Preparing to Teach Remotely (Part 3): Designing Learning Activities

Professor Nick James

For the past few weeks I have been sharing the details of my efforts to prepare for remote teaching next semester. My first step was to engage with a broad overview of remote teaching. I then thought carefully about my learning outcomes, and whether they remain suitable in a remote teaching context. Last week my focus was upon ensuring the assessment I will be administering in my subject is appropriate, rigorous and aligned with my learning outcomes.

This week I am going to think about, and plan, my learning activities. What will I be doing with my students across the semester to help them to achieve the subject learning outcomes and complete the subject assessment tasks?

It is traditional, and tempting, to think of this process in terms of ‘content delivery’. I have a package of doctrines, principles, cases, legislation, concepts, stories, activities and assessments that make up the ‘content’ of my subject. I have a certain amount of time to ‘deliver’ that content to the students. I usually feel that there is more ‘content’ than I have time to comfortably ‘deliver’, and I feel that I frequently need to rush to ‘get through’ all the content.

And when it comes to delivery of all this content, it is again traditional, and tempting, to default to what are called Law’s ‘signature pedagogies’. I will for two hours each week talk at the students in a lecture theatre, verbally explaining everything I think about the subject that is important, or interesting, or necessary. I’ll tell the students to follow up what they learn in the lecture with self-directed study in the form of reading (textbooks, additional readings, cases, legislation, journal articles, etc) and working on assessment tasks (weekly tutorial problems, assignments, essays, etc). And the following week I’ll spend another hour in the classroom going through some of these assessment tasks – usually practice problems – with the students. That’s the way law is often taught.

The problem with thinking about what we do during the semester as ‘content delivery’ is that it is based on what is at best an incomplete, and at worst deeply flawed, understanding of how learning works. ‘Content delivery’ seems to assume that we have the content, our students are empty vessels into which the content needs to be deposited, and our teaching is the process of transmitting the content from our minds into the minds of the students. It’s what has been called the transmission model of teaching, or what Paulo Freire called the banking concept. It’s easy to understand, but it isn’t an accurate representation of the learning process. Students don’t arrive with empty heads waiting to be filled with our perfect knowledge. They arrive with an existing set of ideas and assumptions about our subject, and learn through a set of experiences during the semester that allow them to add to, modify and improve what they already know. Our job as teachers isn’t to ‘transmit’ or ‘deliver’ the content to the students. It’s to provide them with a series of learning experiences that will facilitate their efforts to construct a new understanding of the subject that aligns with our stated learning outcomes.

And the problem with setting up those ‘learning experiences’ as a two hour lecture, seven hours of self-directed study, and a one hour tutorial  is that that is not necessarily the best set of learning experiences for each student. Perhaps they are … but perhaps there are other, better learning experiences we can provide for our students. Some students learn effectively by listening passively to a two hour lecture … but many do not. Some students have the self-discipline to work out for themselves what they should do between the lecture and the tutorial … but many do not. And some students learn best by preparing practice answers to exam-style questions and then being told what they did wrong … but many do not.

My efforts this semester in transitioning to remote delivery provides me with the opportunity to reflect deeply upon the learning experiences I give my students. Do I want to try to replicate what I normally do, but in an online environment? Can I simply give a two hour lecture online, then let the students go away and read and study by themselves, and then bring them together in smaller groups for an online tutorial that otherwise looks exactly the same as the classroom tutorials I normally use? Or does this new environment give me the opportunity to do something differently? Of course I remain constrained by my university’s’ expectations and requirements regarding timetables, scheduled hours in the ‘classroom’, assessment deadlines and weightings, and so on. But within those constraints I have the freedom to innovate, and to hopefully improve my teaching and my students’ learning.

As I have explained previously, I have expressed the learning outcomes for my subject as:

  1. Explain and critique the law regulating enterprises in Australia, including tort law, contract law, consumer protection and competition regulation, IP law and business law
  2. Communicate their knowledge of the legal system and enterprise law effectively and appropriately, in writing and verbally
  3. Identify, analyse and solve authentic legal problems, taking into consideration their ethical dimensions

The question for me now is: within the constraints imposed by my institution, and mindful of the many challenges faced by my students and by me as their teacher during this global crisis, what set of learning experiences during the semester will maximally facilitate the achievement by my students of these learning outcomes?

I want my students to be able to explain and critique the law regulating enterprises in Australia. This requires them to engage with a set of complex doctrines and ideas. There is an enormous quantity of information available to the students about these doctrines and ideas but it is unreasonable for me to expect them (given their level of experience with the law) to navigate and makes sense of all that by themselves. I can identify on their behalf some accessible and credible resources that will assist them to understand this information: readings from the textbook, extracts from the key cases and legislation, and so on. I need to be mindful of the fact that many of the students will not have physical access to the Law Library and so I have to ensure all of the resources are accessible online. Where possible I should direct my students to the relevant parts of what are often substantial readings, rather than simply tell them to read the whole thing and work out for themselves what is and what is not important.

One of the most helpful things I can do in this regard is take the time to explain the overall shape and structure of the relevant topic each week, emphasise the most important parts, enliven the material with anecdotes, and explain in my own words the aspects of the topic that are particularly complicated or challenging. I would usually do this once a week in a single two hour lecture. But remote delivery provides me with other options. I might break the topic down into smaller sub-topics or ‘chunks’, talk about each sub-topic in detail and then take a break to answer student questions and check student understanding with online polling. I could even pre-record the sub-topic explanations as a series of 10-15 minutes videos, and either direct the students to watch each video during the scheduled lecture time or have them watch them before the lecture, leaving more time during the scheduled online class time to engage in group activities, assessments, and conversations. In my experience, the subject matter of a traditional two hour lecture can be presented in a series of videos totally about an hour, since when I record a presentation I speak much more quickly and with fewer pauses than when I deliver a live presentation.

I can still follow up the large class activities and the self-directed learning with some small class discussions and problem solving. But remote delivery makes it easier to divide the online class into buzz groups and have them work together on problems. I could spend the first part of the class going through that week’s prescribed problem in the usual way, testing student understanding and responding to student queries, but I can also use some of the time to have the students break out into buzz groups to work on a new problem together, and then bring the group back together for a discussion. In the past I might have asked the students to also submit written answers to that week’s problem, as formative assessment, summative assessment or both. Instead I could require the students to create a 5 minute video where they explain not their answer to the problem but their approach to the problem, walking me through their process of reading the question, thinking about and planning their answer, doing their research and so on. Teaching my students how to identify, analyse and solve authentic legal problems is my third learning outcome; monitoring and providing feedback about their process is just as important as evaluating their final answers.

So I have decided each week’s learning activities will look like this:

  1. A short video announcement posted to the subject website where I explain what we are doing that week.
  2. A series of short videos where I present the material I would usual present in a lecture.
  3. A large class where I take the time to explain the more difficult concepts in more detail, engage the students in class activities, engage in discussions about the critical and ethical aspects of the material, and answer student queries.
  4. A set of specific readings and self-directed learning activities that the students will undertake after the large class.
  5. A small class about a week later where we discuss the self-directed learning activities, and the students work on a new learning task in buzz groups.
  6. An online test to (1) assess their progress and (2) motivate them to keep up with the learning schedule.

I will of course monitor the progress of my students’ learning and levels of engagement as we move through the semester, and make adjustments as required. This is for me, and for my students, a very different approach to teaching and learning. It is inevitable that some things will not work out the way I envisage. As long as I am mindful, agile and reasonably flexible I am sure everything will be fine.

Next week: Setting up my subject website.

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