Conferencing in a time of Covid19: The virtual LSA meeting and reflections on virtual conferences in general

Jing Hiah (October 2020)

While most of our teaching has moved online, or has taken hybrid or blended digital formats, the Covid19 pandemic has also impacted another core activity of academia and research: Conferencing. Researchers, most, if not all, attend conferences as part of their practice. Participating in conferences is seen as an important element in the development of an academic career. With the pandemic, conferences have also moved online.

The first time I attended a large online, virtual conference was the Law and Society Association annual meeting in May 28-June 1st this year, 2020. I signed up for the LSA last fall, expecting that it would take place in Denver Colorado where I would meet academics all over the world face-to-face (and of course drink local Denverite craft beers and hike in the Rocky Mountains). Instead, I participated online from my own home, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands in the virtual LSA meeting.

Participating at the virtual LSA meeting was a great experience as it was professionally organized with an interesting theme ‘Rule and Resistance’ which invited contributions on challenges to established mechanisms of governance. I presented a paper (which is work in progress) on the topic of social justice and human trafficking for labour exploitation for CRN 6 Sex, Work Law and Society. As a critical socio-legal scholar interested in questions of labour market precarity, migration, citizenship and deviance, the LSA is an excellent platform to share my research as it draws a broad range of interdisciplinary scholars and practitioners interested in a variety of topics within law and society research and, very important to me personally, scholars committed to social justice. In line with this commitment and the central theme of the LSA, the presidential meetings of the LSA addressed challenging and timely topics. Amongst others a meeting was organized on the #MeToo movement and the Rule of Law, and an ad hoc plenary on America’s continuing racial tragedies and policing crisis that concluded the conference with almost 200 digital attendees. Furthermore the 56 collaborative research networks (CRNs) connected to the LSA hosted 340 sessions over the course of five days of conferencing. Over 1,400 attendees representing 47 countries joined virtually. I attended many interesting plenaries and panels; amongst others a panel on criminal legalities and minorities in the Global South; a panel on the violence of exclusion of (online) sex workers; and one on social movement strategies and mobilization.

Although the LSA had a well thought out program and virtual environment, the virtual format of the conference did have me reflect critically on the role of conferences in general: How does the online, virtual format of conferences impact the various functions of conferencing? Without romanticizing the way conferencing works in academia, since academic conferences, as any other social site, reproduce exclusion based on gender, race/ethnicity, social standing, religion and sexual orientation, conferences have potential to contribute to three goals/functions: knowledge sharing and building, socialization and social networking.

A first function of conferences is that they contribute to knowledge sharing and knowledge building. Attending conferences provides you with the opportunity to share your ideas, including work in progress, and get feedback from a broader audience on your work. Although, like in teaching, the way you give a presentation must adopt to the virtual setting. Which has proven to professional talk show hosts to be a challenging endeavor – so looking into what makes a good virtual presentation is a necessity. Also interaction with attendees is different as they cannot ask you questions or give you comments spontaneously. During one of the presidential meetings, not all faces of the audience were visible, we could only see the speakers. There are furthermore new modes of interaction, the software used by the LSA gave presenters and attendees alike the option to put ‘thumbs up’ to support or ‘clap hands’ to congratulate presenters. And interaction through using the chat function is a great extra option to pose questions or discuss issues (privately) with your fellow panelists or the audience. Other minor issues, such as software not working or delays in speech and image due to unstable connections tried my patience; but generally, these issues do not strongly intrude upon sharing your ideas with a broader audience, unless your connection stops working entirely…

