May 12, 2020

Online Learning Basics

Sara J. Berman, Director of Academic and Bar Success, AccessLex Institute Center for Legal Education Excellence
Academic and Bar Success

A. Tech Support

One of the greatest challenges to quickly adapting to online teaching and learning is that robust tech support systems –for students and faculty—may not yet be in place. What tech support is available varies greatly from school to school and is often available through not only law school and university IT departments but law librarians who often have expertise in using online legal resources. The other great source of tech assistance that has stepped up in an unprecedented manner is colleague-to-colleague crowd sourcing.  Law faculty nationwide are posting a wealth of information; colleagues are posting amazingly helpful suggestions on every aspect of synchronous and asynchronous online learning, crowd sourcing solutions to nearly every challenge the legal education community is facing.  In just the first few days following the initial “stay at home” orders, there were hundreds if not thousands of posts on legal education listservs and blogs about topics including but not limited to Zoom and WebEx broadcasting to suggestions for online classroom rules; expectations, and norms for online classes; advice for students on how to stay engaged while learning online; easy “cheat sheets” on recording voice-over power points; excellent strategies for moving moot court and oral arguments online; resources for getting guest lecturers to attend classes virtually; and many more creative helpful posts. And, AccessLex is collecting distance resources for online teaching and learning at

B. The LMS

Most online learning relies on some sort of LMS (learning management system) that delivers the electronic information to students such as BlackBoard or Canvas.  Faculty use a variety of broadcasting tools as well, including Zoom and WebEx.  (These have generally worked well, as reported in the last month, though professors who have read about or faced “Zoombombing” are undoubtedly aware of some of the related privacy and secury concerns.) 

Although the capability of LMS systems varies, they generally permit students to log on and access their syllabi and other traditional course materials, such as information on required and recommended texts, as well as to deliver a variety of nontraditional course materials—for example, to post video clips, audio files, podcasts, and links to outside resources. Through an LMS, professors can give students quizzes, including written assessments, true/false, multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, and other types of questions. Learning management systems can even give hints when students answer incorrectly, provide explanations for wrong answers, and direct students to review relevant areas of law where they are weaker. An LMS will allow students to upload exams that professors can download, comment on, and return electronically to students. And professors can generate reports to track student progress with all online assignments. In sum, the LMS does far more than simply deliver information. It tracks, organizes, and reports student progress and course statistics.  As we get further into the world of online learning, tools can be harnessed to gather a great deal of actionable data on learning outcomes and assessment, and a variety of other educational objectives. Schools considering applying for a bar research grant will want to look carefully at the data they are and could be collecting to study various interventions that they are implementing or plan to implement next year.

C. <em>Asynchronous Teaching and Tools</em>

When teaching online, faculty can use streaming audio or video and meet in an online “classroom” in real time, or “live,” and/or faculty can avail themselves of a host of asynchronous teaching tools. For example, a professor can pre-record audio and/or video lectures (and do this easily on a cell phone), assign readings and written exercises, use discussion boards, deliver handouts, conduct quizzes and exams, encourage students to communicate with the professor and each other via blogging, emailing, tweeting, and more.  Students also enjoy and can learn a great deal from recording themselves teaching MBE questions, as I wrote about in an article entitled, MBE Media Gallery: A Low Investment High Yield Teaching Technique, The Learning Curve, Summer/Fall 2018 at 20. Creativity is the only limitation here.

Asynchronous learning simply means that students work on their own time. Contrast it with synchronous online learning where students “meet” at a fixed time in an online environment. Asynchronous does not mean open-ended or unstructured. Professors can create course timelines, due dates, and timed assignments. Just as in a traditional classroom, your course can be as structured or free flowing as you choose.  Moreover, in the asynchronous world outside of the LMS, the professor can also help a great deal in bar support by blogging key information and exam tips, such as how to combat fatigue, test anxiety, and more. Professors can have students engage either passively by reading or more actively by posting replies and completing assignments. Professors could do something such as blogging or tweeting weekly quizzes to students (and perhaps even sending personalized notes to students who score particularly well on these). 

