There was a time when we as academics used to love debating about online exams, their nuances, pros and cons… and then like all academics we went back to our favourite pastime: answering emails! And, of course, marking research essays and conducting our own research. The thought that we would ever depart from our comfortably set routine of traditional end-of-semester exams was limited to seminars and staff meetings… and then a one-in-a-hundred-year event jolted us into action. What was once an interesting option suddenly became the only viable way forward.
All over the world, universities encountered the challenge of readapting to the changing circumstances with some institutions, such as Imperial College London holding their medical exams exclusively online. In Australia and New Zealand, Monash University and Victoria University of Wellington have adopted a series of measures that saw examinations move to an online medium.
However, what may be true in the case for larger institutions might not necessarily be true for smaller institutions that prize their more hands-on learning environment. While the transition to online teaching and assessment is all but inevitable, what will be its iteration within law schools that emphasise a personalised learning experience such as Bond University’s Faculty of Law?
Faculties often have their own teaching approaches that meld with the requirements and the dynamics of the underlying disciplines. At Bond, the Faculty of Law emphasises purposive learning and the teaching of skills through a strong student-teacher interaction in lectures, tutorials and a private, one-on-one consultations. It is simplistic to assume that the Bond “feel” will remain the same with Collaborate, Zoom or Microsoft Teams platforms. The transition, therefore, must be such that our character and peculiar advantage must remain intact.
At the academic level, instructors will have to come to grips with multi-layered challenges. For example:
- Email stress: where communications with students, colleagues and support staff will impose an increasing strain. Dorie Clark writing for the Harvard Business Review states that an average professional spends approximately 4.1 hours answering work emails. I am sure some of our colleagues easily meets or exceeds this estimate! One useful resource has been produced by University of Michigan which provides a great refresher for many of us struggling to cope with heightened email traffic. Email stress features here because the closer the assessment dates draw close the frequency of emails from students to instructors increases exponentially. Delay in responding to student emails due to sheer volume of messages in the inbox is quite obviously a challenge that has to be resolved going forward.
- Re-adapting the skills exercise program to make it such that remote conduct is qualitatively equivalent to actual skills exercises in our moot courts and skills room: Bond Law has its own unique way of doing things, hence there is no exemplar that can be used effectively. For mooting based, skills exercises, one challenge is to cultivate the student’s preparation and readiness levels to wean them away from script reading from the screen. Another challenge is to manage the scheduling of exercises for students in different time-zones or where internet is not reliable. Essentially, this means that if students are unable to conduct their skills exercises we must have a fall-back plan for them that meets the university assessment standards and any other external benchmarking.
- Credibility and integrity of the assessment process: The traditional exams are gone! Even after COVID-19 crisis is over, the era of end-of-semester, sit down exams is coming to an end. This shift offers both challenges and exciting opportunities. Our solution this semester at Bond was to allow 24 hours to do an exam that normally would have taken much less. Clearly, this cannot be made the basis of assessments going forward. If take-home exams or assignments are going to be the new norm then the emphasis on quality of legal analysis increases. For the instructors, this means that legal analysis has to be explicitly taught within the four-corners of every subject instead of leaving it on the students to figure it out. Practically, this may also mean acknowledgment of the fact that what may be appropriate as legal analysis in one subject might not be suitable for adaptation in another subject. One possible solution to this is that the assessment design should be used as the basis of teaching – a task that is easier said than done. Traditionally, in the subject of law there has been a strong emphasis on summative assessment whereby student proficiency is judged against pre-determined benchmarks. Under a revised paradigm, instructors would have to consider pre-deciding their assessments and then teaching legal analysis within that framework.
We cannot assume that transition towards online learning will be universally popular. On the contrary, we may see a digital divide between regions and demographics where certain students or staff will struggle to adapt to new technologies. Such individuals may be tempted to view their negative experience of online learning during the Covid-19 crisis as representative of online learning on a more general scale. The silver lining is that the next few months will afford us, the academics, to experiment and try new things which can later form the foundation of the law school experience in a new era.