A second function of conferences is that these gatherings teach novices about the ways in which research is practiced and presented, how theory and practice articulate and what ways and methods for academic discussions are appropriate: participating in conferences has a so called ‘socializing’ effect. Because the LSA was a virtual conference, by attending it you will be socialized into how to present at and behave during a virtual conference. And I believe that while many norms and rules on how to interact remain the same as in face-to-face conferences, for instance that we should engage and discuss questions without a raised voice; or kick-off our questions to a presenter with compliments about their presentation first; being dressed professionally when we’re on screen and so on. There are differences or novelties because of the digital format. I observed during the LSA that audiences in general do not applaud after a speaker has finished; nor does the audience put on their mics to give compliments; instead audiences give compliments to a speaker through the chat box or use the ‘clapping’ emoticon. Also how we present ourselves is impacted by the digital format. Bookcases were often used as a background image as it gives off a ‘scholarly’ vibe. Various LSA participants used their digital background to express their localities with a background picture that gave an impression of the city or university they’re from. I have seen many skylines and bridges and I have to admit, I also had a picture of the Erasmus Bridge projected as my background during one meeting as I had become inspired by others. And of course, clothing and attire are important – during a regular LSA a great majority of participants would wear a suit (jacket). In a digital conference a suit is not as convincing. Most of the participants were working from home and you’ll not be wearing a suit when you’re at home. At the same time, you need to still look professional enough and cannot show up in your pajamas! So I saw many shirts as these are to my interpretation a great in-between option, still smart but casual enough.

The third function of conferences relates to professional networking. In general, conferences facilitate professional networking by sharing insider knowledge and news, may contribute to bonding and friendship building between members of an academic community. This function of conferences is considered by many the most important, and at the same time, strongly impacted by the virtual format of conferences. There is little space for informal chatting over a drink or bumping into each other when you get coffee. At the same time, during the LSA there were various social mixers organized to make networking possible. Although the online social mixers are focused on some rather specific groups, such as the CRNs, which makes those who attend the mixers already people that you know and have access too. On the other hand, during some of the smaller panels with few participants that I attended, there was more space to really chat and engage with presenters in a more personal and informal atmosphere.

Despite these changes and challenges related to the virtual format of conferencing there are many benefits. Virtual conferences are cost efficient, environmentally friendly as we do not have to travel to attend them, also, they require less ‘lost’ time of travelling and getting to a location. Especially if you’re balancing care work with working in academia, a virtual conference might also be more convenient as one can stay at home to attend. I attended panels while I was sitting behind my desk at home, but also when I was lying on my couch – nobody would know I was doing that. Because many panels were recorded during the LSA, it gave me also the opportunity to attend meetings at my own pace or re-watch meetings, which in some cases was important due to a time-zone difference or because panels took place at the same time as another panel I was interested in. Note that not all panels were recorded due to privacy issues. The panel I presented in was for instance not recorded because it addressed topics related to vulnerable and marginalized populations such as online sex workers.

The virtual LSA meeting was my very first ‘real’ virtual conference, but many more digital conferences have since been organized and considering the uncertain developments of the Covid19 pandemic, it is a real possibility that there are many more digital conferences to come. The format of virtual conferences does have its challenges, especially to the social networking function of conferences, but because of its many benefits, such as costs and environmental friendliness, it is to be expected that virtual conferences may be a format used more frequently in the (pandemic free) future. The next Law & Society conference will for instance have a hybrid format, as both a digital and a live face-to-face meeting will be organized on May 27-30, 2021.

To prepare myself for future virtual conferences, I drafted a checklist to take into consideration, based amongst others also on CRN 6’s best practices guide of virtual presentations. Hopefully this checklist will also be helpful to you – if you think I missed anything in this overview, please let me know. Happy digital conferencing!

  • Is your presentation well-adjusted to the digital format in terms of font size, white space etc.?
  • What will be the background of your presentation – does it look professional enough?
  • In case of pets or little children at home, it would be wise to make sure that you lock the door to prevent unexpected interventions
  • Ask organizers to have attention for the time zone of your panel/presentation – having to present at 1 am at night will for sure influence your energy levels
  • Consider the privacy and other ethical issues of the work you are presenting – be aware that a presentation may be recorded; discuss beforehand with the organization whether your presentation includes privacy sensitive information
  • Ask the panel’s chair about the task division during a conference presentation. Who will take questions and how will people be able to pose questions, is that through chat or will people be able to interrupt your talk spontaneously?
  • When attending a panel, think about how you want to be perceived, for instance, if you turn your screen off, people will take it as a message that you might not be into participating actively (also, wear something comfortable but professional looking!)
  • With a digital conference it is still possible to network. Make time to attend social mixers and sending emails to connect with people during the conference
  • In terms of virtual presentation skills, it might be an idea to look into what makes a good digital presentation through for example watching videos of professional virtual presenters such as popular youtubers and webstreamers

