How Do We Create Good Online Classrooms? Through Strong Expectations!

By Kit Fotheringham, University of Bristol Law School

“Treat someone as they are and they will remain as they are. Treat someone as they can and should be and they will become as they can and should be.”

― Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The question of how to achieve good outcomes from online classrooms is a problem that has recently faced teachers and lecturers in all disciplines and at all educational levels. In this blog post, I reflect on the experience of leading online classes in a number of different contexts during the course of the global pandemic. I argue that good online classrooms do not emerge from nowhere, instead good online classrooms are created through strong expectations.

Online learning became a necessity

Social distancing required a radical rethink of how to deliver classes to students who were no longer in the same room as the teacher. During lockdown periods, many teachers found that they could use the ‘flipped classroom’ pedagogical concept to their advantage, with learning activities being uploaded to student intranets so that learners could access them at a suitable time to fit their schedule and needs at home. At the University of Bristol, we referred to these activities as ‘asynchronous learning’. But self-directed study can only take a student so far. Therefore, some amount of ‘synchronous learning’, where students can participate in classroom discussion, must remain as an irreducible component of the curriculum.

Various disciplines have greater need for synchronous learning than others. In science subjects, knowledge is discovered by doing experiments in the laboratory. In the arts and humanities, knowledge is generated through the sharing of interpretations and challenging the opinions of others. But surely students can discover ‘the law’ in all those hefty tomes and the innumerable cases they’ve been asked to read? What need is there for synchronous learning in law anyway?

Learning ‘the law’ is an active process

Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher and sociologist, treats the structures of society as emerging from an ongoing ‘conversation’ among its participants. Laws, therefore, are not a ‘dead letter’, but a living expression of how a society wishes to organise itself through binding itself to rules and norms. In the common law tradition, many legal rules are ‘discovered’ through the courtroom processes of argument and adjudication. Even the written records of these procedures reveal the active, deliberative nature of our legal system. What lecturers call the ‘caselaw’ is merely the documented opinions of judges and at the appellate level, there is frequent dissent and disagreement with majority judgements.

It comes as a surprise to many law students that there is often no single ‘correct’ answer to many legal problems. Instead, learning and practicing the law is about perfecting the craft of making convincing stories, weaving facts and legal principles together to produce persuasive proposals. If there was certainty in the law, society wouldn’t have a need for clever lawyers and the remunerations wouldn’t be anything like as prized as it is! To this end, the dominant pedagogy in many law schools is focused on developing these skills through what lecturers might call ‘problem questions’. These imaginary scenarios are usually deliberately vague enough to elicit multiple logical responses. Students get to grips with the law by presenting their arguments and having to consider counterarguments on the spot. For this reason, as colleagues have referred to elsewhere on this blog, oral contributions in seminars are not just encouraged, but central to the learning process.

Good classrooms are a collective endeavour

A physical classroom can be adapted to suit the mode of learning expected in that environment. For instance, lectures are delivered by a single person to many people at once. Therefore, it makes good sense to hold lectures in large theatres, which have the capacity to hold hundreds of learners in one space and many are specially acoustically designed so that the lecturer’s voice can be heard through the space. When law teachers are probing those problem-solving skills, they change role from a speaker to a facilitator. In practical terms, this generally involves meeting in a smaller group in the shape of a circle or a square, where participants can see and hear one another more intimately.

Such implicit expectations of modes of learning are not immediately apparent in online spaces. It is not possible to simply seek to recreate a conventional classroom and there are other limitations of online meeting technologies to contend with, such as intermittent bandwidth. Through years of social practice, humans have become accustomed to the internet as special type of private space, where we’re isolated behind a screen. Online classrooms violate this private space by bringing a public activity into a private environment.

Without explicit expectations of behaviour, in online spaces the technological ‘default’ settings (cameras and microphones off) become the social norm. This makes it difficult for students to get a ‘sense’ of what their co-learners are thinking and where there may be common difficulties or differences of opinion. It is not impossible, however, to create online spaces where ‘sense-making’ can take place. Instead of relying on the physical arrangements in conventional classrooms, online classrooms require strong behavioural expectations.

Each online classroom will be different, and agreement to shared behavioural norms need to be renegotiated for each group. Nevertheless, the following are some suggestions of online behaviours which have, in my experience and those of colleagues, led to improved learning outcomes and overall satisfaction for students in online classrooms:

  • Take the register at the start of the class and ask each student to wave to the camera and unmute themselves to confirm they are present. This gives a clear indication from the outset that active participation is expected. It is tempting simply to rely on the meeting metadata to complete the register, but this is not merely an administrative task, rather it is about welcoming students to a participatory space.
  • Students should be encouraged to keep their cameras on throughout, or at least when making a contribution. This helps other students to get a sense of reactions to their arguments, which can help them further refine problem-solving skills.
  • Oral advocacy is a core competency for lawyers of all types, whether as a barrister making submissions in court, or a solicitor negotiating on behalf of their client. Students should therefore only make spoken contributions, with the chat function being reserved to notify of technical difficulties only. If the student is joining the online classroom from a space where they cannot speak out loud, it should be made clear to them that trains, cafés, parks etc. are not appropriate learning environments.

Although students and lecturers alike are relishing the opportunity to be back in physical classrooms, the demand for some forms of blended learning will persist. If strong expectations of active participation are made at the outset, time spent in the online classroom will be a more rewarding experience for all involved.

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