In my bar support workshops, I would often mail letters and small gift cards to acknowledge students who were particularly engaged, had made great improvement tackling particular challenges, and just to help make students feel that they belonged and they were on track.  (In the age of email and electronic communication, getting something in the mail is typically a welcome surprise.) Students also develop their own creative ways to use online tools for learning. One of my former students tweeted daily lessons that she learned from practice MBE questions.  Throughout her entire bar preparation period, she tweeted why she had gotten confused if she had erred on practice questions, forcing herself to succinctly confront anything she never learned or had not learned well enough. She also tweeted concise rule statements and picky exceptions to rules, as she learned them. By the time of her bar exam, she had amassed hundreds of tweets.

Note: Some faculty object to an informality that exists in certain online communication. In the law school environment, professors have every right to insist that students use professional language in various course postings, preparing students for later online communications they will likely have with clients, court personnel, opposing counsel, etc.


D. Synchronous Tools

A synchronous online classroom is a virtual “room” where students and the professor can assemble in cyberspace and communicate with each other. Faculty may be using tools such as Zoom, WebEx or any number of other platforms. Faculty may lecture and/or engage in Q & A –traditional Socratic or modified into more collaborative formats.  They can use breakout rooms for small group work.  (Again, there is a great deal of help from tech support, colleagues, and law librarians, and there are many helpful online tutorials to take advantage of to help learn a few of the various tools each “classroom” offers. Faculty need not learn everything at once. It can be helpful to get comfortable with basics and then add “bells and whistles.”)

In an online classroom, where a professor is streaming live video or audio, it can be helpful to think of oneself as Face Timing or videoconferencing, with the group rather than an individual. Those less comfortable online might think of themselves as delivering a call-in radio or television address where the audience can interact with you directly and often instantaneously. Students can typically comment on and answer the professors’ questions with typewritten remarks in chat boxes, and “raising their hands” to respond via audio and/or video, using their own microphones and webcams. Depending on how many students are in a class and how much professors want to cover, professors may want to ask that students hold their comments or thoughts until the end of the session. (As in a traditional classroom, long-winded or off-topic comments can easily derail the most well intended lesson plans.)

There are many advantages to the real-time classroom once a professor gets accustomed to it. Among them are that professors can easily use multimedia to supplement the “lecture” or discussions, and all students can hear and see the same information at the same time. Because sessions can be recorded, students can also review everything in the classroom without feeling embarrassed about asking professors to repeat themselves. If at first online teaching seem awkward, know that is entirely normal. Faculty have to get over the feeling that they are talking to a machine. (The same is true when recording video and/or audio lectures for students to use asynchronously.)  Faculty must accept that the class (students and professor) are really all there together in a room, albeit a virtual room.

It helps, when broadcasting synchronous classes and recording lectures for asynchronous use, to picture the students in one’s mind, and constantly think that one is talking to (or with) real people who are listening. For faculty who teach in small law schools, and who are teaching students and/or providing online bar exam support for people who have previously been in live in-person sessions, there may be no “distance” at all. Faculty can think of the environment as a sort of “group conference call” with students the faculty members already knows (and may know well).  For faculty who teach in a larger law schools and don’t know everyone who comes into the virtual classroom, it might be helpful to get photos of everyone on the class roster and keep those handy so that when talking with specific students to picture them as one speaks. It may also be helpful to print out a profile and take notes about different students to remember comments they have made in previous sessions.  An easy way of personalizing the online classroom is to make references to what someone said or posted in a previous class.  It shows the professor cares, creates community, enhances engagement, and helps boost students’ sense of belonging.

E. Instant Messaging

The LMS may include tools for students to send private messages to the professor and/or other students. When this capability is available during a real-time class, I encourage students to email me after class with personal or confidential matters so as not to distract me, their classmates, or risk that their comment is inadvertently posted to the group. (I have occasionally had students IM me something very important and helpful, such as a reminder about a particular due date for an assignment or an error on the syllabus.) 