Blogging in Times of Corona – No. 3: Challenge Students – and Give Them Structure

Bald de Vries (April 2020)

This blog post is part of a series of posts in which I report on developments in legal education in times of corona. My blog posts alternate between more practical posts, addressing new initiatives, problems and other matters relating to the temporary transformation towards online/distance education, and more reflective posts, investigating what we can learn from this crisis and what it means for academic education in general and legal education in particular. The blogs appear in English and/or Dutch. Suggestions and comments can be send to:

Challenge Students – and Give Them Structure

Studying law is often characterised by a low amount of contact hours, or in-class activities, and a lot of self-study. It demands self-discipline of students, but my gut-feeling tells me that many students study, in what I call, a fragmented way. A lecture here and a seminar there, prepared or not, and towards the end a final exam. To study in this way is a means to an end rather than the end itself.

In-class activities give structure to an educational week. Now this is no longer possible during these times of corona, the question is how to offer structure to our students, online and at a distance, and, perhaps, to do so in a way that makes studying again meaningful, as an end in itself where the final exam is but a part rather than the end-goal. Through an example, I want to illustrate how I provide structure in a course, online and at a distance, with the aim to make studying law meaningful again (particular in these times where so much is at stake). I’ll touch upon a few didactic principles along the way.

So, let’s challenge students and give them structure. A blog with some practical tips.

Another time-space continuum

In the original version of the course (that starts this week) the educational week consisted of a lecture on Monday, a seminar on Wednesday and a skills workshop on Friday. About a hundred students partake in four groups of 25 (in respect of the seminars and workshops). These in-class activities are three-times two hours, backed up by an online environment. I had to let go of this continuum.

I employ a different time-space continuum during a normal educational week. In doing so, I take the advice to strike a balance between synchronous and asynchronous education. The idea behind this is that we can’t commit to the planned contact hours (synchronous) considering the current situation, as it calls for different demands of availability of students and staff, due to care duties or otherwise. The already existing digital environment provides an anchor.

I designed the educational week in such a way that students can perform study activities in dedicated educational time slots: the lecture timeslot, the seminar timeslot and the workshop timeslot. I post the lecture online on Sunday evening. I ask students to have watched the lecture by Tuesday afternoon latest. Between Tuesday and Wednesday, the seminar assignment takes centre stage. Students prepare this assignment in groups of four online and then upload the assignment onto the digital environment. I subsequently give feedback. The workshop timeslot is similar to the seminar one, be it that the workshop focuses on skills (in particular writing skills). I’ve built in two live sessions (synchronous), using Teams or Starleaf. One on Wednesday and one on Friday, each consisting of a small hour with half of a group (12/13 students). These live sessions are meant as moments of reflection. For each group (of 25) I have two contact persons to communicate speedily when necessary (each group already has a WhatsApp group of which I am no part).

Cognitive skills and study activities

This is the form of the educational week. The next question is: how do I challenge students to study in a meaningful way? I think it is important to design the educational week in such a way that students are actively involved on a higher cognitive level. What I mean is that I do not only want to stress cognitive skills such as remembering, understanding and application but also skills like critical analysis and evaluation with an aim to have students ‘create’ something new. You probably recognise the Bloom taxonomy.[1] The taxonomy is a useful guide in designing a course and selecting the appro­priate study activities.

Using different study activities in a clever way, students can start working with these cognitive skills. In respect of these study activities, we can distinguish four types: passive, active, constructive and interactive.[2] With a passive activity, a student receives information without further action (listening to a lecture), while an active activity the student is asked to perform a task (answering knowledge questions). A constructive activity challenges students to build upon the knowledge and insight to contribute something new (writing a paper). An interactive activity consists of cooperation among students to strengthen the contribution towards the study process and the learning goals (a group presentation).

Study activities in my course

As I explained above, I designed three timeslots in my online course at a distance: the lecture time slot, the seminar timeslot and the workshop timeslot. In each timeslot I seek to activate students (in a meaningful way).

