02 Sep Critical Pedagogy Symposium: Critical International Legal Pedagogy in a Virtual Learning Climate–DILA’s Digital Lecture Series
[Seokwoo LEE is a Professor of International law at Inha University Law School.]
As the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to Korea in January 2020, South Korean educational authorities scrambled to adjust to social distancing and other measures to prevent the spread of the virus, especially among the student population. With the school year beginning in March, and after postponing the start of the academic term, the Ministry of Education mandated that all primary and secondary schools offer online tuition to the 5.4 million students in the Korean educational system. Universities followed suit through a variety of e-learning platforms either already in existence or rapidly developed to adapt to the new learning environment.
Despite initial challenges in the adoption of distance education to cope with the pandemic, South Korea, unlike some other countries in Asia, was well-poised to deal with the transition. Because of the widespread penetration of internet usage in the country and the high developed infrastructure for mobile Internet devices, access and familiarity were already in place. One of the initial difficulties experienced in the transition was the lack of Internet connected devices such as smartphones, tablets, or computers for some 85,000 students, a small number when measured against the aggregate of students. Another difficulty was the lack of experience of many educators in offering online courses. It was a sharp learning curve for both students and faculty.
With COVID-19 infections eventually stabilizing, the Ministry of Education permitted schools to reopen and receive students while mandating adherence to strict social distancing and virus prevention protocols. Primary and secondary schools started to allow in-person classes in May, with some universities doing the same. A number of educational institutions began to offer hybrid classes, which in some instances included in-person lectures that were also broadcast synchronously to accommodate students who chose to remain off-campus.
It is in this environment that faculty teaching international law in South Korea has had to cope. While the transmission of knowledge takes different forms depending on the university, there has been relatively little change in the substance of the content of international law courses in the midst of COVID-19. This is largely because the style of education in South Korea is lectured-oriented. International law professors either uploaded their lectures on their universities’ e-learning platforms for students to download and watch or lecture to students live using web conferencing programs. I surmise that the impact of COVID-19 was minor as far as the content of courses is concerned.
This may point to a more general question about pedagogy within the South Korean educational system and its suitability for critical thinking. However, the issue of virtual teaching and critical approaches such as TWAIL is not currently within the consciousness of many international legal scholars in South Korea. Critical approaches are generally limited to the context of South Korea’s place as a once developing country to its present status as a middle power. Still, COVID-19 has at least provided some of us an opportunity to rethink how we teach in a virtual environment.
One of the challenges in teaching international law is acquisition of knowledge to assess state practice across countries. While several international law textbooks and teaching materials mostly cover the issues and state practice of western countries, there are some difficulties in accessing information to state practice of non-western countries due to lack of available resources. In this context, the Foundation for the Development of International Law in Asia (DILA) can play an important role by expanding the horizon of education in international law among Asian international law scholars. One of the main purposes of DILA is to disseminate international law in Asia and promote contacts and cooperation to deal with questions of international law relating to the continent. With the advent of the so-called non-contact society, DILA can still engage its missions by providing a Digital Lecture Series on International Law to deal with issues from an Asian perspective. The COVID-19 crisis will be turned into an opportunity to facilitate interactive learning modules using the virtual space.
The wider context is relevant. Some time ago, MIT initiated a web-based publication of the educational materials of the university’s courses through OpenCourseWare (OCW). OCW offered actual lecture notes, assignments and complete sets of video lectures, made freely available to anyone with access to the Internet. This project triggered a new model for open sharing of educational content at global level. Today, many universities around the world provide free online courses through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). DILA’s Digital Lecture Series will be a valuable addition to the current online education platform by sharing knowledge and expertise in international law from an Asian perspective.
DILA has already launched a major publication project, the Encyclopedia of Public International Law in Asia (EPILA) (forthcoming, Brill), by integrating review and analysis of state practice from the past 30 years for about 20 different Asian countries. Considering the breadth of the contents covered by the Encyclopedia, this online project will lay a strong foundation for the Digital Lecture Series. Online collaboration among Asian scholars through virtual teaching in international law will be a significant experience during these times of the digital transformation of education in the post COVID-19 era.
Indeed, despite the great variety of cultures among Asian countries and their different interests, a strong, albeit undefined, feeling of familiarity, mutual understanding, and even coherence and solidarity persists among them. This results from the numerous mutual, cultural, and religious contacts and interconnections that have emerged and developed over centuries. Today, however, this commonality is a consequence of a shared experience of domination and dominance from without and within, both in the form of downright colonization, semi-colonization, as well as other forms of repression. This latter experience is or is at least perceived to still be relevant because of its contribution to the prevailing conditions in the region. It is, admittedly, shared by other regions such as Africa, but its manifestation and consequences in the two continents have differed as a result of the divergent cultural substratum, justifying a separate and focused approach to Asia. However, examinations of Asian approaches to international law have been limited to date.
COVID-19 has thus presented us with an opportunity through the DILA Digital Lecture series. This proposal is motivated by the relative lack of scholarship on a critical, yet underrepresented area of study in international legal studies. The introduction of Western international law into Asia; the resulting shift from Asian international law and the development of international law in the region; and the impact that all of this has had on Asian states has not been explored in depth. This work will not duplicate existing work, but will develop new strands of research as well as complement the efforts of existing ones such as the TRILA project. It will address a major gap in the literature and expand scholarship regarding Asian countries and their role and status in international law. Although many scholars and societies have lamented the absence of a systematic study of state practice of Asian states, no effective attempt has been made to redress the situation. This series will aspire to serve that vital purpose. We hope to ensure that TWAIL is represented as well.