Some professors dislike the idea of knowing that their students may be “chatting” during real-time classes; accordingly, some platforms allow professors to turn off instant messaging capabilities. I typically allow instant messaging. I use other tools and methods, such as calling on students, to be sure that they are paying attention. If they are messaging about the content, it may actually be helping them to learn. They might instant message each other when they do not understand a concept, and often this encourages at least one brave student to speak up and ask for clarification. (Some students are reticent about posting comments or questions until a classmate confirms that it is a worthy observation or query.) Of course there is the danger that students are chatting too much and not paying attention, but, again, professors can typically turn off this feature. And, even in traditional live classes, unless you take away cell phones and laptops, (something that may be called for in certain sessions), students may well be texting during class. If so, far better that they be chatting about the class context than distracting themselves with non-law matters. (I certainly think it is worth calling people out for failing to pay attention, though, in both live in-person and real-time online classes, and continuing to think creatively about ways to keep students’ attention in a world of multitasking and ever-present distraction. I often lecture from both the front and back of the classroom, pacing around as I speak, largely to stop people from surfing on their computers during class.)

F. Polling

Polling, which can be used as a synchronous or asynchronous tool, is useful for professors to ask a variety of questions to see if people are following along and understanding, and to engage students without putting them on the spot. An “anonymous” polling feature allows students to see what percentage of the group selects each poll choice. Everyone can immediately determine whether he or she is in the majority and where most of the class falls, without revealing anyone’s name.

In extracurricular bar support workshops, I sometimes used polling to ask how many practice exams students completed and/or self-assessed the previous week. (I did this in part to stimulate positive peer pressure.) I conducted open polls or included choices such as (a) 0, (b) 5 or fewer, (c) between 5 and 10, or (d) more than 10. I also polled students to identify confusion about particular concepts in topics they were studying in bar review. Though there is no guarantee of getting honest answers, the anonymity of polling led to direct, uncensored feedback. Getting the immediate pulse of a group also helped decide what to spend time on and what to skip. For instance, if most everyone in a bar support workshop was feeling relatively confident about PTs but panicked about MBEs, we could adjust time where they most needed help.

G. Creating Community when Launching Synchronous Online Classes

In one of my law schools, I held online bar support sessions weekly in June and July and in January and February, helping keep students on track in their bar review courses and helping them to combat the many common challenges that tend to arise during bar preparation. I also held monthly “early start’ bar support sessions beginning six months prior to each bar exam.  Note that where bar exams are being delayed past the summer, all graduates must effectively be on what I have published extensively about and refer to as “extended study plans.”

Given that bar exams have been cancelled and delayed, every graduate is effectively on an extended study plan, thus encouraging them to mainstain positive growth mindsets will be critical.

For bar support, whether I conducted live in-person sessions, real-time online classes, or phone conference calls, I nearly always started with a non-substantive introduction. In June or July, a perfect opening is simply asking students  “how they are holding up.” This often reveals that they are tired or frustrated and they find immediate solace in seeing that classmates feel the same. Bar preparation is isolating, even moreso when compounded with quarantine requirments. Whether studying alone or by Zoom with classmates, students know they will have to perform solo in the high-stakes, lengthy, and exhausting exam. It helps enormously for students to know they are not the “only ones” experiencing whatever challenges they face.)

In online sessins, I might also start with a very simple question so that everyone can answer, such as “Where are you logging in from this evening?” (In pandemic parlance, this may be the bedroom or the kitchen.) Or, “What did you eat for breakfast today?”  Such questions get everyone participating and make them more comfortable in the setting. Especially if you are conducting a first session or working with students you do not know well, it is helpful to start class with something personal, even a greeting or a short story about your day or a newsworthy event. (I did this in every online session in order to immediately connect with students.) Also, in the first class, be sure to post a short bio and your contact information for students to follow up if they have questions.

