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The post-Covid 19 University: Not just going online

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

by Steven Gallagher (CUHK Law) & Michael Lower (CUHK Law)


Law Schools, like everyone else, have been forced to respond to the Co-Vid 19 lockdown. Lectures and tutorials that would have taken place in campus classrooms have been replaced by Zoom sessions.

Many complain that this online replica of face-to-face teaching is a poor substitute for ‘the real thing’ because of the lack of social presence. It does, indeed, seem that universities have responded by ‘just going online’, organising digitally the face-to-face teaching and learning arrangements of the pre-crisis era.

Teachers complain that they miss the ability to observe how their instruction is being received. Students may feel isolated from social contact with their teachers and peers.

We do not deny the validity of these concerns but we want to tap into the wide-spread belief that the Covid-19 crisis should not be allowed to go to waste. We often hear that the effect of the crisis has been to hasten trends, changes for the better, that were taking place anyway. We are already seeing universities and others re-imagining what they can do.

In this blog post, we want to set out some initial ideas about the opportunities presented by this crisis for Law Schools and for universities in general. We argue that the crisis could, and should, re-shape universities for the better.

We also argue that the starting point is to re-connect with the educational values that underpin the idea of the university in the 21st century. A first step is to reflect on what these values are and how they can be enacted in pedagogical terms.

We need to think about creating systems to develop and test these pedagogies and debate their effectiveness. These systems should have an element of partnership with students, alumni, employers and society in general.

We should stress that these views are our personal views and not necessarily those of the Law Faculty to which we belong.

We ought also to say that at this stage our aim is to provoke discussion and begin to identify the right questions rather than to suggest that we have all the answers. We intend this blog post to be the start of a conversation, a conversation that we believe is of vital and urgent importance.

We hope that this conversation can be carried on in the Directions in Legal Education 2020 online conference and continue afterwards.

Educational values

In Speaking of Universities, Collini argues that universities are essentially spaces for ‘open-ended’ intellectual inquiry and for inducting students into the communities that carry out these inquiries. Law teachers often say that their role is to help students to ‘think like a lawyer’.

We suggest that among the important values that inspire the university and higher education are a commitment to collaborative, critical discourse in accordance with the norms and standards of one’s own discipline. The Law School prepares its students for their future careers. We think these goals are mutually supportive, not conflicting.

There is obviously room for other values such as a preparation for inter-disciplinary work, for service to society and to develop the competencies needed to flourish in a globalised, technologically advanced economy and society.

Crisis or no crisis, it would be good to reflect on our educational values and whether we are living up to them. The crisis can help, though, if it encourages us to engage more vigorously in debate over our educational values.

New pedagogies (or old pedagogies repurposed)

For us as teachers, the question is whether our teaching and learning arrangements are well-aligned with our educational values. Do they, for example, engage students in collaborative, critical discourse and in the tasks of knowledge curation, development and dissemination? How do we help Law students to develop a sense of what it means to be a professional?

None of this necessarily implies going online, but the new digital tools offer enormous possibilities by, for example, allowing students to collaborate online and to produce blogs, podcasts and videos.

The new technologies open the possibility of student collaborations across the globe. Imagine students from Hong Kong discussing important legal issues with peers in other countries.

Conferencing tools, combined with suitable pedagogies, could allow the Oxford tutorial to become a reality for the mass student audience. Sometimes, this might mean more advanced students being employed to act as tutors for their younger peers.

Students as Producers’ is a theme of this year’s Directions in Legal Education Conference. One form of this involves students producing materials which may be used by others for their learning. These products are seeds for further development of the student as tutor.

This would be a change from current teaching and learning arrangements and so universities might need to develop new teaching allocation models less fixated on contact hours and more single-minded about the depth of student learning.

We believe that this implies a more demanding and time-consuming role for teachers as they spend time organising flourishing learning communities and supporting individual learners as well as engaging deeply with their subject matter and professional networks.

Teachers will need to think much more about how they can establish their classes as learning communities and teach students how to conduct high quality collaborative inquiry and problem-solving.