Usually, a lecture is an example of a passive activity, where students watch and listen to the information communicated by the lecturer behind his pulpit. As I give the lecture online, I can twist things. I can ask students to do more than merely listen. I ask my students, when they have watched the lecture online, to discuss the lecture amongst themselves (in the groups of 25) in their WhatsApp group. This is an active exercise. I subsequently ask them (per group) to send me two or three critical questions by email, to which I respond on Monday evening. It calls for a constructive attitude. In this way, I also design the other timeslots with a focus on interactive assignments in smaller groups (four to five groups). In doing so, I hope to challenge students to study at a higher cognitive level, online and asynchronous. I use the live sessions on Wednesday and Friday (synchronous) to reflect on the theme of the week and the interactive assignments (and to have some face-to-face contact, albeit digital).

Assessment – constrictive alignment

In the end, I cannot avoid assessment to figure out whether the students have realised the learning goals of the course in a meaningful way. So, I designed the course based on the idea of ‘constructive alignment’. Briefly, it means that the learning goals, the chosen study activities, and the manner of assessment are in balance. This triangle is well-known and explained by educationalists Biggs & Tan.[3] With the current and sudden transformation to online and distant education, it is to my mind important to communicate to students this triangle. It must be clear to students (more so than ever) what the learning goals are (per week), which study activities they have to undertake (and when) and what the expected results should be. To merely prescribe a textbook and a subsequent exam will no longer do. I have chosen for three types of assessment: a duo-paper with an individual contribution, an asynchronous online group presentation and a creative assignment towards the end of the course: I ask students to write a poem in which they connect the theory with our social reality in times of corona.

* * *

The thematic of my course, by the way, is law and justice. The central question is how we can understand justice (in the context of law) and what justice means for us as a lawyer and as an individual: what is the right thing to do? It is an important question in these uncertain times where our students have to find their way, also in their role as tomorrow’s layers. More on that in a later blog.

[1] B.S. Bloom, M.D. Engelhart, E.J. Furst, W.H. Hill & D.R. Krathwohl, Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain, New York: David McKay Company, 1956.

[2] This distinction between four types of activities is derived from the online module ‘Designing distance education’, Onderwijsadvies & Training {Educational Advise and Training), Utrecht University, 2020.

[3] J.B. Biggs & C. Tang, Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does, New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2001 (3rd edition).

Bloggen in tijden van corona - nr. 3: Daag de studenten uit - en geef ze structuur

Bald de Vries (april 2020)

Deze blog is onderdeel van een reeks waarin ik rapporteer op ontwikkelingen in het juridisch onderwijs in tijden van corona. Mijn blogs zijn de ene keer praktisch van aard, waarbij ik inga op initiatieven, problemen en andere zaken, en de andere keer zijn ze meer reflectief van aard, waarin ik wil ingaan op wat wij kunnen leren van deze situatie en wat dit betekent voor de toekomst van academisch onderwijs in het algemeen en het juridisch onderwijs in het bijzonder. De blogs verschijnen in het Nederlands en het Engels. Suggesties kunnen gestuurd worden naar:

Daag studenten uit – en geef ze structuur

De studie rechten wordt vaak gekarakteriseerd door een relatief klein aantal contacturen en veel zelfstudie. Dit vergt zelfdiscipline van studenten, maar mijn gevoel zegt me dat veel studenten, wat ik noem, fragmentarisch studeren. Een hoorcollege hier en een werkgroep daar – al dan niet voorbereid, met het tentamen als afronding van de cursus. Studeren is zo een middel tot een doel en niet een doel op zichzelf.

Het fysieke onderwijs zorgt voor structuur. Nu dit is weggevallen tijdens de coronamaatregelen is de vraag hoe wij op afstand en online structuur aan studenten kunnen bieden, en wellicht op een manier dat studeren weer tot een doel op zichzelf maakt, waarbij een toets slechts onderdeel is en niet het einddoel. Aan de hand van een voorbeeld wil ik aangeven hoe ik structuur aanbied in een cursus op afstand én online, met als doel het studeren ook betekenis­vol te maken. Daarbij haak ik aan bij een drietal didactische uitgangspunten.

Dus: laten we studenten uitdagen en hun structuur bieden. Een blog met wat praktische tips.

