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Joseph F. Rice School of Law

Improvising under pressure: the transition to online learning

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the response to moving an entire curriculum online might have been “maybe one day.” But March 11 turned out to be that “one day.” The School of Law community received the news in the middle of the University of South Carolina’s spring break. In-person classes would be canceled and replaced with online delivery – all within the span of a couple of weeks. Thanks to early planning and quick action, South Carolina Law faculty, staff and students were able to pivot and meet the challenges head-on.

“I was definitely nervous turning on my camera to give my oral argument. I had never given one before, much less given one over the internet,” says Michael Miller, a rising second-year South Carolina Law student. Miller and his Legal Research, Analysis & Writing (LRAW) classmates were tasked with researching a case, preparing a legal memo, and conducting an oral argument. An intimidating task under normal circumstances, these students had the added pressure of delivering their arguments in a completely new environment—their home “courtroom.”

“The experience was better than I could have anticipated,” says Miller. “I was able to have a good conversation with my professor and co-counsel. We all walked away knowing that we conveyed the necessary information that we needed to.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise for faculty and students is how natural the transition to virtual learning has been. “We were fortunate that many faculty members already used Panopto and Webex for their classes, guest speakers, and committees or conference work, and many students use these same platforms to record negotiations or evidentiary objections in certain classes,” says Gary Moore, assistant dean for academic technology.

For professors like Bryant Walker Smith who teaches technology law courses, virtual learning is already commonplace. Smith regularly uses video conferencing technology to connect with students when he is conducting research overseas, as well as to bring outside experts into his classes as guest speakers. He also takes advantage of asynchronous online modules to cover basic concepts, freeing up class time for interactive, hands-on exercises. 

“I've always explained to my students that we're doing this in part so they get comfortable using videoconferencing in a professional manner, because they are likely to encounter it again for interviews, client meetings, and even court appearances,” says Smith. “I had never included ‘pandemic’ in this list of reasons, but when all of our courses moved online I was relieved that every student I've taught has already experienced online teaching—and so have I.”

For faculty and staff who weren’t as familiar with virtual learning, the law school’s academic technology team stepped up with a variety of solutions. 

“We immediately started planning colloquiums and tutorials to train faculty and students,” says Adam Martin, audiovisual instructional technology specialist. 

The team compiled practical materials into one easily accessible source that faculty, staff and students could reference at any time. Martin also created a tutorial for staff on how to work from home, including instructions on how to access OneDrive documents and shared network drives remotely. Zeke Whisonant, computer support specialist, worked to equip staff members with laptops, and Moore, Martin, and Randall Wilcox, an audiovisual support specialist, offered one-on-one training sessions with faculty who were less than comfortable with the sudden shift to virtual classroom technology.  And every member of this dedicated team takes turns sitting in on classes to make sure they are running smoothly, allowing professors to focus on teaching.

All of this preparation has proved beneficial for faculty members like Professor Susan Kuo. “I’m tech illiterate, so I’ve had to call on our amazing IT experts for help a few times, and they have been so quick to respond.” Kuo says. “While I was teaching the case of Georgia v. Randolph, Randall (Wilcox) came charging into the classroom where I was recording on two occasions because he thought I was calling his name for help, when I was just referring to the case name. We are lucky to have such dedicated colleagues!” 

For the age group that would presumably be the most comfortable with virtual technology, the experience has offered the opportunity to discover new strengths and to tackle what might otherwise be a challenge with innovation. Smith notes that moving a class online can shake up the usual in-person class dynamics.

“I assumed that the students who are most comfortable speaking in an in-person class would also be the most comfortable speaking in an online class, but this is often not the case. Students who are generally quiet in class can be some of the most active participants online. Some like that video conferencing can feel more like a conversation between two people -- even if dozens more are listening. And some, of course, miss the in-person experience. That's okay!”

Another thing helping students move forward? Adhering to a similar routine as they would while attending in-person classes. “It feels like the day moves faster and with more purpose when I stick to my normal schedule,” says Alex Mende '20, immediate past-president of the Student Bar Association. “It also helps the shift seem less dramatic, which can help you stay motivated.” 

Other students like Dennison LaRue '20 have come up with ways to simulate group discussion through email with their professors to create a sense of accountability with their classmates. 

“A frictionless experience is not an ideal experience,” says Smith. “Online learning isn’t perfect, but then again neither is conventional teaching. Being faced with problems is how we learn, and it’s exciting to see all of the good coming out of this experience, even amidst the challenges we all face.”

This story is also available via Adobe Spark.


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