Brave New COVID-19 World of Online Classes

As have many of us in the education world, the COVID-19 crisis has forced me to figure out ways to deliver my classes online. In doing so, my goal is to provide my students with a learning experience that is as similar as possible to the experience of attending my in-person classes. My typical in-person classes are highly interactive with students working on case problems in small groups of three or four. I speak to my students as a whole class and also in their small groups. 

In the last couple of days, I held my first two online, synchronous classes.  I used Webex by Cisco which is an online meeting platform adopted by my college. Webex has a type of meeting called a “training session”.  It is an unfortunate and confusing name. It is NOT a session to learn how to use Webex. It is a type of online meeting that can be used to provide training, such as a college class. For my purposes, a key feature of a Webex training session is the ability to have breakout groups.

In each of the two online classes I held using a Webex training session, I was able to successfully interact with the class both as a whole large group and also in small breakout groups.  I was able to draw on a whiteboard using a drawing tablet I recently received from Amazon. I could share my laptop screen and apps such as Powerpoint and Chrome.  Within the breakout group rooms, students collaborated by having voice discussions, using whiteboards and sharing their screens and apps. I dropped by to visit each of the break groups to provide guidance and assistance. Overall, I would say it was a success with only some minor hiccups or missteps. 

As we all know, technology is only as good as the humans who use it. I want to share some more specific thoughts and observations that are categorized as either “technological” or “human”.  

Technological Observations

Going into these online classes, my biggest concern was the potential lack of bandwidth. Due to the overall greater demand for online connectivity, the worst-case scenario was not having enough consistent bandwidth to be able to conduct an online class in any useful way.  That worst-case scenario did not happen. (Fingers crossed.) The only connectivity issue I experienced was some intermittent loss of audio at my end during one of the classes. In other words, at times, I could not hear or verbally say anything. At those times, I compensated by using the text chat function on Webex. 

The whiteboard available on Webex did not respond very well to the drawing tablet.  There were gaps and lags between what I wrote on the tablet and what appeared on the screen.  A better alternative is using Microsoft Whiteboard (which is built into Windows 10). Drawing on MS Whiteboard was smooth and seamless.  Anything you can do on a whiteboard in a real classroom, can also be done on an online whiteboard. 

Human Observations

Whatever instructions you give students in advance on how to access and use an online classroom will be ignored by at least some of them. On a Webex training session, almost any device can be used to access the session but only a computer laptop can access a breakout group and other functions such as screen and app sharing.   I specifically advised students to use a laptop computer instead of a smartphone or tablet. Some students still used their iPad or phone and quickly ran into problems.

Doing stuff online usually takes longer than doing it in person. Learning how to interact online for both me and my students was a bit of a challenge. It took some time to learn how the technology worked.  For example, learning how to “unmute” to be able to speak was a challenge for some students.  In one instance, I was speaking and drawing on a whiteboard for about five minutes before a student mentioned that they could not see what I was drawing.  I then realized that I had forgotten to “share” my screen.  Even after overcoming the technological learning curve, online teaching and collaboration still needed more time and patience than meeting in person. I had to scale back my expectations of how much material can be covered in a class.

The online environment did not seem to affect pre-established student behaviours.  Students who normally arrived to class early or on time also did the same for the online class.  Students who are usually late for class were also late for the online class. Students who normally participated in class discussions also were more likely to participate in the online classroom. Student groups who worked well together in a regular classroom were also very engaged and active in the online breakout group rooms.  Students groups who were very quiet and inactive in a regular classroom also behaved in the same way in the online rooms.

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Tort of Public Disclosure of Private Facts

My new video on the tort of public disclosure of private facts as established by the Ontario Superior Court in Jane Doe 464533 v. N.D., 2016 ONSC 541.

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Message to My Students as New Semester Begins

On my course website, I usually have a short message saying “hello”, “welcome” and some instructions on what to do before the first class.  I recently read a memo that Maryellen Weimer at Penn State uses to welcome her students at the begining of a semester. I was struck by how that memo addresses what is needed for a successful learning partnership between instructor and students, and also the essential humanity of that relationship.  I used Maryellen’s words as the basis of my message to introduce myself and the course to my students this semester.  Thank you Maryellen. Here’s the message I posted on my course website:

Hello {First Name of Student},

Welcome to Business Law.  To get started and be prepared for our first class , please go through Getting Started and complete the Pre-Class Work for Module 1. Since this course employs the flipped classroom model, it is very important that you properly prepare for class so that your learning experience in class is productive. As well, please Introduce Yourself and complete the Classroom Expectations Survey.