Een ander tijdruimte-continuüm

In de oorspronkelijke versie van de cursus die ik volgende week ga geven, bestond de onderwijs­week uit een hoorcollege op de maandag, een werkgroep op de woensdag en een seminar op de vrijdag. Honderd studenten nemen deel, verdeeld in vier groepen van 25 voor de werkgroepen en de seminars. Het contactonderwijs bestaat uit drie keer twee uur onderwijs voorzien van een online-omgeving. Dit continuüm heb ik moeten loslaten.

Ik ga uit van een ander tijdruimte-continuüm in een reguliere onderwijsweek. Daarbij gebruik ik het advies een goede balans te vinden tussen asynchroon en synchroon onderwijs. De gedachte is dat we elkaar niet kunnen houden aan de geplande contacturen (synchroon) gelet op de ontstane situatie die andere eisen van beschikbaarheid stelt aan studenten en docenten. De bestaande online-omgeving vormt een ankerpunt.

Ik heb de onderwijsweek zo ingericht dat studenten binnen bepaalde tijdvakken studieactiviteiten kunnen ondernemen. Dus op zondagavond komt het hoorcollege online. Ik vraag studenten het college voor dinsdag te hebben bekeken. Tussen dinsdag en woensdag staat de werkgroepopdracht centraal die zij (in groepjes van vier) online kunnen voorbereiden en ‘uploaden’. Deze opdrachten voorzie ik vervolgens van feedback (online). Het seminar op de vrijdag kent eenzelfde stramien als de werkgroep, maar het accent bij het seminar ligt op vaardigheden. Ik heb twee contact­momenten ingebouwd: een op de woensdag en een op de vrijdag, ieder van een klein uur met een ‘halve’ werkgroep (12-13 studenten). Deze ‘live-sessies’ zijn bedoeld als reflectiemomenten (synchroon onderwijs). Deze sessies doe ik via tools zoals Teams of Starleaf. Per werkgroep heb ik een contactpersoon om indien nodig snel te kunnen schakelen.

Cognitieve vaardigheden en studie-activiteiten

Dit is de vorm van een onderwijsweek. De volgende vraag is: hoe daag ik studenten uit om betekenisvol te studeren? Belangrijk is om het onderwijs zo in te richten dat zij actief met de stof ‘bezig zijn’ en wel op een hoger cognitief niveau. Hiermee bedoel ik dat ik niet alleen inzet op vaardigheden zoals onthouden, begrijpen en toepassen, maar ook op kritische analyse en evaluatie, teneinde ook studenten iets ‘nieuws’ te laten creëren. De goede verstaander herkent hierin de bekende taxonomie van Bloom.[1] Bij het inrichten van een cursus en de daar­bij behorende studieactiviteiten kunnen we deze taxonomie als uitgangspunt nemen.

Met diverse studieactiviteiten en door deze slim in te zetten kunnen studenten aan de slag met deze cognitieve vaardigheden. Vier typen leeractiviteiten kunnen we onderscheiden: passief, actief, constructief en interactief.[2] Bij een passieve activiteit ontvangt een student informatie zonder verdere activiteit (het luisteren naar een hoorcollege), terwijl een actieve activiteit de student vraagt iets uit te voeren (beantwoorden van kennisvragen bijvoorbeeld). Bij een constructieve activiteit bouwt de student voort en draagt hij of zij iets nieuws bij (bijvoorbeeld het schrijven van een paper). Bij een interactieve activiteit is er sprake van samenwerking om elkaars bijdrage aan het studieproces te versterken (bijvoorbeeld een gezamenlijke presentatie).

Studieactiviteiten in mijn cursus

Zoals boven beschreven, zijn er drie tijdvakken in mijn online-cursus op afstand per week: het tijdvak van het hoorcollege, de werkgroep en het seminar. In elk tijdvak beoog ik studenten aan het werk te zetten.

Het hoorcollege in eigenlijke zin is een voorbeeld van een ‘passieve activiteit’, waarbij studenten (braaf) luisteren naar de informatie die gezonden wordt. Nu we online college moeten geven, kunnen we er een draai aan geven. We kunnen studenten vragen méér te doen. Ik vraag mijn studenten om na het bekijken van het online hoorcollege, de inhoud ervan onderling te bespreken (via hun eigen WhatsApp-groep bijvoorbeeld). Dit is een actieve oefening. Vervolgens vraag ik hun om (per werkgroep) mij kritische vragen te stellen of een conceptmap te sturen van het hoorcollege waarop ik vervolgens feedback op kan geven. Het vereist een constructieve houding. Zo richt ik ook het tijdvak van de werkgroep en het seminar in, waarbij ik vooral de nadruk leg op interactieve opdrachten in kleinere groepen. Al doende daag ik studenten uit om op een hoger cognitief niveau te studeren, asynchroon. De ‘live-sessies’ op woensdag en vrijdag gebruik ik om met elkaar (synchroon) te reflecteren op de thematiek en de opbrengsten van de opdrachten.

