When the University of Richmond announced a transition to online classes as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, faculty had one week to prepare: one week to learn how to use new online meeting software, to adapt their syllabi to a digital format, and to explore best practices in remote teaching. Students, meanwhile, found themselves unable to return to campus following spring break as they prepared for a new way of learning.

In the four weeks since, students have adjusted to a “new normal” of classes conducted via Zoom meeting software. “The entire Richmond Law community has responded with such determination, empathy, and grace,” said Dean Wendy Perdue. “I’m so proud of how faculty and students alike have adapted to make this new learning environment a successful one, even in such challenging circumstances.”


A New Way of Teaching

students with petsFor many faculty members, the first order of business has been to provide a healthy dose of stress relief for their students. In Professor Corinna Lain’s death penalty course, that stress relief takes the form of a post-class pet-sharing session, including appearances from such appropriately named pets as Justice, Gunner, and RBG. “It’s almost like therapy dogs but online,” said Lain. In Professor Kristen Osenga’s antitrust course, students take a break with a rousing round of antitrust-themed Pictionary.

Professor Ashley Dobbs takes a different approach for the students in her Intellectual Property & Transactional Law Clinic. “I didn’t want to just jump into my regular content without acknowledging that we’re in extraordinary circumstances,” said Dobbs. So she starts every class with a question or a challenge – something to acknowledge the context of the extraordinary circumstances. In her first online class, for example, Dobbs asked students to share where they were physically sitting, and one thing they were grateful for. “We just went around the room, one by one,” explained Dobbs. “And it was actually kind of hard sometimes.”

For the next class, “I wanted students to think about [and share] something they were proud of accomplishing, unrelated to law school.” The following class, each student was tasked with finding a background image for their Zoom profile that showed a place they wanted to visit. For all classes, Dobbs draws on her studies in practices that build resilience – like being grateful, creating an empowering context, or finding something to look forward to. 

It’s a practice that her students have responded to positively and engaged in actively. And finding new ways to engage is a crucial part of an online learning environment. “I find myself impressed, even moved, by how students continue to ask questions, share observations, and generally demonstrate a high level of both intellectual and psychological engagement,” said Professor Andy Spalding, whose reaction comes in response to the law school’s adoption of a credit/no credit policy for the Spring 2020 semester. “It may be that taking grades away has given them the space to more authentically connect with the material,” Spalding noted. “Online, gradeless teaching becomes a growth opportunity, and the students step up.”

While most faculty have altered some of their teaching techniques to adapt to an online environment, others have also adapted their content. In Professor Jessica Erickson’s Securities Regulation course, the unit on public offerings “is one of the hardest things we teach at the law school.” So Erickson tries to liven up the content every year by using a timely initial public offering (IPO) as a case study. In 2019, for example, the class examined the Lyft ride-sharing company, which went public during their course work. This semester, Erickson was considering companies including Airbnb and Casper Mattress – “and then the coronavirus hit.”

With IPOs scrapped for the foreseeable future, Erickson was tasked with finding a new case study. And then she realized that the online meeting service called Zoom – the very service she was now using to teach her classes – was marking its one-year anniversary of going public. “We’re literally holding class staring at this company’s logo,” said Erickson.

Students use Zoom’s breakout room feature for small group discussions to work through hypothetical problems and dive deeper into Zoom’s public filings. “It’s been a good example for us – not just how the market works, but how this particular company works,” said Erickson.

Professor Roger Skalbeck was also able to adapt his curriculum to a fresh context for students in his copyright law class. In their study of Fair Use law, Skalbeck decided to use the lens of online legal education to examine the topic, inviting guest speaker Kyle Courtney, copyright advisor for Harvard University, to share his expertise on the subject. Courtney, “who has been an active proponent of access to information,” discussed the roles that libraries, museums, and institutes of higher education play in access to information, Skalbeck explained, and was able to offer particular insight to the students in their current learning circumstances. 

As courses continue and faculty and students adapt, challenges remain for the last few weeks of the semester. Exams will be offered remotely for the first time. The live commencement ceremony for the Class of 2020 has been postponed. But amidst disappointment, sadness, and stress, the Richmond Law community demonstrates some of its best qualities. "What has stood out the most to me is the response from the faculty," said Kellen Shearin, L'20. "I feel like they should be commended for the positivity and compassion they have shown and the speed in which they handled the transition."

"Everyone recognizes that this is a vast adjustment, which warrants extra patience, compassion, and self-awareness for all,” said Natalie King, L’22. “Our ability to pause and reflect not as separate forces, but as a collective whole – supporting and recognizing that this impacts each of us differently – is just one of the many reasons why I am proud to be a member of the Richmond Law family." 

 

 

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