I am committed to making this course a rewarding learning experience for you. But I can’t do my best teaching without your help. So, I thought I’d share a list of things you can do that will make this a better experience for all of us.

Be there. When you’re in class or online doing course-related work, I need you to be there completely. Yes, this means being physically present, but I’m hoping for more than just your body in class. I teach better when you are mentally present—listening, taking notes, mulling things over in your head, asking questions, occasionally nodding (when you understand), and sometimes looking surprised, confused, or amused (as the situation warrants). And yes, you may even look bored, if that’s how you’re feeling. I need that feedback, too. What I don’t need—and find very discouraging—is having you in class but not really there. Don’t kid yourself: I know when students are doing things with their devices or finishing homework for another class, looking up every now and then and pretending to listen. Trust me, feigning attention doesn’t look anything like attentive listening. You’ll make the course easier for me to teach and you to learn if you are present and engaged in what’s happening in class.

Participate! Whether it’s in a full class discussion or within a small group, your contributions are valued. There’s no need to speak all the time. Less is sometimes more. Speak when you’ve got something to say! Ask a thoughtful question, share a relevant experience, respond to another student’s comment, or voice a different perspective—contributions like these make the class interesting for me and everyone else. And thanks in advance to those of you who voluntarily participate.

I know many students find it difficult to contribute in class. I try to make it easier by broadly defining participation. If you’ve got a question about the reading, something I said in class, or an observation that a classmate offered, and you couldn’t quite find the courage to raise your hand, post your question or contribution in the Burning Questions forum. You also can participate by posting in the Post-Class online discussions on case problems.

And everyone can participate in this course by listening and paying attention—especially when another student is speaking. Good listeners respond nonverbally with eye contact and facial expressions. They don’t look close to comatose.

A class that’s participating energizes my teaching. Your comments, questions, and responses feed me. Without your participation, I feel like I’m at a dinner table where all I do is serve the food and never get to eat it. I’d like to be sharing the meal with you instead.

Help me get to know you. Let’s start with names. I am committed to learning yours and do hope you’ll learn mine. Almost everybody struggles with names, including me. If I speak to you without using your name, call me on it. If I’ve forgotten, give me something that will help me remember. Let’s greet each other by name when we run into each other on campus. And remember to display your name card in class!

I’d like to get to know you beyond just your name. What’s your major? Why did you decide on it? What courses are you taking? Tell me something you just learned in one of your other classes. Why are you in this course? I know; it’s required. I think it’s required for a compelling set of reasons, but I’m probably not all that objective. What would you like to learn in this course? What are you finding easy and difficult about this content?

I teach better when I know the students I see in class or chat with online as real people—students with names, faces, and interesting lives. I do my best teaching when I have students who care about learning (and grades); who have dreams, goals, and ambitions; and who want to get out there and fix what’s broken. I do my best teaching when I have students who are serious about getting ready for life—or getting ready to make a better life. I want you to experience my best teaching, and I hope you’ll help me make that happen this semester.

Again {First Name of Student}, welcome!

Wayland Chau

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Critical Thinking: How I teach it

Teaching my students to think critically is one of the holy grails that I strive for.  From birth, we are all critical thinkers. As infants, we say “NO” to the tasteless green broccoli mush. As kids, we pester our parents with “WHY” questions. “Why is the sky blue?”  “Why is my hair black?”   As teenagers, we challenge rules laid down by our parents. “Why do I need to be home by midnight?”   Throughout our lives, we naturally ask questions, challenge the opinions of others and form our own opinions.  That’s critical thinking.

Most students intuitively know how to think critically. My challenge is to have my students tap into that raw ability. Apply it in a methodical manner. And communicate that methodical thought process.  In other words, it’s easy to have an opinion, but difficult to support that opinion with principled analysis and even more difficult to communicate that analysis to others.

Simple Analytical Framework

To have students apply critical thinking in a methodical manner, it is important to provide them with a simple analytical framework into which critical thinking is channelled. In teaching law to undergraduate business students, I provide a simple three-step legal analysis: (1) identify the legal issue, (2) state the applicable law, and (3) apply that law to the facts of the case to come to a legal opinion.  This three-step analytical framework can be restated generically so it can be applied to subject matter other than law: (1) identify the issue, (2) state the applicable rule or principle, and (3) apply that rule/principle to the facts of the situation. I ask my students to apply this three-step analysis to fact situations based on real court cases.

To demonstrate this three-step analysis, I provide in class a simple example that most of them are familiar with. “In a baseball game, a hitter hits the ball into the air and then the ball is caught by an outfielder. Do a three-step analysis for the umpire.”  

