Dr Lida Pitsillidou

  LLB Deputy Course Leader, Lecturer in Corporate Law and Corporate Governance

  School of Law, UCLan Cyprus

Introduction

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic had a tremendous impact not only on the global economy and public health, but also on the legal educational systems in both Cyprus and globally. Indeed, Universities around the world have been asked to deal with an unprecedented challenge in the wake of massive restrictions by governments to restrain the spread of COVID-19, thus requiring Universities to be temporarily operating off-campus. This prompted the emergency transition from the traditional in-classroom teaching to an ‘emergency remote teaching’. The emergency remote teaching has been described by Hodges et al as the ‘temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances’. Hodges et al have argued that, in comparison to an online teaching, the primary aim of the emergency remote teaching, is ‘not to re-create a robust educational ecosystem but rather to provide a temporary access to instruction and instructional supports in a manner that is quick to set up and is reliably available during an emergency or crisis’. However, embedding the emergency remote teaching within the law curriculum at such short notice has led Law Schools to tackle various challenges, such as technological, pedagogical, social, and economic challenges. With the COVID-19 challenges emerging and changing the norms by which we live, one could argue that it is more important than ever to solidify the understanding of our students on the key principles surrounding the rule of law and to inculcate its basics through providing a sound legal education. Education has therefore a key role to play in helping law students acquire the knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes they need to contribute constructively to society. At a time when human rights and fundamental freedoms are increasingly under strain, the power of education to transform students into capable and effective legal practitioners through promoting the rule of law is more necessary than ever as this could positively help in the creation of a strong legal profession through implementing the essential elements of the rule of law such as accountability, equality and access to justice for all. As legal practitioners ‘are the principal representatives of the rule of law’, it is therefore of immense importance that ‘legal institutions must remain stable so that public faith in the rule of law is upheld’.[1] As a result of the challenges posed by COVID-19 on legal education, the main purpose of this blog is to examine two of the key challenges, technological and pedagogical, that could play a significant role in the stability of an effective legal education, which promotes and upholds the rule of law as a cornerstone of our society.

Technological challenges

COVID-19 has inspired some of the greatest innovations of the 21st century, as Universities were required to take a huge step forward towards adopting more innovative e-learning technologies to enhance student learning. Indeed, various technologies have been widely adopted to respond to the sudden emergence of COVID-19 such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Opportunities were thus given to both educators and students to engage in an e-learning environment through the use of video chat rooms, online discussion boards, pre-recorded video sessions, and other e-learning technologies, thus helping educators to adopt a more innovative approach to teaching and learning.

Although COVID-19 has provided a significant boost to online learning, the use of e-learning technologies is not a new trend in the legal academic world. On the contrary, most forms of e-learning technologies predate the pandemic, such as Blackboard, Flipped Classroom technologies, and classroom response systems (also known as ‘clickers’). Indeed, even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Law Schools had witnessed a growth in the use of technology, given a tendency from students to come to class with laptops, and other electronic devices, such as tablets and smartphones, ‘to harvest the fruits of the classroom experience’. That said, the unprecedented situation created by the pandemic provided the impetus for their further development and enhanced use of e-learning technologies to teaching and learning. The need for social distancing has forced Universities to adopt newer e-learning technologies and use old modalities in more innovative and inventive ways.

However, although COVID-19 has led Universities to use more innovative approaches to education, it also raised significant technological challenges. One of those challenges focuses on access constraints.[2] Whilst many of the students have been able to adapt to emergency remote teaching, others have struggled to do so due to the lack of internet connectivity and access to electronic devices, such as laptops and desktop computers. Before the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, many students heavily relied upon their universities, local libraries, and Wi-Fi hotspots to access those electronic devices and the Internet. However, due to the restrictions of the pandemic, those devices were not considered an available option. Access constraints have impacted the students’ ability to participate in online classes as not all students were able to access the e-learning technologies or take advantage of online education. The transition from in-classroom teaching to emergency remote teaching has therefore exposed technology’s weakness to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including those with disabilities. Indeed, the inequality gaps between students in legal education have been exposed during the pandemic as a result of uneven access to technology. Access to the relevant devices is, therefore, one of the biggest challenges that law schools are currently facing.

Another technological challenge is the inadequate training provided to both educators and students on how to use e-learning technologies.[3] Responding to the current needs of online education, it is vital for all Universities to implement sufficient training to ensure that e-learning technologies are properly implemented on the devices of both educators and students. Receiving adequate training on those technologies is important as the quality of education depends on the level of training received. Indeed, in an era of change, inadequate training may have a negative impact on the educators’ teaching style which may result in the failure of creating a supportive e-learning environment for the students to learn and participate. As many educators are unfamiliar with the various e-learning technologies available, it is of immense importance to ensure that sufficient support is provided by IT experts who could provide expert assistance to eliminate any problems related to the adoption of a new educational technology.  

