Reflections on the Fall Semester of Online Classes, and Thoughts for the Future

We are about to enter the ninth month of our COVID world. In many regards, time feels like it is standing still. Every day has a monotony like the one before. Yet, these past nine months have been a time of radical growth and transformation in ways that we really do not appreciate. Things that I thought were really important turned out to be unimportant. Things that I thought were impossible turned out to be quite easy. And things I thought I could never do have become old habit.

Perhaps my most profound lesson during this entire time is to never doubt the human capacity to evolve to meet new challenges. And I think this lesson has extended to higher education. At the outset of the pandemic, I was quite pessimistic about the ability of universities in general, and law schools in general, to cope with the pandemic. This skepticism was borne of my observations over the past decade: legal academia is a conservative (lowercase c) institution that evolves at a glacial pace. I did not think administrations and professors could move with enough agility to adapt to constantly-changing circumstances. I looked to elite institutions like Harvard Law School, which shut down entirely, as the canary in the kale mine: if HLS thinks it is too dangerous to stay open, how will less-prestigious schools stay open. And I also expected state and local governments to impose new draconian lockdown measures to shut down campuses.

I was wrong. Some universities preemptively shut down. In hindsight, those decisions may have been too rash. Other universities tried to open up, but failed miserably, and had to shut down. But the bulk of institutions opened up successfully, and stayed open throughout the semester.

Here, I can speak from personal experience. The South Texas College of Law Houston made it through the entire semester without any outbreaks. In a short period of time, we built several new classrooms to promote social distancing. We established elaborate protocols to ensure safety. And 1Ls were able to take the bulk of their classes in a “hybrid” model. We had very, very few positive cases, and almost all of them were off campus. I did not see any evidence of community spread in the building.  I commend my Dean, administration, colleagues, staff, and students for creating an entire online university in the span of months. It is truly remarkable what was accomplished in such a short time. For the spring, we are offering a larger number of upper-level classes on campus. And I suspect colleagues at other schools can tell similar success stories. There are also some colleagues who have some not-so-successful stories.

Moreover, the online model of learning became surprisingly normal–and effective. I have not yet graded exams, but my general sense is that students have roughly the same level of comprehension as in a normal semester. I feared there would be a huge disparity in retention, but that has not proven true. I also worried that there would be a serious burnout towards the end of the semester. I think concerns about “Zoom fatigue” are a bit exaggerated. Every year, I discern a drop in participation as the end of the semester nears. The late-term decline this year was no greater than usual. I resist the urge to blame the normal ebbs and flows of eduction on Zoom. The normal limitations of students exist, whether online or in person. Online education is not a perfect, or even a good substitute for in-person learning. But it has proven to be a far more effective substitute than I expected.

Yet, I recognize that online education has other costs. This year, I met with each of my students to review their midterms (over Zoom, of course). I would hold office hours on Saturdays and Sundays for much of October and November. In total, I spent about 20-30 minutes with each of my 100+ students. I found this time very effective, as it allowed me to forge a personal connection with a virtual student. I asked each student the same question: How is online education treating you? Consistently, students felt the lack of human connection. Chatting with classmates before class. Hanging out in the student lounge. Walking with a professor back to his office after class. These are interactions that Zoom can never, ever replace. Many students–especially those who lived alone–felt isolated and alone. (Students with families expressed the exact opposite problem, and worried that they could never get alone time!)

Eventually, law schools will be able to resume classes without social distancing requirements. A lecture hall that was built for 90 students will once again be able to seat 90 students. Will everything suddenly go back to “normal”? For many students, the answer is “YES!” Some of our students would be happy to never log onto Zoom ever again. Good luck with that. I think the legal practice will be forever transformed. Client meetings and court hearings will stay on Zoom, even after the pandemic passes.

For other students, however, the answer is not so clear. Part-time students, as well as commuter students, could benefit from having at least part of their education structured in a hybrid model. For example, I have some students that work from 9-5, then drive an hour downtown in rush hour, to begin four hours of class sessions. Other full-time students can have a 2+ hour commute each way. Perhaps, these students would be given the option to attend class in person two days a week, and attend hybrid classes two days a week.

I don’t see any reason to simply abandon all of the hard work done to improve hybrid education, given that there would be a serious demand. Students who want in-person learning only would get it. And students who want hybrid learning, and are willing to sacrifice the in-person interaction, would get it as well.

At the end of the spring 2020 semester (the infernal semester that would never end), I was pessimistic about the fall 2020 semester. But at the end of the fall 2020 semester, I am cautiously, and guardedly optimistic about the spring 2021 semester.

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