  1. Issue:  Is the batter out?
  2. Applicable rule:  When the ball is hit by a batter into the air, the hitter is out if the ball is caught by an opposing player without touching the ground.
  3. Apply the rule to the facts:  Since the outfielder caught the ball before it hit the ground, the batter is out.

Communicating the Analysis

To develop their ability to communicate critical thinking, it is important to have students express their thinking in writing. I have students do that in small groups and individually.  In class, my students work in groups of 3 or 4 on case problems. They write up their three-step legal analyses and post it online on Socrative. Everyone’s answers are projected on the screen in class. I ask them to vote on Socrative for the answer that is the best legal analysis. And then I critique the top two or three answers.  No grades are at stake. These are safe opportunities for students to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes.

I also get students to work individually by posting their legal analyses of case problems online in class discussion forums. Feedback is posted by both me and other students in the class.

Critical thinking is a difficult to teach but it is an incredibly important skill that will allow our students to be successful in work and to be contributing citizens in society.

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Midterm Student Reflection

It’s midterm exam time again. Students write exams. Professors grade those exams. Some students are unhappy. Students meet with professors to review those exams.

An exam review meeting can go in any number of ways depending on the student’s mindset. If the student comes with an open mindset to learn how they may improve, the meeting has the potential to be a constructive dialogue to help the student form useful learning strategies. If the student comes with a narrow focus on litigating how their exam was marked, the meeting will likely be just about the mechanics of how the marking rubric was applied. Some of those kind of meetings that I have been a party to end with me saying, “We’ll have to agree to disagree.”

This semester I am trying something new to, hopefully, increase the likelihood of having more useful dialogues with my students regarding their midterm results. I devised a short online questionnaire for them to complete before meeting with me.  I call it  a Mid-Course Personal Performance Evaluation.  Students are prompted to reflect on specific aspects of their work habits and their progress in the course.

Midterm Personal Performance Evaluation - Part 1

Midterm Personal Performance Evaluation - Part 2

By completing this questionnaire, the hope is that student mindsets are shifted away from the narrow mechanical focus of their exam results to a broader functional focus of assessing the learning habits and processes that led to those results. Consequently, the overall focus of the exam review meeting should be on how to improve a student’s overall progress in the course, not just how an exam was graded.

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Latest YouTube Channel Videos

I have uploaded 8 new videos onto The Reflective Prof channel on YouTube.

Enjoy!

Wayland

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Reading Law: Teaching Law to Non-Law Students

Ask almost any professor at a law school: the best way to learn law is to “read the law”.  What that means is that to learn law, students should read the primary sources of law – statutes, regulations and court cases – instead of secondary sources such as textbooks, articles and blogs.   That’s why most law school courses are taught using casebooks, instead of textbooks.

When law is taught to non-law students, that law-school approach in its purest form, does not work.    Business students do not know how to read and interpret cases and legislation from scratch.  Even lawyers and law students have difficulty interpreting the average Supreme Court decision with 50-plus pages.

As a professor teaching law to undergraduate business students, I try to remember that teaching from primary sources is still very important.  In particular, it’s the facts of cases that give life to and animate legal principles.  Cases help ground legal principles to the real world.

I have been taking a MOOC (massive open online course) by Professor Randal Picker of the University of Chicago Law School called “Internet Giants: The Law and Economics of Media Platforms”. The content of that course is fascinating especially how Professor Picker demonstrates how the economics of internet media platforms (such as Google, PC operating systems, smartphones) relates to the applicable law and government policy.  What I have also found fascinating is how Professor Picker teaches his material.  There are no fancy graphics and videos.  He does use powerpoint, but not in a common way.  A common way that we all see everyday is to put a list of bullet points on each slide.  Instead most of Professor Picker’s slides have a big picture of the front page of a primary source document such as court decision.  Then, he “zooms in” on specific passages in the document as he is lecturing.  Instead of summarizing or paraphrasing a case, he is highlighting specific key passages to explain his points. The central focus remains the law, not any secondary summary.

Professor Picker’s approach stays true to the spirit of “read the law”.  Since the course is a MOOC, Professor Picker probably knows that he cannot reasonably expect his students to pick up and read from beginning to end the cases, legislation and government policies that he refers to.  He explains the law in his own words and insight while highlighting key passages from the primary sources.

I have started to apply Professor Picker’s approach in my own teaching. These are a couple of examples of slides I have developed for lecture videos to explain various clauses in a contract.

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