Pedagogical challenges

COVID-19 has not only provided opportunities to innovate the current approaches used for teaching and learning, but also helped in the development of new pedagogical approaches. Indeed, many educators have been asked to revise and reflect on their current approaches used in teaching and learning through adopting more innovative learning activities in conjunction with the use of online technology. Due to the prevalence of the traditional lectures as a teaching method in law schools, students often found themselves to be left out from opportunities to engage during classrooms, as ‘except for the student who happens to be sitting on the hot seat, no one else actively participates in the dialog’. Implementing e-learning activities is found to transform the classroom into an active-learning environment as it encourages all students to participate in discussions with the whole class. Activities, such as online multiple choice questions and quizzes, have been used during the COVID-19 pandemic period to suit a diverse range of students, by helping them to test their knowledge and understanding of difficult ‘threshold concepts’.[4] Implementing such types of online activities could help students receive sufficient formative feedback throughout their studies, which would enable them to identify their gaps and improve their performance before undertaking their summative assessments, such as courseworks and exams. Receiving formative feedback as early as possible is relevant, as it ‘allows students to take control over their own learning by obtaining necessary remediation for identified deficiencies in their understanding, and to adjust their approaches to future learning tasks’.[5] Indeed, as Lasso argues, ‘students need several chances during the semester to reflect on what they have learned, what they still need to know, and how to improve their learning’.[6] Sufficiently implementing e-learning activities, could help transform students from passive to active learners as a unique opportunity is presented to engage not only the usual suspects in the learning process but also students who are normally reluctant to participate in discussions with the whole class.

Aside from this, a rapid development was also seen in the availability of open access to various courses, webinars, and research materials, which has helped in the facilitation of research and knowledge transfer thus heading towards a more inclusive learning environment. Students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, have been given the opportunity to access various online, previously unavailable sessions, such as online summer schools and workshops. The pandemic has also stressed the importance of disseminating knowledge across borders with educators around the world being able to present their research at online conferences and research seminars. Online technology has not only helped Universities be more innovative in education, but it also helped educators in the diffusion of knowledge and research across the world. Educators were thus given the opportunity to actively contribute to the dissemination of new knowledge in the areas they teach. This provides significant pedagogical benefits to the students, as by being actively involved in research, educators could support their teaching by keeping students up to date with the new legal developments.

However, although COVID-19 has prompted the development of new pedagogical aspects, which could further enhance student learning, it also highlighted various pedagogical challenges. One of the biggest challenges identified is student engagement. Undertaking the sessions fully online makes it difficult for educators to assess student performance through identifying gaps and misconceptions in their learning. Indeed, in circumstances where no active e-learning activities are used, students are normally passive with no interest in participating during the discussions made by their teachers or peers. It is even challenging for the teachers to identify whether students are actually there watching their online sessions as a result of the lack of human interaction that normally exists in face-to-face classrooms between the teachers and the students. Increasing student motivation to learn and engage when socially isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic was found to be challenging. Indeed, making students engage in their learning during such an increasingly complex world that places high demands on students, is one of the biggest struggles that educators have been asked to deal with during the pandemic. The lack of social and cognitive presence affected the motivation of students to participate and engage during their studies, with many performing lower in their courseworks and final exams. An additional factor that played a significant role in the decrease in students' motivation is the fact that not all students have a reliable working environment to work from, with some finding themselves working in bedrooms that they share with their siblings or in busy communal areas. Working in such an environment makes it difficult for the students to concentrate, with many struggling to cope.

Furthermore, a lack of well-structured teaching content and learning activities could have a negative impact on students’ performance. When designing online activities, it is vital for educators to know the needs and preferences of each individual student as this will help educators to create tailor-made activities that would suit a diverse range of students. Asking for students’ opinions regularly during the academic year is critical, as this could help the educators reflect on their current teaching approaches through identifying how to further improve their teaching methods as well as the design of future e-learning activities.

Conclusion

In conclusion, COVID-19 has played a significant role in shaping how law students learn in Higher Educational institutions both in Cyprus and globally. With many Universities shifting from in-classroom teaching to an emergency remote teaching, it was crucial to ensure that the shift was done as smoothly as possible. Although COVID-19 has highlighted significant challenges, such as technological and pedagogical, on many aspects of legal education, several opportunities of the emergency remote teaching have also been identified. With online teaching becoming more and more important nowadays, it is essential to ensure that effective e-learning technologies are properly used and implemented in order to avoid as many of the challenges identified as possible. Irrespective of the immediate transition from in-classroom to emergency remote teaching, students have been given various opportunities to interact online through video chat rooms, online discussion boards, and platforms thus reducing the barrier of lack of human interaction. As the implementation of online learning becomes a priority for all Higher Educational institutions, it is important for educators to reflect on their current approaches in legal education by finding new innovative solutions to boost student learning and participation. COVID-19 is, indeed, an opportunity to allow educators to reflect on their current teaching approaches and learn on how to adjust their teaching to suit a diverse range of students. One of the key issues highlighted by COVID-19 is the inequality gap that exists between the students. Indeed, socio-economic inequalities are still a current problem in legal education nowadays. A major challenge for educators is therefore to support students from disadvantaged groups in their learning activities by mitigating the risks of inequality and uneven access to education through embedding activities that support wider participation and inclusivity as well as through promoting key principles surrounding the rule of law.

Acknowledgements:

The author would like to thank Dr. Nasia Hadjigeorgiou, LLB Course Leader and Assistant Professor in Transitional Justice and Human Rights and Dr. Andreas Marcou, Lecturer in EU Law and Theory for their comments and review of this blog post. Any errors are my own.

 

[1] John E Cribbet, ‘Legal Education and the Rule of Law’ (1974) 60 American Bar Association Journal 1363, 1363.

[2] Amy M Johnson et al, ‘Challenges and Solutions when Using Technologies in the Classroom’ in Scott A Crossley and Danielle S McNamara (eds), Adaptive Educational Technologies for Literacy Instruction (Routledge 2016)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jan H F Meyer & Ray Land, ‘Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning’ (2005) 49 Higher Education 373.

[5] RA Lasso, ‘Is Our Students Learning? Using Assessments to Measure and Improve Law School Learning Environment’ (2010) 15(1) Barry Law Review 73, 75.

[6] Ibid.