COVID-19 Symposium: Teaching Public International Law in the Time of Coronavirus–Migrating Online

COVID-19 Symposium: Teaching Public International Law in the Time of Coronavirus–Migrating Online

[Douglas Guilfoyle is Associate Professor of International and Security Law at UNSW Canberra.]

I have been asked to write on taking teaching online during the coronavirus pandemic. Others are much better qualified to speak on the topic (see some great resources here from Joe McIntyre and here from Kate Galloway), but I do have the possible advantage of having taught only in face-to-face formats until last year when I joined an institution that does most of its Masters teaching online and had to learn quickly before the current pandemic. That said, I’ve also had an interest in creating online resources for students for some time and have made YouTube capsule courses for international criminal law and law of the sea in the past.

In any event, what I offer you is a mixture of my own experience and the best advice I’ve come across so far. It may or may not work for your circumstances.

And that is the first thing to stress: any advice you receive from any source on online teaching is going to need to be sensitive to context. Most of my online teaching is to career professionals used to working from home and squeezing study in around other commitments, in a wealthy country in which concern about coronavirus has only just begun to result in school and campus closures (despite toilet paper shortages). Undergraduates sent home from university accommodation may be in a different position to my mature students and may well have lost their jobs as well. Students suddenly locked down in a family home may also go from having sole access to their computers to needing to share them with others or, indeed, having no internet enabled device other than their phone. Students, in every sense, will likely have much more limited bandwidth for their studies. We as teachers of international law are also generally adjusting to radically changed working conditions.

So, the first and most important piece of advice I’ve seen so far is: keep it simple and straightforward. Responsible employers are not expecting teaching staff to move courses online mid-semester as if they are the Open University and had several years of planning and a dedicated team behind them to bring about an excellent online experience. What we can responsibly aim for is a “minimum viable” teaching and learning experience online for what had first been designed as a face-to-face course.

The lightest footprint for teaching online I can recommend involves the following considerations: reading, listening/watching, and reflecting. How will we help students with each of these forms of learning? After that, we need to think about assessment.

Reading. Weekly or class-by-class reading lists need to be accessible, concise and scalable. First, assume access to physical libraries is out. Therefore, you cannot put anything on the reading list which is not open access; readily available through your libraries’ own online system; or contained in a physical textbook that students will already have purchased.

Second, I have long advocated that course reading lists are best divided into the following headings: required (what I expect you to have read as a complete minimum to participate in class); highly recommended (what in an ideal world you would be reading each week); and further reading (starting points for a research essay or developing a specialisation for an exam). I aim to have no more than 30 to 35 pages under each of the first two headings, and no more than 12 to 15 items on the total list. (Being human and enthusiastic about my subject, sometimes I exceed this).

The point of such triage is to make it clear to students through the structure of your reading list: (a) that you understand that there will be days or weeks when they simply can’t get through everything; and (b) what the most important thing to focus on is in order to pass/comprehend the course at a basic level.

Listening and watching. As many have pointed out, this is not the time to attempt to become a polished on-screen presenter if you have not done it before. Some, with experience in the right resources, are already doing it brilliantly (make it to the end of the clip). Others will feel more like poor Robert Kelly on the BBC. The point is, find something that works for you.

I’m fond of Audacity for audio only recording: it looks more complicated than it is and there are plenty of tutorials on YouTube about using it effectively. Essentially, record yourself speaking and turn it into an MP3 and upload it to your course website. If you can work out how, make sure that the file is downloadable. A good microphone or headset will really help recording quality if you have access to one. A few simple tips and tricks can also make the sound quality a lot better (I’m a fan of using the “noise reduction” effect to minimise background noise). But remember, if you’re going for this “podcast” style approach, MP3s take up a lot of bandwidth and space – so consider breaking your lecture up into smaller chunks and recording them separately. I find it helpful to try and think of these recordings as a fireside chat and imagine that I’m speaking to just one person. I don’t try for comedy or high-end entertainment, I just try to remember someone might be experiencing this through earbuds so declaiming as if lecturing from a podium will sound a bit odd.