Toetsing – constructive alignment

Uiteindelijk ontkom ik er niet aan ook te toetsen of studenten de leerdoelen van de cursus hebben gerealiseerd. De inrichting van mijn cursus is dan ook gebaseerd op het idee van constructive alignment. Kort gezegd, betekent het dat de leerdoelen, de gekozen onderwijs­vormen en studieactiviteiten, en de wijze van toet­sing met elkaar in balans zijn. Deze driehoek is (ook) welbekend en verduidelijkt door de onderwijskundigen Biggs & Tan.[3] Met het huidige en plotselinge onderwijs op afstand is het naar mijn idee van belang dat wij deze driehoek heel duidelijk verwoorden voor studenten, zodat voor studenten helder is wat de leerdoelen zijn, welke studieactiviteiten zij moeten ondernemen en wat de opbrengsten daarvan zijn. Het enkel voorschrijven van een tekst met een aansluitend tentamen voldoet niet. Ik heb er dan ook voor gekozen de leerdoelen niet met een tentamen te toetsen. Ik heb gekozen voor drie toetsvormen: een duo-paper met een individuele component dat gedurende de gehele cursus moet worden geschreven, een asynchrone online-groepspresentatie met (peer)feedback over een weekthema, en een individuele creatieve opdracht: een gedicht aan het einde van de cursus waarin zij de theorie verbinden met de maatschappelijke (corona)werkelijkheid.

* * *

De thematiek van mijn cursus is overigens recht en rechtvaardigheid. De centrale vraag is hoe wij rechtvaardigheid kunnen begrijpen (in de context van recht) en wat rechtvaardigheid voor ons betekent als jurist en individu: wat is het juiste om te doen? Een pregnante vraag in deze onzekere tijden waar onze studenten een weg in moeten te vinden als de juristen van morgen. Daarover meer in een volgende blog.

[1] B.S. Bloom, M.D. Engelhart, E.J. Furst, W.H. Hill & D.R. Krathwohl, Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain, New York: David McKay Company, 1956.

[2] Dit schema is ontleend aan de onlinemodule ‘Afstandsonderwijs ontwerpen’, Onderwijsadvies & Training, Utrecht University, 2020.

[3] J.B. Biggs & C. Tang, Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does, New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2001 (3rd edition).

Blogging in Times of Corona – No. 2: Assessment in Times of Corona – Dilemmas and Opportunities

Bald de Vries (April 2020)

This blog post is part of a series of posts in which I report on developments in legal education in times of corona. My blog posts alternate between more practical posts, addressing new initiatives, problems and other matters relating to the temporary transformation towards online/distance education, and more reflective posts, investigating what we can learn from this crisis and what it means for academic education in general and legal education in particular. The blogs appear in English and/or Dutch. Suggestions and comments can be send to:

Assessment in Times of Corona – Dilemmas and Opportunities

The corona crisis has brought the world to a standstill, or so it seems. What used to be normal, is no longer possible. This is also true for academic legal education. It is no longer normal, but we seem to have broken through this standstill.

The last few weeks, we have worked tremendously on the transition towards online education, as best as we could. The positive energy that has been released in this effort is unbelievable to witness. The collegiality in and among faculty and law schools is heart-warming and effective, broadening our knowledge base. Education seems to get along quite well and in many different ways we give shape to distance or online education. We experience a steep learning curve in respect of using and applying different digital educational tools and we discover how much is actually possible. “Blended learning” gets a new meaning, no doubt, when we return to the “normal” situation. I will reflect on this in a subsequent blog.

What we run into now is assessment. The exam, as a mutual endeavour with which a course is completed, in a large hall, is no longer – the dynamic of hundreds of anxious students finding their desk, lecturers with a stern look (or not) with exam papers in their arms to be distributed, law books that are checked, a bird flying around, disturbing the span of concentration. What are the alternatives?