I am often asked by faculty, “How can you be yourself when you speak/lecture online?”  I answer them, saying, You can refer to notes, scratch your chin, or take a sip of coffee if you want while talking. Do not feel stilted because you are online. Speak as if you were talking with people right in front of you. Really, they are. The teaching and learning will be more dynamic and more effective if the professor does not feel inhibited by the medium. You are still in control. You can call on students in an online class, just as in a live class, ask questions, or direct students to clarify or expand responses. And you can change the subject or end a particular discussion whenever you choose to do so. Do not let a webcam or other recording device throw you.

H. Recordings

Asynchronous recordings are available for students to review whenever and as many times as they wish.  When you are holding real-time online sessions, it can be helpful to record them as well and make them available for students to review and/or for students who missed the real-time session. Recordings are often especially useful for non–native English speakers and struggling students. I often encourage my students in online sessions to just listen during the real-time portion and not try to take notes, to help them really focus and participate actively in the session; I always encourage them to post and respond to questions. I instruct them to then go back after class and review the recording of the class to take notes, or edit their notes if they took some notes in class. Recordings can also be transcribed for students with certain disabilities.

I. Professor Postings

The online classroom software may allow professors to provide multimedia presentations during their sessions. For instance, professors may show PowerPoints or video clips, write text, or post links. A number of colleagues have recently posted very easy “How to” guides on how to create voice-over PowerPoints.  When posting written text online, be cognizant of how the students will read the words (on their phone or on a laptop) and how much or how little time they will take doing so.  As a general rule of thumb, whether posting plain text, PowerPoints, or video vignettes, be brief. Picture your written content in tweet-sized nuggets rather than full paragraphs and pages. And be aware that students will need time to take in material that you are posting.

One possible downside of posting an outside link to a web page during your presentation is the risk of losing the audience to web surfing. That said, the positives may include easy reference to engaging and fun material.  As the professor, you are the guide. Think about where you want students’ focus.  (This may differ in law school teaching and during bar exam preparation.) Some professors also create their own innovative and fun video presentations. (I recently attended a demonstration of a software that allows users to create animated videos. If you don’t want to use your own voice in a recording, for example, you may want to use something like this to add variety and capture student attention.) 

J. Student Postings: Professor Moderated or Unmoderated

Some platforms allow professor flexibility in how student comments are posted in a chat room, virtual classroom, and/or on discussion boards. An “unmoderated mode” allows all student comments to be posted automatically, without the professor seeing or having control over them. A “moderated mode” allows the professor the opportunity to see and vet the student responses and decide which to post. I chose to moderate most of my real-time synchronous online class sessions. It helped me to see all the comments first. If a student made a remark that is inappropriate, off point, or introduced a concept I planned to discuss later, I could choose not to post it, or could hold it and post it when I saw fit. I could control the pace of the discussion. Let’s say Student X made an excellent observation or asked a particularly insightful question; I could spontaneously decide to spend a few minutes discussing that new comment/question before moving on. Or I could post the comment and say that while we do not have time to discuss it at that moment, it is something important that the students should and that we would consider together at some later time.  Moderating real time environments also helps spare embarrassment if students happen to post highly personal or inappropriate comments.

Note that I typically chose not to moderate asynchronous discussion boards and allowed students to post freely, though I always sent students caveats (and regularly sent follow up messages reminding them) about using a professional tone and professional language when communicating online. (This provided an excellent vehicle to remind students to keep their language professional in law practice as well.) I did monitor bulletin boards; I read what students post and comment on their postings.  In rare instances I have contacted a student about a post and suggested the student re-think the comment’s tone or content.  But to moderate all asynchronous bulletin board comments before they are posted 1) takes a lot of time, and 2) risks stifling the students’ desire to participate in the communal dialogue.  Again, though, you are the professor, so you should do whatever you are comfortable with, and it is certainly fine if you prefer to screen everything on a bulletin board before it is posted to the group.  

More to follow in the next Blog post in this series.