to know them as people and compensate for those drawbacks of Zoom, and having a conversation that conveyed actual interest in each student as an individual. It was time-intensive, but it paid huge, rewarding dividends. I started the class feeling connected on a human level with my students—and, more importantly, feeling like they had connected with me. After that, I could set up “conversation time” after class ended and know that people would attend and feel comfortable having the casual dialogue that we’ve enjoyed in my in-person classes. I’m convinced that it makes all the difference.

Dabbling in digital badging: Kerry Lohmeier, Beth Jennings and Suzanne Darais

This fall 1L Legal Research courses taught by Kerry Lohmeier, Beth Jennings and Suzanne Darais incorporated several new elements to make the course more engaging online. The biggest change was the addition of digital badging. Students earned badges for completing required content and had the option to earn additional badges to develop their skills as they progressed through the course. There was a leaderboard to track achievement, and rewards for earning the extra badges. The professors also incorporated discussion boards throughout the course to encourage community building. Part of that initiative led them to Kialo, an online debate platform. The students used Kialo several times in the course to identify the best legal authority in support or opposition to a position, and to debate the likely outcome of a hypothetical after conducting research. Initial feedback was positive.

Digital Environment for Environmental Law: Robin Kundis Craig

When Robin Craig was asked to teach Environmental Law in a multiply hybrid format for Fall 2020, she embraced the opportunity to use new technologies to bring contemporary environmental law problems into class. “As long as we’re radically changing law teaching for the semester,” she decided, “I want to try to turn the new format to my students’ advantage, bringing in exciting new material that wouldn’t fit with a traditional case-based approach to legal education.”

On Mondays and Wednesdays, Environmental Law met for an hour between 7:25 and 8:25 a.m., with students joining both physically in the classroom and synchronously over Zoom, creating a “classroom in the round.” The course’s third hour each week came in the form of an asynchronous, web-based module that students complete independently. These asynchronous modules either sharpened students’ abilities to apply core environmental law concepts, or, more often, guided students in exploring: (1) how the major environmental law statutes intersect with other aspects of law (administrative law, constitutional law, statutory interpretation); (2) contemporary issues, such as environmental justice, environmental enforcement during COVID-19, the use of environmental law to prevent pandemics, and the Los Angeles River restoration; and (3) how to use various databases to find out about particular environmental issues in particular locations. Class topics also expanded to include Rights of Nature, tribal environmental law, and resilience theory—and, given the semester’s timing, the 2020 presidential election and its potential impacts on federal environmental law for the next four years.

To get the most out of the 60-minute blocks she can spend with students, Craig embraced myriad technological innovations. She spent the summer learning how to use ScreenFlow, a multi-media video production software, through which Craig pre-recorded short video lectures on the basics of each statute. These videos incorporated Power Point slides, video of herself, videos of environmental problems ,photographs, cartoons, animated annotations, and narration. Students watched these videos before class, allowing Craig to skip basic statutory lectures and to focus instead on cases and application of the statutes to contemporary problems—such as the application of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) to the recently recognized PFAS contamination problem.

Craig also made videos that showed students how to use various of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) databases and to search the Federal Register on-line. Over the course of the semester, these videos guided students as they investigated waste releases in Salt Lake City, created environmental justice maps and discovered water quality problems in places important to them, and analyzed recent listings of species under the Endangered Species Act.

Craig made use of the many wonderful webinars that have been produced, recorded, and made available on-line since COVID-19 hit, as well as the EPA’s and YouTube’s extensive collections of videos relevant to environmental law and other internet resources. From these resources, students heard Māori convey the importance of personhood status for the Whanganui River in New Zealand and to compare that perspective to attempts in the United States to give personhood status to Lake Erie and the Colorado River. They listened to leaders of the environmental justice movement describe early challenges in combatting environmental discrimination and important victories, as well as saw first-hand the impacts of these environmental insults on affected communities. They watched experts discuss various approaches to environmental law enforcement during COVID-19 “shelter in place” orders, China’s new wildlife consumption laws intended to prevent pandemics, and the implications of both the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent County of Maui decision and the ongoing regulatory refinements to the Clean Water Act’s “waters of the United States.” They learned core concepts of resilience theory from graduate students at the University of Nebraska through on-line training modules with built-in quizzes.

Finally, Craig used the course’s online Canvas platform to facilitate substantial ongoing assessment of how well students understood the material. Students, for example, took a variety of on-line quizzes and participated in multiple discussion forums throughout the semester. They also wrote short memoranda that Craig graded online according to pre-entered grading rubrics –rubrics available to students before they ever start writing –and through on-line comments on the papers that students can review.