Creating systems to support reflection

If there is to be a ‘new normal’ then Law Faculties, and the universities in which they are located, need to create systems and places for debate and for reflection on educational values and appropriate pedagogies. These places might be physical places such as face-to-face conferences and seminars but we are witnessing an explosion of online places for discussion and debate of teaching and learning matters.

In time, we expect that existing networks will be strengthened by this digital element and many new networks will be formed. Traditional academic development could be re-imagined so that it takes the form of communities of teachers, perhaps committed to action research and to developing case studies of their own teaching.

We argue that these communities should not be communities made up exclusively of teachers but that students, alumni and employers should also be given a voice. The Big Debate has been a consistent feature of our Directions in Legal Education conferences and our aim has always been to hear the student and alumni voice in these discussions.

New opportunities in the digital realm

The digital tools that we have begun to use such as Zoom, blogs and discussion forums have their own potential dangers such as a risk of physical isolation or of simply using the technologies as ‘shovel ware’, simply places for teachers to shovel their materials, and ‘dump’ information on students.

We are, however, already experiencing some of their benefits. Distance, and even different time zones, can be overcome. This conference and the online seminars that we have been running show that there are new possibilities for discussions with people throughout the world. In teaching and learning, we can imagine reaching students who could not physically attend campus.

Some people might find that prospect thrilling while others may be alarmed by it. Either way, this possibility of ubiquitous teaching and learning needs to be thought about. It is hard to believe that it is an idea that can simply be ignored.

The significance of webinars

In 2020 CUHK Law has taken its previously face-to-face seminar series online and some seminars have been attended by many hundreds of participants in Hong Kong and worldwide. We are obviously not the only Law Faculty to have thought of this.

It is not too much of a stretch to imagine these seminars being transformed into ‘live’ MOOCs and even being credentialled in some way. Leaving money aside for a moment, could these seminars become an important tool for universities to support life-long learning?

This is a commitment many universities publicly aspire to but few attempt and even fewer are successful at, because such provision is often resource hungry. The experience of new technologies and the enactment of a student as producer approach each have the potential to allow universities to fulfil their commitment to supporting lifelong learners and their communities.

Blended learning as the new normal?

Post-lockdown, we look forward to meeting our students face-to-face. But we might want to continue to incorporate digital tools, with their capacity to support enhanced communication. Would there be something to be said, for example, for continuing to use Zoom to ‘broadcast’ our classes even when our students are in the same room as us?

Students can ask questions in the chat room and virtual break-out rooms can be set up on the fly. Students who legitimately can’t physically attend from time to time (part-time students for example) would still be able to virtually attend.

The truly blended university course, available for credit and/or for fun, is finally within our realistic capabilities. Traditionally universities, and often within them law schools, have rejected suggestions of anything other than token blended learning.

The traditional reasons put forward for this lack of commitment to blended learning have included the purchase costs of the software and hardware, and, perhaps more significantly, the costs and time for training teachers in the use of the software, hardware and the planning of online courses.

In addition, there has been a prejudice among law schools leading them to favour traditional methods of teaching and dismiss online and blended learning as fads, or ‘old wine in new bottles’. This antipathy has often been fuelled by law teachers themselves as they are, in line with all humanity, fearful of and reluctant to change. This may seem strange as lawyers are often forced by the market to embrace change and new technologies, but perhaps signifies why law teachers often do not practice.

One excuse to avoid online and blended learning initiatives has been used most often, this is the lack of significant experience of large-scale use of the technologies and/or research in real teaching with these online tools. This can no longer be an excuse; most law teachers now have experience of the technologies to a greater or lesser extent, and all have useful views on these.

We can all think of the dangers of embracing blended learning but there are possibilities for real improvement too. Perhaps exploration and discussion of new forms of blended learning should also be on our agenda.


In this post we have tried to explain what we had in mind when we decided on the ‘not just going online’ idea. We offer this post as a starting point for what we are sure will be an interesting discussion.

#NewTeachingApproach #Studentcentered #OnlineLearning #LegalEducation

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