Also, consider how much you need to do. At my best I try to keep my fireside chat recordings to a short introduction to the readings and other material for the week. I attempt to I do this in one or two clips of no more than 20-25 minutes each. Shorter is even better. (OK, yes, I sometimes fail and with complex material provide two 50 minute standard lectures).

Also remember that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. If you can find YouTube clips, podcasts or the like, which cover the material you want to, refer students to them. Other than making a small handful of my own YouTube playlists in the past, I have also used podcasts quite liberally as supplementary listening. Among many which might be very helpful for either international law or international relations students, one could look at the Lauterpacht Centre’s international law lunchtime lecture series at Cambridge, the Asymmetrical Haircuts podcast on international criminal law, and the podcasts or recorded public events of think tanks such as the Lowy Institute in Australia, which has had excellent podcasts on topics such as the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons.

Reflecting. This brings us to the tricky bit. How will we help students reflect on material and consolidate their learning? Face-to-face seminars, discussion groups, or tutorials are plainly out. Realistically, the best and lightest footprint alternatives I have found so far are essentially twofold. One is the good old-fashioned online discussion board: have students post a reaction to a discussion-starting question or just thoughts and comments about one of the readings. Ask other students to comment on an existing thread that has already begun or to start their own. With a large enough class this can work surprisingly well. Don’t feel obliged to weigh in on every single comment – I often comment on a few opening posts and then stand back for a few days before making a general comment covering a number of themes across various threads and posts. It is (in my view) important to be present in the conversations both early (so that everyone feels that they are being listened to by the teacher) and late (to try and round off the conversation and give it some unity).

Virtual meetings online via Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate or other forums may work. My institution uses Blackboard Collaborate and with a little training it works fine as a virtual classroom where one can moderate discussion. Again, keep it simple. I tend to share a slide with a few discussion prompts and then ask students to “raise their hand” and call on people to make contributions. Breaking students into smaller online groups for discussion is also relatively easy.

If you are going to break a class into smaller discussion sections, it is probably useful to keep group membership consistent if possible. These times – and online teaching – can be a bit isolating so to the extent that group identities can build up, it’s all to the good.

It’s useful, however, to emphasise the obvious difference between synchronous and asynchronous teaching. Asynchronous teaching, such as asking students to contribute to discussion boards – which they can do at any time on their own time – is going to meet the needs of more students. Synchronous teaching, requiring people to log-on at a particular time to join a real-time discussion may not always be possible or desirable. A compromise might be to have both – and suggest that the online real-time discussions will go ahead for those students who are able to attend but with no expectation that “attendance” is compulsory. Everyone is going to have unusual stresses and demands on their time. On the other hand, those in lockdown or self-isolation may greatly appreciate the ability to interact with classmates in a synchronous online tutorial.

I am sure there are other more exciting things that can be done, particularly those who want to, say, make YouTube clips of themselves discussing the material, or reacting to it in other ways. This is fine, but remember the “keep it simple and straightforward” principle. Get this right this semester, and you will be able to refine it next semester – when there is a significant chance we will all still be teaching online.

Assessment. Assessment requirements will obviously vary by institution, but everyone is going to have to adapt. Physical, invigilated exams are clearly out. Research essays requiring library access will be difficult – but as more and more resources are online and open access some students this may be less of a concern than once it was. Your institution may insist that you continue to mark and grade as normal; or may declare this semester to be pass/fail or satisfactory/unsatisfactory completion. You may or may not be allowed to vary forms of assessment. Experiences will vary, so share them with friends and share them online so we have an idea of what best practice looks like as it emerges.

My thoughts here are necessarily tentative. One element of online assessment I have found works well has been a reflective learning journal. That is, if you require students to interact on the discussion boards, then have them parcel up four or five of their best contributions to those discussions in a narrative or journal format where they reflect how their own thinking about the subject matter has evolved over the course. At their best, I find these journals really eye-opening and inspiring when students can clearly articulate how much their own thinking has changed between the beginning and end of the semester.

What should replace final exams and whether we should make adjustments to research essay expectations remains, I think, a work in progress for all of us and will depend very much on institutional arrangements and expectations.

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