Papers and similar type of assignments can be easily continued, online and digital at a distance, but these exams – the staple diet of (legal) education. I want to say two things about it.

An assessment is an individual aptitude test and allows lecturers to evaluate and assess whether a student has sufficiently understood the learning goals of a course. The exam is such an aptitude test in which we ask all students the same type of questions in a particular time/space continuum and assess these in a summative way. We also know that in setting such exams we encourage exam-oriented study behaviour and that this affects the quality of seminar teaching – “is this important for the exam”, is an often-heard question. This crisis will perhaps teach us something about the meaning and purpose of this type of assessing students or, about summative assessment in general. It may well be that it paves the way for new forms of formative assessment. (I will reflect on this in another blog.)

At the same time, I realise the added value of a summative exam and the dynamic it generates. There is a certain socialisation aspect involved. A rite of passage of sorts. To find alternatives in this situation is difficult. So, we opt for having these exams done as take-home exams. Students sit the exam at home through email or, better, an assessment application such as Remindo or the assessment functionality in a digital learning environment like Canvas or BlackBoard. This poses all kinds of questions about “fraud” and the validity of exams and their results. Students sit the exam without supervision after all.

Making an inventory of what my colleagues are doing, I observe that many hold on to the traditional exam (albeit with different type of questions) and pursue the possibilities of surveillance, either through online proctoring software or online surveillance with tools such as Starleaf, Teams and ZOOM. In addition to privacy issues, I consider these interventions going too far. They are too intrusive as they take distrust as the point of departure; there are different ways in limiting the possibility of fraud and cooperation. Furthermore, I have the feeling that particularly now, everyone, including students, realise what is at stake. Take trust as a guiding light in this situation. Such an ethical attitude can be stressed in the exam instructions. What we can do, is to change the substance and form of an exam. In many ways we can assess students to focus on exam questions set at a higher cognitive level – the level of analysis, evaluation, synthesis and creation (taking Bloom in consideration).

Let we use this crisis to think about this.

Bloggen in tijden van corona – nr. 2: Toetsen in tijden van corona – dilemma’s en mogelijkheden

Bald de Vries (april 2020)

Deze blog is onderdeel van een reeks waarin ik rapporteer op ontwikkelingen in het juridisch onderwijs in tijden van corona. Mijn blogs zijn de ene keer praktisch van aard, waarbij ik inga op initiatieven, problemen en andere zaken, en de andere keer zijn ze meer reflectief van aard, waarin ik wil ingaan op wat wij kunnen leren van deze situatie en wat dit betekent voor de toekomst van academisch onderwijs in het algemeen en het juridisch onderwijs in het bijzonder. De blogs verschijnen in het Nederlands en het Engels. Suggesties kunnen gestuurd worden naar:

Toetsen in tijden van corona – dilemma’s en mogelijkheden

De coronacrisis heeft de wereld tot stilstand gebracht, zo lijkt het. Wat normaal is, is niet langer mogelijk. Dit geldt ook voor het universitaire juridisch onderwijs. Het is niet normaal, maar de stilstand wordt doorbroken.

De afgelopen weken is er met man en macht gewerkt aan de transitie naar online-onderwijs, zo goed en kwaad als het kan. De positieve energie die daarbij vrijkomt, is ongelooflijk. De collegialiteit in faculteiten en tussen de zusterfaculteiten rechtsgeleerdheid is hartverwarmend en effectief. Het onderwijs lijkt goed te gaan en in tal van vormen wordt gestalte gegeven aan onderwijs online en op afstand. We ervaren een steile leercurve wat betreft de toepassing van allerlei verschillende digitale applicaties en komen we er achter wat er allemaal mogelijk is. “Blended learning” krijgt een nieuwe betekenis wanneer we terugkeren naar een normale situatie. In een volgende blog daarover meer.

Waar we nu tegenaan lopen, is toetsing. Het tentamen, aan het einde van een cursus in een grote hal, is niet meer – de dynamiek van honderden studenten zenuwachtig hun plekje zoekend, docenten, al dan niet met strenge blik met de tentamens in de arm, wettenbundels die gecontroleerd worden, plaspauzes, wetboekaantekeningen die wel of niet zijn toegestaan, een duif die de concentratie verstoort. Wat zijn de alternatieven?

