Online learning at MLS – student and teacher experiences
The move to a virtual classroom has been a significant change for Melbourne Law School. Here, students and teachers reflect on the challenges, the benefits and the lessons learned.
I have to commend the Law School, the way they transitioned was quite impressive. It was always going to be a difficult process, but I thought the communication throughout was admirable and the transition was as smooth as possible. Especially given the School has been all about in-classroom teaching and quite anti-technology. And I say that in the nicest way possible, but I mean, they’ve never even offered lecture recordings until now, due to the emphasis on face-to-face learning.
I miss face-to face interaction with peers. Whether in the classroom, or doing study groups or even just seeing people in the building – I miss having those conversations.
Having said that, honestly, online learning has actually made my life a lot easier. For someone like me who doesn’t live particularly close to university and who works two jobs, I usually can only go to university to do my classes, and everything is quite rushed. You’re inclined to structure your classes on certain days so you don’t have to waste travel time. But when you do that, and you’re on your sixth hour of lectures in the one day, you can’t give it the necessary attention.
The Zoom tutorials have been great. Generally we don’t have tutorials, we have seminars – but ultimately, they are lectures, and it’s just not the same as having a tutorial, and actually discussing things with a smaller group. I’m quite a shy person, and I don’t really contribute that much in class, I feel more comfortable when there is a smaller amount of people, and you get to hear from everyone. It’s less intimidating for the person who doesn’t want to ask a question in front of 60 people.
Having videos of lectures that you can pause is such an advantage.
I understand that the Law School has previously wanted to encourage people to come to class, but when the material is quite difficult, the ability to pause or re-watch the lecture capture is incredibly advantageous. If MLS kept lecture recordings after we’re allowed back on campus, I don’t think it would hurt attendance. In my undergraduate degree (Biomedicine), I would attend every lecture, but also re-watch them online because I knew I would inevitably miss stuff.
So far, I’ve only taught one Masters subject online, but I have more classes coming up. The subject I taught, with Tom Daly, was completely new. The lockdown had yet to be announced when we planned it, but we could see it was looming. We decided to do it all online and I think it worked quite well. I’d had no experience of using online learning technology before this – none. It’s amazing what desperation will do.
The technology enabled us to really engage with the students, much in the way I would have done in the classroom. We could bring them in on a discussion where we were trying to jointly develop new ideas and we knew their expertise would be useful. We had students from several different nationalities in our class and we could bring them in to draw on experiences across the regions of the world.
We were conscious of the obvious dangers – people not being able to concentrate, or systems dropping out. I did what I would never normally do in a Masters class taught face-to-face and used PowerPoint throughout, so students had a structure they could refer to if needed. I also used hyperlinks on the PowerPoints, so I could take them directly to a range of on-line resources, without fluffing around too much.
The Masters experience is supposed to be really interactive. So we set up a WhatsApp group, partly to make everyone feel part of a group, and partly in case there were technical problems, so they could just send us a WhatsApp message. Thankfully there weren’t many problems, but the WhatsApp group is still going, more than six weeks later. We’re sharing interesting links and hoping to meet up in Melbourne when we can.
If there’s one thing to be aware of as a challenge, it’s the way online conversations can feel more public, and are potentially more permanent.
This can make both students and teachers more cautious about what they say about the subject-matter, particularly when they are drawing on practical experience. This is a particular issue in a Masters class, where many of the students are in professional employment, in Australia or elsewhere. People can be frank face-to-face in a way that is trickier when a class is being recorded.
Staying motivated while learning online has been really challenging. I valued the structure provided by in-person classes, which meant that I had to have certain readings done by certain times in order to extract the full benefit. Of course, motivation hasn't just been affected by a shift to online learning, there’s also been the backdrop of a global pandemic.
In my MLM subject, it was disappointing that we simply couldn't get the amount of time we otherwise would have. The teacher (who was stuck overseas) was amazing and put a lot of effort in, but seeing how great they were just made me sadder that we weren’t able to have the full amount of teaching hours.
