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Going Digital Project: Interview with Professor Natalie Skead, Dean, University of Western Australia

In our Going Digital Project, we look at how Law Schools are navigating the integration of digital technologies and e-learning practices into legal education. Covid-19 restrictions forced Law Schools to engage intensively with online learning in its various forms. What lessons were learned and what is the future role of digital technologies in legal education? On 1 December 2021, Jenny Chan, Steven Gallagher and Michael Lower interviewed Professor Natalie Skead to hear her answers to these questions.

Please tell us about yourself and your role in legal education.

I joined the UWA Law School following 10 years in legal practice in 2002. I've been there ever since, so have sort of climbed up the academic ladder, at the same institution. I was Associate Dean (Learning and Teaching) in our Law Faculty and then, in January 2017, was appointed Dean.

In the early part of my academic career, having come out of practice, my focus was on developing my craft as a teacher rather than on research. I am really passionate about teaching and excellence in teaching, not just my own teaching but in the legal academy more broadly, has always been the primary focus of my career.

I'm also the Chair of the Australasian Law Academics Association and Deputy Chair of the Council of Australian Law Deans and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

Do you get a feeling that people, within the university, across legal education, are wondering what we should do about digital and how digital virtual fits in?

I think people were starting to ask the question quite some time ago. We have five Law Schools in Western Australia. Each Law School has its own niche market – some large, some small; some fully online, some fully face-to-face, and some blended; some targeting school-leavers, some postgraduate, and other mature-aged students. Our law programme at UWA is the post-graduate JD and we contribute law courses to a range of undergraduate courses in other disciplines.

Even pre-pandemic, law schools were moving towards online as they looked at how best to service their student cohorts. UWA already mandated lecture recording, for example.

We undertook a study in semester one 2018, involving around 1,000 students, looking at the impact of lecture recording on student attendance (Skead et al, 2020). We looked at student behaviours and their motivations in terms of how students accessed their learning.

We looked at first-, second-, third-year undergraduate students as well as first, second- and third-year JD students. We looked at different kinds of classes; lectures, workshops, tutorials, just to understand that context. We did a headcount, survey and ran focus groups.

We saw a difference between undergraduate students and postgraduate students in terms of behaviours. Rates of attendance were much higher in the JD across all forms of teaching. There was a roller coaster pattern of attendance, with peaks at the beginning and end of semester and troughs around assessment season. Nevertheless, attendance was much higher across the board for the JD students.

What was more interesting was the qualitative data. What was important to students was making connections and building relationships and networks. And that's why they wanted to be in the classroom. They wanted to connect not just with their peers but also with their teachers. They recognised the value in that, you know the academic value, the personal value, and also the professional advantages.

One of the strong things that came out of our 2018 study was the theme of student wellbeing. We found a strong alignment of the results of our study with the Self Determination Theory which posits the three basic needs for human flourishing – autonomy, connection and competence. Those were the themes that came out so strongly from the qualitative data.

The study highlighted the importance for students of flexibility. Competency and connectedness also emerged as strong themes; students felt disconnected when they weren't on campus - they didn’t make friends and meet staff.

Of course, the pandemic disrupted all our traditional thinking about the way in which we deliver our programmes. At UWA, we only had a relatively brief lockdown, for about six weeks in semester one 2020. So I think our experience was quite different certainly from the law schools on the East Coast and probably in Hong Kong too. We had students flooding back in semester two 2020, particularly the first-year students.

The lockdown had the greatest impact on the cohort that entered the Law School in 2020. That cohort had almost twice as many deferred exams in 2021 than those who began before and after them. They’re the cohort that didn’t get that wonderful cohort experience. We start off our academic year in all three years with a two-week intensive course that’s not recorded. Students are required to be on campus and in the classroom, seven hours a day for two weeks and there’s a lot of group work and there’s a lot of interaction. The 2020 intake missed out on that.

Then they came in and there was a bit of awkwardness and people not really knowing one another. We are continuing to see that flow through with this cohort, that sort of lack of connection. I think it’s with all that in mind that we really see the value of having students on campus.

Now that’s not to say that we haven’t adapted in some way after the lockdown. In some units we’ve put a sizable chunk of the content online in different formats, prerecorded video for example, using face-to-face time for interactive workshop type classes. But at the same time, in some courses we continue to offer all classes face to face.

You said that you are experimenting with different forms of online provision.

We are in a constant state of reviewing how best to deliver content. There are other things that require face-to-face engagement. But it’s how best to do it. There’s one core unit where all the content is delivered in prerecorded YouTube videos; there are others where only some of the content is prerecorded. This is against the backdrop of acknowledging the value of face-to-face contact and learning for students.

Like many others in in the sector, we’re really trying to work out what the appropriate balance is. I think that will take some time and it’ll take experimentation; it’ll take a review and revision and I would say a few years. And it’s really going to be responsive to our students. We will be responding to how the students respond.

There is a difference between the student experience and student learning although there can certainly be overlap in some respects. My sense is that in many respects what is being introduced in the name of student learning is actually about the student experience in the sense of, you know, flexibility and accessibility and so on. It overlooks the impact that those initiatives and those changes may have on student learning. I think we’ve got a lot of work to do to interrogate how the way we teach impacts on student learning outcomes.

