The Year of Distancing Physically: Six Tips for Online Learning in Law Schools

Already here in May, it seems inevitable that the new law school year in September will not be carried out entirely in person. Universities ranging from McGill in Canada to Cambridge in the UK have already announced that their Fall 2020 classes will begin online, and while most American universities have delayed making similar announcements, it’s hard to see how campuses can be retrofitted over the summer to accommodate the physical distancing demands that the pandemic has created. Even if some schools insist on starting in person, will that continue through an expected second wave of infections in Autumn?

Law schools would, in most cases, have to follow the lead of their parent universities when it comes to the online/in-person decision. And what also seems clear at this stage is that a full semester (or even a full year) of online legal education cannot be carried out in the same triaged fashion as the last six weeks of the Winter 2020 term. Instructors and students setting up Zoom accounts, attending live lectures over the internet, and carrying out a kind of long-distance pantomime version of the college classroom was acceptable when we had no advance warning of the pandemic and were just getting through to the end of the term.

But in September, expectations will be higher. Universities can’t default back to “emergency remote teaching” — or if they do, it will suggest a failure of institutional imagination and resiliency that likely will extract a cost in future enrolment numbers. What we need to do right now is start advancing towards “online learning,” which is a very different, if not yet fully defined, beast.

Based on a survey of what has already been undertaken in this sector, along with my own brief experience as an instructor in Suffolk University Law School’s online Legal Innovation and Technology Certificate Program, here are a few thoughts about how legal education will have to adapt to the coming year (and maybe longer) of online learning.

1. Design For Online. At the outset, I want to strongly urge law deans and faculty members against merely porting the in-class experience into a Zoom environment. Instead, to the extent feasible in the limited time available, rethink and reimagine your courses from the ground up for the online world. Approach the whole process ab initio and think: If we had never delivered this course in person before, what would be the best way for us to do it? You need to clear your mind of old assumptions about what a law school class looks like.

2. Focus on Outcomes. Related to the first point, think about what the end result of the course ought to be from the student’s perspective. What should the student have learned during this course, in terms of both knowledge and skills? What should the student have learned about, learned to do, and experienced? This is your opportunity to redesign your course away from delivering a block of knowledge about the law and testing students’ absorption and retention of that knowledge, and towards helping students trace an arc of new competence in a given area of law from where they began the course to where they finished it.

It might seem counter-intuitive to talk about actions and experiences in a virtual environment — surely, when confined to a screen and keyboard, we’re limited in how students can participate and learn? But I’d argue that the online environment actually opens new doors — to “how-to” video tutorials, collaborative project opportunities, and one-on-one mentoring experiences. If we focus on the desired results of the course from the holistic perspective of the student who desires to achieve mastery in a given area, we start to tap into the potential of this new landscape.

3. Default to Asynchronous. This is a really important point. There is no obvious reason why students and instructor need to always be “together” in real time during the course. Synchronicity of presence was merely a feature that came accidentally bundled with in-person education, and is not an immutable mandatory element of the learning experience. If anything, the default setting for student interactions with the course should be asynchronous, with synchronous presence reserved for high-value activities.

Instructors therefore should record their lectures and post them online, so that students can access the lectures in their own time, just as they (are supposed to) do with their readings. Synchronous online meetings can then be devoted to student discussions facilitated by the instructor — or better again, to case studies where students describe how they would try solving a problem suggested by the readings and lectures. Synchronous gatherings of the participants in a course are rare, valuable, and difficult to arrange, and they should not be wasted on passive, one-to-many informational lectures.

4. Develop Bite-Size Learnings. Educators and pedagogical researchers invariably advise that people learn better when information is carved up into smaller discrete “chunks” rather than large blocks. What this means in practice is that insights into a particular topic or issue should be delivered in about 15-20 minute segments, which not only improves the focus of the instruction, but also makes the prospect of plowing through the materials more attractive to students with limited time and attention.

The added advantage of putting course information into short recorded sessions online is that a student can pause, rewind, and rewatch any aspect of a recorded lecture to get a clearer sense of the subject. This way, you give the student power over the materials, rather than the other way around. Would you force students to show up in person while you narrate the assigned readings? Of course not. So stop doing the same thing with your lectures. Take that 60-minute lecture and turn it into five 12-minute videos on its discrete core concepts. (By the way, this applies equally to CLE events — raise your hand if you’ve ever zoned out during a 60- or 90-minute CLE panel.)

5. Encourage Collaboration. The more your students are working together to apply and develop the knowledge and skills you’re teaching them, the more effective the course will be and the likelier you’ll achieve your outcomes. This collaboration can be as simple as encouraging students to use the chat function when meeting live on Zoom, to hold parallel or second-order conversations that supplement the live discussion or to provide links to useful resources. You used to discourage “note-passing” and the use of laptops in class — with the chat function, you can combine both into a beneficial new element of collaboration.

But you should also assign students to meet separately in groups of four or five to work out solutions to case studies, come up with a method to analyze an issue, or prepare a presentation to the larger group. Students can learn much more from each other than from the instructor alone. Let the students learn in their own way, in addition to your way.

6. Adapt Your Assessments. If you were still grading students on 100% final exams heading into this pandemic, you now have an excellent reason to stop and never start again. Go back to the second entry on this list and ask: What do I expect students to have “learned about,” “learned to do,” and “experienced” in this course? Build assessments that measure progress towards these goals. Assess lightly, frequently, and constructively throughout the course, giving feedback as often as you feasibly can.

This doesn’t have to mean grading hundreds of short assignments. It can mean building multiple-choice questions into your recorded presentations that student must correctly answer before proceeding (with the system recording how many guesses they needed). It can mean assessing a group’s collaborative effort and the performance of its individual members over time. It can mean recruiting practitioners to assess the quality of practical solutions. The point of a course is not to award a letter grade; it is to help a student learn something. Build assessments around that.

This column is not meant to be an exhaustive review of online pedagogy for adults, and I’m neither trained nor qualified to deliver such a review. But I want to impress upon legal educators how different this playing field is from the one we’ve left behind so precipitously.

Your students, for at least the coming year, will learn differently than any previous cohort did, and they will make unprecedented demands on you. It’d going to be challenging, and nobody expects you to be perfect the first time through. But if you adopt the foregoing principles, I believe you can accelerate your own learning process.

My final thought is that you should eagerly seek out and welcome from your students the opportunity to assess your performance in providing online learning. Just as you’re assessing them throughout the course, give them the frequent opportunity to do the same in return. The world is changing, the classroom is flipping — and so is the script. From this point onwards, we are all students.


  1. Gary Luftspring

    and what is scary for law schools is if you go down this rabbit hole the nature of the staff you need is different. Lectures can be delivered by those that are best at giving them and need not even be current faculty or faculty of a specific school.

  2. Thanks Jordan these are very helpful, especially as Windsor Law is now planning for a completely online fall term. I would add only that, because different students learn in different ways, it is helpful to design courses in light of this pedagogical diversity. E.g. delivering lectures online synchronously, but making the recordings immediately available afterwards. Some students tell me they value the interactivity of synchronous lecture, and some even say they like the “discipline” of having a specific meeting time. Others are free to watch and rewatch the videos.

  3. Rebecca Lockwood

    These are great tips, Jordan. Thanks for sharing. I wonder how different legal education will be post-pandemic. I reckon that even when we return to live in class courses, a significant portion of learning will still take place online and the ‘flipped classroom’ model will become the norm. A welcome shift if you ask me!