Overall, the lecturers have been really enjoyable! The Remedies lecturers in particular are really appreciated by the students.
Additionally, the one-on-one time that teachers have made themselves available for has been really beneficial. They have always offered appointments and drop-in times, but with nothing much else to do I know a lot of students are taking advantage of these opportunities for the first time.
Another big issue is not running into peers in the building anymore – talking to friends about whatever case or concept we’re struggling with is a really important part of study, and it’s become a lot harder to organise the conversations that were once taken for granted.
I taught Legal Methods and Reasoning with Ian Malkin for students who couldn’t get to the class earlier in the year – some students were in Melbourne and others in China. So, this was kind of a special case: two teachers, a small group of students and a manageable time difference.
We pre-recorded around seven or eight videos to introduce content and core ideas, telling students to watch them beforehand. We also gave some of the exercises to students in advance, which helped speed things up a bit in the online class
We organised the class around group work, and class discussions, and we used technology to translate many of the activities.
We used the breakout rooms a lot for small group work, and then when everyone came back to the main screen we could discuss what everyone spoke about with their groups. We used the Zoom whiteboard, and annotated slides as we went along. If we had questions we wanted to ask, we sometimes put them up on the board and asked students to annotate the slides. Students could receive immediate feedback through our green ticks.
The main thing I’ve learnt from this experience is that we are extremely lucky to have colleagues with relevant expertise, particularly in online pedagogy, and we’ve really benefited from their advice. Since we work with people who know what they’re doing, take their advice!
Another thing I have learnt is that the basic principles of teaching really carry over. Building a fantastic relationship between teachers and students – something Ian really invests time and energy into – is as important online as ever.
I also learnt how much more draining an online class can be – on Zoom I often hide self-view as a matter of course, and I try to constantly move and stretch as much as possible. In future, I will encourage students to do the same – even if you’re talking, just move, look up from the screen and do a couple of stretches because it really makes a difference to how you feel at the end of the day.
Master of Construction Law student
If you asked me whether I’d recommend online learning, I’d say no. Face-to-face is much better. But I’ve enjoyed the online learning as a different experience because Matthew (Bell) and Wayne (Jocic) have made it happen. They answer all my questions, give us extra readings, provide videos. It’s been great, but I wouldn’t want it to go on forever.
For me, it’s harder to read thirty opinions on Canvas (online learning platform) than it is to follow a discussion in-person.
And I think having interactions with lecturers was much easier face to face – you simply raise your hand, but in Zoom it can be harder to get the attention of the lecturer while they’re busy explaining something.
What I’ve seen also is that class time is reduced, so it might go from 11am to 2pm, but face to face was 9am-5pm. That’s quite a difference. Still, the recording of lectures has been great. Even though I hope face-to-face learning comes back soon, I think it is a good idea to record lectures and send it to everyone.
It’s been fantastic! I was genuinely surprised. I’ve found it really fun, and I think the students have generally found it quite fun.
My classes have all been delivered live and I have between 20 and 30 students, so they’re not huge, but I’ve found that I’ve had more interaction with students than in a physical space. You can actually feel more closely connected with your students than you do at the front of a classroom.
My teaching style has had to adapt, obviously, because I’m teaching advocacy online, and I’m not sitting in the Moot Court and doing it in the usual kind of way. But I set up virtual breakout rooms and go into the breakout rooms to hear students practice, so I’ve been able to adapt the technology to suit the needs of the class.
With social distancing, I’ve been conscious of students’ mental health and have deliberately thought about how I can engineer collaborative tasks, things students can do together to encourage further interaction. That’s really important.
And one of the good things is that group work is much easier for the students to facilitate around other commitments and commuting. They seem really pleased to see each other, and take that opportunity to converse in a different environment.
I’m probably also more available to have a conversation via Zoom than I would be in my office. And that’s something I can continue into the future, being available for Zoom chats about classes, about careers, everything.
The joys of being a more ‘mature age’ student and needing to keep a career going meant that I was originally planning to take this semester off for work purposes. But, with online learning, I saw an opportunity to take one subject to keep connected to my studies, so I’m studying Employment Law right now as an elective.
