As law school closings smacked prawfs and law students in the head, schools scrambled to figure out a way to make school work essentially overnight. Zoom ended up as the most likely, and hence most used, app of the moment. At the moment, it was unclear how long this would last, how serious it would be and what alternatives were available. As some prawf friends questioned how they were going to pull this off, there was only one answer and it was obvious: the best you can.
In an emergency, you make do. Prawfs weren’t prepared for online teaching (or distance learning, as some prefer as it sounds less unseemly), but they’re trying. Josh Blackman has been chronicling his experience, which is somewhat unfair as he’s young, a digital native and finds this more “intuitive” than some of his, ahem, more senior colleagues. But on the whole, he says it’s going well.
I have now been using Zoom for more than three weeks. On the whole, the experience has been more positive than I expected. My students have been remarkably agile and flexible. They have quickly accommodated to the online learning environment, as best as they can. Attendance is roughly the same as it was for in-person classes. And my general sense is that students are well-prepared for class. The majority of students are not directly affected by COVID-19. Some of them told me they now have more free time to devote to studies, with fewer distractions.
It’s not that there aren’t technical problems, as Josh describes, but they manage to overcome them and his students are understanding, as is he. This is the sort of cooperation one would expect, hope for, under sub-optimal circumstances. Sure, it’s not great, but they’re managing to do the best they can.
But for all the problems, Josh makes a curious prediction.
In time, we will all become more acclimated to Zoom. I suspect this form of distant communication will not dissipate when the current crisis ends. Universities will demand more classes to be taught virtually, even by full-time tenured faculty. Conferences that required expensive travel will be replaced by virtual conferences. And social gatherings will continue online.
This world is our new normal. We are not going back.
Everyone with an ax to grind against the current way of doing things sees the accommodations being demanded or made for the coronavirus pandamic as evidence, if not proof, that changes must be made. Will online education be one paradigm shift that becomes the new normal? It has certain virtues, such as making education substantially less expensive for students who no longer have to live in campus dorms to attend school, but at what price?
Howard Wasserman raises some questions about the efficacy of online teaching.
Josh says “[u]niversities will demand more classes to be taught virtually.” True. But the X-factor is that students hate this. That might be due to the sudden transition or the sense that this is not what they signed up for. But the common refrain that I have heard–and that some of my colleagues have heard–is how inferior this form of instruction is. I hope this gives faculty, like me, an argument to use when “stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop.”
There is a dynamic that happens in a classroom, of sight, of sound, of sensation, that will never be captured in online classes. Feedback is lost, whether it’s a facial expression or a chuckle, when talking to a computer screen. Tech glitches, words lost, overtalking, hitting the wrong button or being dropped when someone else sucks up bandwidth all happen, but what’s really lost is the life of a class that happened when you put a bunch of people in the same room and let them interact. The value of human interaction is hard to quantify, as opposed to the cost savings of online symposia, but it’s the difference between actual engagement and the appearance of engagement. Its loss would be devastating.
Yet, this is just a matter of classroom instruction, which is important but maybe not life or death. But will it stay in the classroom or will the accommodation made now, despite its inferiority, begin to creep into the courtroom?
Many compromises and accommodations will be required by the pandemic. But law that could affect millions for decades might best not be done half-assed. https://t.co/IdcRbg8ugb
— Scott Greenfield (@ScottGreenfield) April 3, 2020
While there may be an emergent need to continue classes when a pandemic strikes mid-semester, is there a similar need to hold oral argument at the Supreme Court? The confluence of two factors push in favor of this accommodation. The first is that people see it happening in one space, the classroom, and without grasping its inferiority, or glossing over its failings, simplistically extrapolate that if it can be done there, it can be done elsewhere.
The second is that they have issues and want them resolved now.
The delay affects a number of cases slated for in-person debate inside the Supreme Court Building, including a trio of lawsuits about disclosing President Donald Trump’s financial records; arguments were originally slated in those cases case for this week.
The roadblock has frustrated activists who say the court must adapt on urgent matters of national interest. The nine justices already hold video conferences for their weekly closed-door conferences — prompting a growing cry to simply hold oral arguments with a videoconferencing service.
It’s understandable that activists are champing at the bit for time-sensitive matters like the disclosure of Trump’s tax returns before the next election to be resolved. But is oral argument before the Supreme Court an adequate substitute for argument in person? Not that activists care when their passions are inflamed.
In an effort to break the logjam, progressive advocacy group Demand Justice is planning a social media ad campaign on Monday that targets about 100,000 people around Washington, DC, arguing the court must hear the president’s financial records cases, collectively referred to as Trump v. Mazars.
To the unduly passionate, the outcome in one case is of such paramount importance that they will let nothing, like the adequacy of oral argument, stand in the way of achieving resolution. But once the Supreme Court goes online for their immediate cause, then why not for other cases, for every case. And the inferiority of the process, the inadequacy of arguing via internet without the dynamic of oral argument in person, will be the price of expediency.
It’s one thing to make accommodations to address emergencies, and perhaps some will prove convincingly that they are just as good, if not better, than the way things were done before. But beware the simplistic rush to mediocrity. Some things are worth waiting for. Some things are worth doing well, even if the unduly passionate care more about speed and ease than getting it right.