Reflections of our Associate Deans

Dr Mark Bennett Acting Associate Dean (Learning and Teaching) discusses migrating to online learning and teaching.

An unprecedented year

When I discussed taking up my role as Acting Associate Dean (Learning and Teaching) at the end of 2019 with the incumbent, Professor Graeme Austin, we identified a few policy changes that I could focus on in 2020. In that discussion, Professor Austin made the off-hand comment that “of course, other issues always come up”. How right he was.

At the beginning of 2020, COVID-19 made itself felt when some of our international students were unable to enter New Zealand. My first weeks in the role were spent discussing how recording of lectures could be made consistent with the participatory, Socratic style of teaching that the Faculty is known for. Even at that stage, we did not contemplate having to fundamentally change our teaching. However, not long after that, COVID-19 made it to our shores, spread in the community and, as instructed by the Government, the country moved swiftly into full lockdown. Having anticipated this in the weeks prior to this decision, we had begun organising the Faculty’s shift to online learning and teaching.

Identifying best practice

Identifying how to best provide learning and teaching in a completely online format was the first major challenge. The second challenge involved the logistics of providing online teaching from the isolation of our homes, without the usual resources and with limited experience using such technology. We had to learn how to schedule and manage video-calls and record ‘lectures’, while keeping our students interested and engaged. Luckily, there was many a household cat ready to create a distraction when concentrations were waning. Web cams, headphones, extra screens and ergonomic chairs were whisked out of offices and into our new ‘teaching spaces’.

As lecturers, we are used to seeing our students in person, which allows us to ‘read the room’ and see how our students are understanding and engaging with our lectures. That ‘in-person’ experience was suspended overnight, and we would not see our students in person for months. Clearly, online learning was going to be very different. Although we pride ourselves on encouraging a participatory or Socratic learning relationship, experience overseas suggested not running all of our classes as live (or ‘synchronous’) discussions and instead having some students record ‘asynchronous’ videos with us as ‘talking heads’ explaining the law. This allowed those students whose schedules had changed or who did not have access to adequate internet to engage with the learning materials. Some lecturers also chose to divide topics into shorter ‘chunks’.

We did not lose all ‘live’ contact with our students. Courses supplemented the recorded lectures with synchronous online discussions, ‘office’ hours, as well as email correspondence and individual consultations over Zoom. The tutorial programme continued throughout lockdown, delivered over Zoom by our wonderful tutors.

In addition to a new learning and teaching model, there were daily Zoom meetings with Faculty leadership and weekly Faculty meetings to discuss learning and teaching. These meetings enabled us to discuss and develop best practice guidelines and share technology insights with each other. The Faculty’s Academic Administration team provided a pillar of support, including individualised assistance and advice for those less experienced with the new technology. Overall, the Faculty came together as one to provide our students with the best legal education possible.

Approach to online assessment

Transforming our assessments to fit the online setup was a challenging concept. With the support of the Council of Legal Education we began redesigning our tests and examinations to fit the online platform.

A number of considerations were immediately raised concerning the delivery of robust and fair assessments to all students. Different approaches were taken, and we learned the advantages and disadvantages of each. This experience has enabled us to refine our processes and procedures—in ways that will continue to evolve learning and teaching in the Faculty.

“I pared back readings, so that students would know what to read and be assured it would be time well spent. I revised my assessments and made the first test ‘double chance’ with the view to mitigating stress about the test—which was very early after their return from lockdown. “I gave them a lot of guidance about the tests and spent time in class discussing approaches to answering problem questions of the kind in the test. I also took a rather humane approach to special provisions and extensions. Students were incredibly stressed in Trimester 1 and continued to be in Trimester 2.”—Dr Zoë Prebble

Supporting our students

Blackboard is the University’s main communication and resource repository tool. As soon as the decision was made to move our teaching online, we began updating and improving the Blackboard sites of each of our courses. Although Blackboard is a familiar resource to both students and lecturers, for many it had been used mainly to house course information and teaching materials, to support in-person learning. With lockdown, Blackboard sites became the central hub for courses; they were the one place where learning materials and opportunities provided by the Faculty were located. With the support of the Academic Administration team, we set about transforming our existing sites to make them more intuitive, with the most important and up-to-date information immediately accessible. Some of our more tech-savvy colleagues thrived in the online teaching space, creating engaging online versions of their courses with quizzes, discussion boards and live interactive sessions.

The Centre for Academic Development (CAD) and Digital Solutions (formerly Information Technology Services) played an essential role in supporting the delivery of our courses and assessments. Both teams had staff working around the clock providing pedagogical advice and technological support. Yet, due to the demands on their time, they could not do everything that the Faculty needed to do. Luckily, we have an excellent Academic Administration team, led by Rozina Khan, who characteristically ‘stepped up’ and became experts in the logistics of online teaching, actioning many of the changes necessary to ‘upgrade’ our Blackboard sites and run our courses.

Communication is key

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis we have been in regular contact with the Victoria University of Wellington Law Students’ Society (VUWLSS)—particularly Jugjeet Singh, 2020 VUWLSS President, and Education Officers Billie Haddleton and Hannah Jones. We also consulted with other student representative groups including Ngā Rangahautira and the Pasifika Law Students Society. Together they were able to clearly articulate the perspectives, concerns and requests of the entire Law student body. Individual students also contacted members of the Faculty’s leadership, as well as their lecturers: 40% of students had an email exchange with their lecturer in Trimester 1.

This communication not only allowed us to learn what was, and was not, working, it also alerted us to how challenging COVID-19 and the lockdown had made it for students.

It is difficult to express the admiration we have for our students who have managed to navigate their way through a year so challenging and full of uncertainty.

They showed patience and understanding at times when we ourselves were struggling. An important insight to remember is that staff and students alike worked together and that affirmation is one of the positive aspects to come out of this year.

Looking to the future

When life goes back to normal, we look forward to returning to our lecture theatres and interacting in-person with our students.

In saying that, this year has truly catapulted us into the world of online learning and teaching, and what we have learned will contribute to enhancing the in-person experience.

We now have a new intuitive template for our Blackboard courses and have seen the advantages of providing online readings and video-recordings. As we moved out of lockdown and into Trimester 2, many colleagues kept using recordings to replace more ‘didactic’, information-heavy parts of their lectures—which allowed them to use class time for even more rigorous Socratic sessions, such as discussions systematically applying the law to a problem scenario. Socratic teaching has always relied on the recent educational concept of ‘flipping the classroom’ where students do their own work (‘the readings’) before class—but we have found ways to improve it. This is another example of the silver lining of 2020: sustained pedagogical thought and discussion with focus on our traditions, values, and graduate attributes; the drastic and universal upskilling in our capabilities for using digital teaching tools; and an emphasis on maintaining engagement and communication with our students, whether in or out of the classroom, to best support their learning.

No one knows what challenges we may face in the future, but I have confidence in our students and in our Faculty to make the best of any situation. We have learned a lot about how to learn and teach the law in 2020; we also learned a lot about ourselves—what we value, and how we should act to achieve the goals those values require us to aim to. I look forward to seeing what our community and its participants will achieve in the future, building on what we have learned this year.

Dr Mark Bennett Acting Associate Dean (Learning and Teaching)