What does this move to digital mean for teachers? What burdens does it places on them? Are they in favour? Do they feel the need for more support?

Teachers have found the move online challenging too. There has been a fear that they are not connecting with students. The move online can lead to a decline in attendance and teachers can feel as though students aren’t attending classes because they don’t like their teaching, they’re not good enough, they’re not interesting.

And I suppose we could address it by saying we just won’t have face to face classes then, and then there won’t be any inference to draw from the fact that the students aren’t attending the classes. But then you’ve got the student wellbeing and the student experience issues to address. So, it’s a really complex overlaying of factors and considerations.

Overwhelmingly staff are in favor of face-to-face teaching and not just transferring everything online. We've done a very small study since on the difference between semester one 2020 (fully online) and semester two 2020 (partly online). The strong theme is that both teaching staff and students preferred semester two 2020, where at least some of the classes were online and there was an opportunity to engage in person.

Do you get a sense that either there is an emerging kind of hybrid model or that it hasn't emerged yet but will emerge through the kind of processes and experiences you’ve described?

I think it has emerged out of necessity. It’s driven by necessity on the East Coast because they’ve had just such extensive periods of lockdown and had to teach for 18 months in the case of Victoria.

In many Australian law schools, there is now a hybrid model in place and I’m not sure that they’ll depart from that. It is cheaper, or ostensibly cheaper, and more convenient.

So I do think it has already happened but I don’t think it is wholesale. There are some who are still holding out. Not to be obstructionist, not because we aren’t open to innovation, because we are innovating in a deliberative, pedagogically sound and research-led way.

And in Perth, we have the privilege of having the choice of whether to teach face-to-face or whether to have a hybrid model or whether to go fully online. Our current model is not really hybrid, because recorded lectures are not the same as delivery online. So, at this stage, we’ve retained a fully face to face approach, but with technological tools to assist in that.

What do you think about the dual mode where the teacher is teaching a classroom full of students in person and at the same time has to do live streaming to provide video for students who are studying at home.

I do not support that at all I do think they are two quite different teaching formats. Online teaching and in person teaching are two different processes. Of course, in times of crisis (such as we’ve been experiencing for the past two years) it is necessary. I may be a bit provocative here, but I think it’s lazy to try and teach face-to-face and online at the same time with the same cohort of students.

If we are going down a hybrid model route, offering both online and in persons options it will involve offering two quite different streams for different cohorts of students rather than trying both at the same time.

That’s really resource intensive and that would be a deliberate decision that we would have to take based on available resources and budget. I would not support a hybrid model of trying to do both at the same time.

What is possible, though, is to provide some learning in a course online and some in person – that is a truly blended model in which each student in the cohort is getting the same experience and content delivery is appropriate and carefully designed.

So, pre-Covid, you'd have those two week intensive courses which were not recorded but then for every other course it was then mandated that they had to be recorded?

Yes and that’s still the case.

Elective units have smaller enrollments and so we teach them differently. We tend to teach them as workshops, so that would be three hours a week in a workshop seminar type format. In the case of the large enrollment, core units a lecture must be recorded. In Land Law, for example, I would do one two-hour recorded lecture a week and you’d probably get about 60% of the students attending.

So students can choose to attend or not but they understand that actually this this lecture is designed and developed to be delivered in person. If they’re not there in person, they’re missing out on some of the benefits that the other students are getting including interaction etc.

Then each student would also attend one two-hour in person workshop a week.

We have a good mix of different teaching models. Not everyone is attending the lectures in person. Even then, what we see happening is they’re coming into the Law School precinct. It may be that they are not attending that one recorded lecture, but they are in the library listening to it and watching it the recording.

And I’m really happy with that honestly. If I’m giving a lecture and I’ve got half the students in front of me and you know have a really great, engaging hour or two with them and the other half are in the library, that’s fine. They’re engaging with one another, they’re on campus, they’re getting that really important law school cohort experience in a different way.

Did you have any sort of kickback from colleagues or resistance to being recorded? Was everyone happy about that?

No, no we were very unhappy. We were all very unhappy at the time and then even more unhappy when it became downloadable so students could listen to us on the train, in bed or wherever they happen to be.

And then a recent experience, involved the University, without notice or consultation, turning on the Echo 360 lecture recording auto transcription function. I understand this has happened elsewhere.

It’s a slippery slope. These things just slip in without consultation, without notification, without being advised. There are significant concerns around accuracy, the impact of student learning outcomes as well as data and privacy. And I’m not sure we always understand all of the risks, all of the potential risk, of new technologies. I’m not sure students do either. Until we do and until we have robust governance and regulation, at an institutional level but also more broadly, I think it’s just fraught with danger and risk and we need to exercise caution


Natalie Skead, Liam Elphick, Fiona McGaughey, Murray Wesson, Kate Offer & Michael Montalto (2020) If you record, they will not come – but does it really matter? Student attendance and lecture recording at an Australian law school, The Law Teacher, 54:3, 349-367, DOI: 10.1080/03069400.2019.1697578

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