Throughout March, many law schools transitioned to online instruction in response to COVID-19. At Syracuse University, it has been relatively easy. “We're very fortunate at the College of Law that we've already spent years thinking through how you bring law school online in a way that works for students,” says Nina Kohn, a David M. Levy Professor of Law and faculty director of online education. The best practices that Kohn and her colleagues have developed in creating the country’s first fully interactive online ABA-accredited law degree program, Syracuse University’s JDinteractive (JDi), have enabled a more seamless transition for Syracuse’s faculty and residential students to shift online. The College of Law’s collective experiences teaching and supporting students online have also provided valuable insight and lessons for law schools around the nation as they transition to online learning.
Tiffany Love L’22 was one of the first students admitted to JDi. Love is a military spouse who was planning to attend a traditional law school in 2019 after her family returned from being stationed in Japan. While preparing for the Law School Admission Test, her husband’s military career forced her to change her plans. Instead of being sent back to the United States, her husband was ordered to serve in Germany for the next several years. JDi has enabled her to overcome the physical distance and work on her law degree. The support for JDi students like Love is now being used as the model to support all students at the College of Law. Faculty interaction outside of the online classroom, such as flexible office hours, is critical to student success. College of Law faculty have embraced many practices to ensure all online students, JDi and residential, receive timely feedback and guidance. “I met with our constitutional law professor several weeks back,” Love says. “It was after work for me and it was morning for him, but they've been very flexible. Help, chat or support, they're there and they're willing to find the time. The program is so portable that it doesn't matter where I am and what time zone I'm in.”
Help, chat or support, they're there and they're willing to find the time. The program is so portable that it doesn't matter where I am and what time zone I'm in.
To support the success of legal education online, many resources and systems that support residential students, such as academic counseling and the law library, needed to be made fully available online to support JDi students when the program launched in January 2019. The solutions devised prior to the pandemic are now being used to support residential students. “We are well-positioned to support our residential students during this incredibly challenging time,” Kohn says. “And we’re able to play a leadership role on the national scale, showing other law schools what high-quality legal education can look like online.” Kohn, who led the development of the program and teaches in it, has run free webinars offering training and support for law faculty from all over the country.
Kohn says law schools moving online to respond to COVID-19 have two primary challenges: “First, how do you bring classes online in a way that is very high quality?” she says. “Second, how do you bring the portions of school, that aren't classes, online?”
To address the first challenge, Kohn says law schools have to support faculty in the transition to a virtual classroom. “We want every faculty member to go to their first online class with the tools they need to feel comfortable,” she says. “Because at the end of the day, almost everything a law faculty member can do in a live residential class, they can do in an online class if they have thought it through and know the tools.” Indeed, Love says that her class experience has not been hampered by living thousands of miles from her classmates and professors. “In class, we still get the same experience. We still get cold-called. We still get drilled for details about cases.”
Law faculty at Syracuse who haven’t taught online previously are using colleagues who have taught in the JDi program as a resource. “You never want students being the guinea pigs,” Kohn says. “I want faculty to try breakout groups for the first time with me or with another colleague, not with their students.” In working with faculty members, Kohn emphasizes how different teaching techniques can be employed in a virtual classroom. “Having students debate, having them critique each other's work, there are ways to bring that online in a way that feels very authentic and seamless if you have a little training.”
The second challenge is bringing student support services and resources online. “This is a place where we are in a unique position,” Kohn says. “If you look at our traditional university, a lot of things are critical to the student learning experience that are outside of class.” For example, College of Law staff already have experience with online career counseling and networking and helping student groups meet online, thanks to JDi.
The solutions the College of Law has developed to build an online community for JDi students are now being used to provide continuity of services, resources, and comradery for residential students under these daunting circumstances. “I think at this moment where we're all isolated, it becomes incredibly important where we can offer students an opportunity to connect with one another,” Kohn says.
I think at this moment where we're all isolated, it becomes incredibly important where we can offer students an opportunity to connect with one another.
Community is a hallmark of the JDi program. “My study partner is in Philadelphia and we try to meet once a week on Zoom and just connect and review if we need to,” Love says. “I still feel extremely connected to my classmates even though we're very distant.” And now, residential students are using the same tools and systems in a similar manner.
Kohn finds it rewarding that the work she and her colleagues have done to build the JDi program can now be used to support all College of Law students during this time of crisis. “We have always been one law school, and this really brings that home,” she says.
The broader legal education community was closely watching the JDi program since day one in January 2019, says Kohn. More recently faculty from across the country have been reaching out to her to learn how to best provide legal education online. “All eyes have been on JDi since it launched, and now we are sharing what we have learned with other legal educators during the crisis,” Kohn says.
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