As many of you are surely experiencing this semester, teaching legal research virtually poses a number of challenges, but I have found that it also provides a few benefits over traditional in-person instruction. In a world of negativity, I’d like to look on the bright side and focus on those positives in this post.
First, teaching via Zoom allows students to share their screens with me and their classmates. I used a flipped classroom model this semester, where students spent most of their in-class time working through a range of practice research problems. In a traditional classroom setting, I would ask a volunteer to explain their process, and I would attempt to recreate it on my computer, which is linked to a projector. Via Zoom, the volunteer can simply share their screen and walk everyone through their research process. This has saved time and has avoided the problem of miscommunications, where I, as translator, do not quite understand what the student is trying to tell me. Students can also share their screen to allow me to “diagnose” problems. In a traditional classroom, a student might say something like, “I’m not seeing that option,” or “I ended up with a different result,” and I would either need to hover awkwardly over their shoulder, or try to figure out where they went wrong by asking them questions. With screen sharing, I can quickly see what the student is seeing, and can diagnose their problems much more quickly and with no awkward hovering.
I have also found that more students ask me questions during in-class activities via Zoom than they would in a classroom setting. I believe this is because I allow private chatting, so students can ask me questions privately without their peers knowing that they asked a question at all. This allows me to respond quickly to students who are struggling with the activities (again, with no awkward hovering). But I’ve also found that students are asking more interesting, thoughtful questions that the whole class would benefit from hearing the answers to. I just say something like, “A really good question came into the private chat,” without identifying the question asker. Again, I think the anonymity encourages students to ask questions they might be too shy or embarrassed to ask in a classroom setting.
Zoom has also made certain types of participation, like polls, easier. In a classroom, I would provide a slide with a link to Poll Everywhere, students would navigate to the site and respond to the question there, and I would display the results on the screen. With Zoom, I can embed polls into the presentation itself, so students do not have to navigate to a different screen. Of course, Zoom lacks many of the advanced features of Poll Everywhere and other polling services, but for basic multiple-choice polls, Zoom works fine.
Finally, while I am skeptical of breakout rooms for reasons I don’t want to get into here (we’re staying positive, right?), I do admit they solve at least two problems inherent with in-person small-group work: space and noise. Most law school classrooms are not set up to accommodate small-group work, so students end up sitting in strange, unnatural positions. And splitting a 30-person class into six groups of five can lead to a cacophony of noise in a classroom with bad acoustics. Groups end up either whispering or simply trying to talk over each other. Zoom breakout rooms solve both of these issues.
None of this is to suggest that teaching legal research via Zoom is easier or better than teaching in person – in my experience, it is neither, and I look forward to returning to the classroom. But if we look on the bright side, we actually can find a handful of benefits. And exploiting those benefits can help us make the best out of this bizarre situation.
Editor’s Note – This article republished with the author’s permission – with first publication on RIPS Law Librarian Blog.