My lecturer, Jill Murray, has been exceptional in how she’s made online learning accessible for us. She has broken down lecture videos into sub-topics to make them easier to watch, and has been really engaging in the Zoom tutorials. She has also run ‘open’ Zoom consultations and made private ones available.
I’ve found the ability to revisit recorded lectures has helped clarify things that I might not fully understand. And I’ve enjoyed being able to break up my study – by the end of a 3-hour class I find I’m too fatigued to genuinely process the material. Online tutorials have also been a great additional way to learn, especially for me as a normally shy student.
This is one of the first times in the course that I’ve felt like I am completely comfortable with the subject material, and that revisiting areas I’m not sure of is completely in my own hands. The time I spend at home studying is more efficient. It’s a very pleasant feeling! And while I’m sure the faculty is sick of hearing it, I hope access to lecture recordings persists when we return to face-to-face teaching. Whereas before this experience I only thought of the recordings as being an equity tool – i.e. to assist those students who for particular reasons cannot attend lectures – I now see them as a highly valuable supplementary educational tool.
I also think it’s been really important that the subject material has been adapted for online learning. Jill has been making the videos weekly, taking into account what we learned in the previous week, the feedback from the Zoom tutorial as to how we are going with understanding, and areas she needs to revisit. I’ve heard that other courses (not MLS) have taken the ‘easy’ option and simply provided previous semesters’ lecture recordings to students. That would be a very poor way to try to learn in an online environment.
It’s been a steep learning curve, but it’s also been exciting to move so quickly. This has given us a big technological push.
The software and hardware skills are one part of it. I think we’re also learning how to have an online demeanour that is both relaxed and coherent. It’s been an interesting lesson in human interaction – that slight lag that’s sometimes present in online interactions forces you to slow down to permit interaction. To be honest, it’s still something I’m trying to learn.
I do miss moving around a physical classroom, but I’ve found creating pre-recorded lectures to be a bit easier than I expected.
The ability to include legislation and other materials, as well as slides in pre-recorded lectures provides a better recorded experience than a recording of a traditional lecture theatre, both for the student and the teacher.
When teaching live online, reading the room feels harder. In a normal classroom, even if the majority are quiet or sitting further back, you can still get a sense of where to pitch the class. When you’ve got 45 students on a Zoom, that’s more than two screens worth of people – plus everyone’s muted, and many have their cameras off. So, I’m trying to call on people specifically for contributions, and I’ll pause, give them a bit of time. That way, everyone has an opportunity to interact and be involved, and it also means they each become more visible to me.
Conversely, when you do engage with someone in a Zoom class they can feel a lot closer than they do in a big classroom. I’m enjoying the intimacy of online learning with my students, and the question is whether we can carry that over. We have all these skills now, it would be a shame to lose them.
All in all, it’s not been too bad an experience. To begin with, it was a bit of a tricky adjustment because of how quickly it came around. Being at Law School is very much a face-to-face education, so the way in which I prepare for classes now has had to change.
My approach for in-person classes was to do much more comprehensive preparations before class, so if there were discussions or I had any questions, I was prepared to ask them and engage. Whereas, in the online lectures, I do a brief reading and then go to the online lectures, and then go back and read anything that I need clarification on.
I felt it was easier to ask questions in-person than on Zoom or via email. But it’s not an insurmountable problem. And I actually think we get a little bit more student engagement online than we would in class – people seem more comfortable speaking up on Zoom.
I’ve really liked the online quizzes and discussion boards that have been added. In property, we have weekly quizzes, and in evidence we have discussion boards where they put up questions, and you submit answers there and they’re moderated.
And I think each of these are really effective learning tools. I wouldn’t have expected legal education to be conducive to quizzes, but it’s been really good to test your understanding, the elements of different arguments, and actually apply them and find an answer. It’s also a continuous assessment that doesn’t go towards your grades, so you can figure out if you have fully grasped the content before you move on.