Law school during the pandemic: a new challenge in changing times for education
The pressures of attending law school ramped up with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, and the challenge of legal studies online says much about every level of education on the internet.
By Maxwell Votey
Votey is a first-year law student at New York University School of Law (NYU).
COVID-19 has disrupted daily life across the globe in unprecedented form, and the lives of law students are no exception.
The inconveniences of attending law school during the pandemic are, of course, trivial compared to the issues experienced by the sick, the bereaved, first responders, healthcare providers, or the millions left suddenly unemployed by the economic shock caused by global shutdown. But for schools and students across the country, the pandemic has become an unexpected experiment in turning entire campuses into online schools midway through a school year.
With the focus of teaching methods in law school centered on participation and two-way communication between student and instructor, this unanticipated educational petri dish illustrates how the online experience affects education as a whole, and how feasible education on the internet may – or may not – become.
At NYU, we use Zoom for all of our classes — despite the app’s well-publicized flaws in functionality and security — and law school and student activities continue to function. Many of us were already connected by group chats, making the shift to an all-digital campus less jarring for us. Although some events have been cancelled – the most impacted being the career center – meetings, interviews for student organizations, and even open-house information sessions for law journals all are now conducted through Zoom. Academic centers have also transitioned to the internet. Research groups now meet online and guest lectures are presented behind RSVP-required, password-protected Zoom sessions.
However, the system has its flaws, the most important of which is the delivery of legal instruction itself.
Though technical hiccups have been rare, and thankfully none of my classes have been “Zoombombed,” professors and students alike have found that the Socratic method of law school does not translate well into online teaching.
While today’s ‘cold calls’ in law school classes (when a professor randomly selects a student to engage in a dialogue on the facts of the case) bear little resemblance to the contentious intellectual duels as shown in the film, The Paper Chase, being in the same room as your professor and peers and experiencing in-person how a case is teased apart has an immediacy that is crucial to the experience of legal studies.
Comparing between taking notes in class and studying the same material at home on a screen, there is a sharp difference in perception and understanding: the in-class energy is missing. Even if that energy is just from the shared anxiousness of being cold-called, it sharpens in-class conversations and hones concentration – skills important in any class setting, but crucial in building an understanding of law cases and the legal process. Law school is an immersive (and intense) experience, which is shaped by the constant interactions with professors and other students — something that has been lost in the transition to the internet.
For schools and students across the country, the pandemic has become an unexpected experiment in turning entire campuses into online schools midway through a school year. With the focus of teaching methods in law school centered on participation and two-way communication between student and instructor, this unanticipated educational petri dish illustrates how the online experience affects education as a whole, and how feasible education on the internet may – or may not – become.
For the professor, it is difficult to sense the focus of the students when one can only view the little black squares of student participants without webcams on. Given the enthusiasm my professors have for their lecturing as well as engaging with students in and out of the classroom, it must be particularly hard to be speaking into what must often feels like a void. Instead of scanning the room for confused faces or nods of understanding, more time is required to confirm that information is understood and if there are any questions that need to be addressed.
Online courses might work when progression through a class is dependent solely on a professor’s lecturing at students, but it is an entirely different matter when the professor relies as much on student responses and questions to elucidate a point as the student depends on the professor’s lecture. Add to that some connectivity issues that cause online delays, and little by little, classes fall behind schedule as time is consumed by waiting for questions, waiting for responses to be answered, and minor technical mix-ups compounds.
The effects of online courses transcend the classroom. Before the pandemic, it was common for my classmates to stay in the campus library until late at night, not because they needed any reference material from the library, but because the environment was a persistent reminder – and a practical catalyst – for what they are doing: reading, reading, and more reading. Now, of course, that experience is no longer possible until the pandemic subsides.
Despite these obstacles, and the short lead time during which the faculty and students adjusted to Zoom, classes are occurring and education is happening – even if the courses lack the same intensity and efficiency they once had; at the very least, the NYU law school Class of 2022 will have had quite a unique first-year experience. But looking at how instruction on the internet affects law school serves as an example of how online education at all levels in America needs much refinement to fill the deep and wide gap between the real and virtual learning experience. Education that relies on active student engagement still has a long way to go to be as effective as a teacher and student facing each other in the classroom.
See all columns from the Center.
May 11, 2020