I started teaching Internet Law (then called Cyberspace Law) in January 1996 and I have personally taught it 23 times in total. This year, for the first time, I am teaching the course entirely online. I would so much prefer to teach in person, and I suspect my students would prefer that too. In order to maximize the educational outcomes for my students, I have completely revamped my course. This post summarizes what I do.
To be clear, I am not offering my implementation as a model. Far from it. As an online teacher, I have a lot to learn and improve. I share this post now because I haven't talked much about how to teach internet law as a virtual course. I hope to stimulate further discussion.
My personal teaching followed a fairly conventional model. I lectured about half the time and spent the other half in student discussions (sometimes in plenary, sometimes in outbursts). I gave the students my self-made case book and asked them to read about 400 pages over the course of the semester. Over the years I have expanded the out-of-class services. Last year I asked students to write several reflection papers, take an intermediate exam, take a multiple-choice exam, and take an open-book final at a time of their choosing within the finals.
To convert the class to online, I flipped the course. I record and post all lectures before the synchronous sessions. This leaves the synchronous sessions completely open for group discussions and exercises.
I kept the reflection papers (although I changed some of the subjects), the intermediate, multiple choice, and final (law school gives students the full graduation to take all the exams). I then added several online features to our learning management system, including:
- Do-it-yourself exercises such as performing database searches or examining online artifacts. Each exercise takes a few minutes at most.
- weekly quizzes. These are simple 5-question multiple choice tests that review some of the black letter concepts you should have gotten from reading, speaking, and discussing.
- Discussion forums. I added two discussion threads each week: one to capture all of the students' questions and the other to discuss student reactions to the DIY exercises. I'm not rating participation in the discussion forum, so we'll see how students engage with it.
Here is a screenshot that shows how I divided all of these results into weekly modules:
I published a snapshot of my modules for the entire semester. See also my curriculum.
Santa Clara University has implemented the Canvas learning management system (SCU calls its version "Camino"). The screenshot above shows one of 15 modules I created in Canvas. I also use the calendar feature on Canvas so that students can register for office hour appointments themselves in appointments I set every week. Canvas isn't the most intuitive tool, and every link has been carefully handcrafted. My vet Jess wrote this cheat sheet to help navigate some of the technical quirks in canvas that baffled us. There is a feature that I can use to share my course construction so that others can easily add it to their courses and save all the work I put into building the modules. Please contact me if you would like to investigate.
Santa Clara University uses Zoom for video conferencing. I record the synchronous sessions in Zoom and use Zoom's breakout rooms for each class. I also use Zoom to pre-record my classes. There is a custom integration of Zoom in Canvas that will automatically transcribe the recordings for housing purposes.
I currently do all of this work at home and not in my office (campus is still closed). In my home office, I use an external webcam and microphone (I ordered a separate external microphone), a ring light, and a USB bus because I'm running out of USB ports. We have Comcast for internet access. As the screenshot shows, Comcast's download speed is good, but upload speed is an issue when we're running multiple video sessions around the house (I ran this at 11:00 PM on a Saturday night).
At the end of the semester I will write an article about the knowledge I have gained. For now, some preliminary observations:
- Preparing the online version was a lot of work. I've already mentioned the careful and repetitive work involved in implementing the modules in Canvas. To improve my sense of class, I took TWO online classes during the summer. One was a 7-session free course from CALI that overwhelmed me (you get what you pay for I think); The other was a 6 module sequence from ACUE that the university licensed for all professors. The ACUE materials were quite good, but time consuming. Based on what I learned from this, I created a brand new course roadmap that anticipated what I would do in each session and what students should prepare for those sessions. This roadmap was hard to make – and I could only make it ahead of time because I'm so familiar with how this course went through the semester (I can't imagine how I would handle it for a brand new course).
- Course management will take a lot more work than I would do in-person lessons – at least twice, but probably more. For example, if I do the upside down classroom, the class time will largely double.
- In particular, I will spend a lot of time grading. I have "only" 43 students, but look at the math. I need 6 papers, an intermediate examination, an intermediate examination and a final examination. These are 9 separate papers that I have to grade this semester. 9 papers x 43 students = 439 graded papers this semester. The quizzes pass / fail but there are 13 of them x 43 students = 559 quiz results that I need to track and record. I am only teaching one course this semester. I wouldn't try as much in the semester assessment if I were teaching two or more courses at the same time.
- There are so many other technical risks associated with teaching online. What if Canvas or Zoom do something unexpected or if I have configured a setting incorrectly? What if my microphone or webcam fails? What if my internet connection fails or gets overloaded? I am constantly stressed out about the technical aspects of my course.
I enjoy doing the extra work when it actually helps my students learn internet law. Unfortunately, their learning outcomes are not entirely in my control.
It is a challenging and heartbreaking time for students compared to the typical personal challenges our students face. This semester, students are grappling with the virus, the health risks it poses for them and their families, immigration issues, economic insecurity, time zone issues (I have 2 students who are 9 hours ahead of Pacific time), lack of social contact, and so much more. In addition, we had issues with the fire last week, including house burns, evictions, smoke exposure and additional smoke-related shutdowns. And then there is the current increased risk of infrastructure outages such as unreliable internet connections and power outages (some are forced due to PG & E's chronic underinvestment in maintenance). No matter how great my work is with my course, students face overwhelming barriers outside of class to actually achieve their learning goals.