Papers en dergelijke type toetsopdrachten zijn te overzien en kunnen online of op afstand wel doorgang vinden. Maar die tentamens. Ik wil daar twee dingen over zeggen.

Een toets is een individuele proeve van bekwaamheid en stelt ons als docenten in staat te beoordelen of de leerdoelen van een cursus door een student gerealiseerd zijn. Het tentamen is zo’n proeve van bekwaamheid waar we aan alle studenten dezelfde vragen stellen in een bepaald tijd/ruimte continuüm en de antwoorden vervolgens summatief beoordelen. Maar we weten ook dat het tentamengericht studeren juist in de hand werkt en een impact heeft op de wijze waarop we ons kleinschalig onderwijs inrichten – “Is dit belangrijk voor het tentamen?” is een veelgehoorde vraag. Deze crisis leert ons misschien iets over de betekenis van deze vorming van toetsing of überhaupt wat het betekent om te toetsen. Ook daarop kom ik terug in een volgende blog.

Tegelijkertijd besef ik dat er een meerwaarde is in zo’n tentamen en de dynamiek die dat genereert. Er zit een bepaald socialiserend aspect in. Een rite of passage of sorts. En om in deze crisissituatie een valide alternatief te vinden is lastig, dus wordt het tentamen ‘op afstand’ afgenomen – de studenten doen het thuis via e-mail of via een applicatie zoals Remindo. Dit roept vragen op over “fraude” en de validiteit van het tentamen. Studenten doen het tentamen immers alleen en zonder supervisie.

Als ik inventariseer wat er al zoal gebeurt, zie ik dat vastgehouden wordt aan tentaminering en er naar mogelijkheden van online surveillance wordt gezocht, door online proctoring of online surveillance met behulp van digitale tools zoals Starleaf, ZOOM, Teams e.d. Ik vind dat ver gaan en getuigen van wantrouwen, terwijl ik het gevoel heb dat, juist nu, iedereen, dus ook studenten, dondersgoed weet dat er wat op het spel staat. Ga uit van vertrouwen in deze situatie. Zo’n ethische attitude kan je benadrukken in de “toetsinstructie”. Wat we wel kunnen doen, is de inhoud en vorm van het tentamen aanpassen. Op veel manieren kunnen we studenten toetsen door in te zetten op vragen op een hoger cognitief niveau – dat van analyseren, evalueren en creëren (Bloom indachtig).

Laten we deze crisis gebruiken om daarover na te denken.

Blogging in Times of Corona – No. 1: Business as usual?

Bald de Vries (March 2020)

This blog post is the first of a series of posts in which I report on developments in legal education in times of corona. My blog posts alternate between more practical posts, addressing new initiatives, problems and other matters relating to the temporary transformation towards online/distance education, and more reflective posts, investigating what we can learn from this crisis and what it means for academic education in general and legal education in particular. The blogs appear in English and/or Dutch. Suggestions and comments can be send to:

Business as usual?

With the corona pandemic the world has come to a standstill. This is also true for universities and its law schools. The situation confronts us with the question: What to do? The answer seems to be that universities direct their efforts to the continuation of teaching and learning. Everywhere, colleagues are busy transforming their teaching from what they were used to into an online version. We discover new possibilities, see problems and solve them, in acrobatic ways. The mantra is to limit study delay. But this is not the only thing what is happening.

In an opinion article on Science Guide, a group of academics address the idea that it is ‘business as usual’ at the universities. They oppose this instrumental mantra. They ask themselves why some part of university staff is considered ‘vital’ (allowing for exceptions to the emergency situation) and, more important, they also question to what extent teaching and learning is, in the given circumstances, possible at all:

In the current crisis, the flight to the digital is a form of denial rather than a way of coping with the crisis. This is the hard pill to swallow: teaching, challenging each other’s minds, studying and discovering together, is not possible at the moment.

The authors criticise the perceived bureaucratic idea of learning objectives and end terms to which we are supposed to hold on in this situation, as if it is the be-all-and-end-all of academic education.

I would disagree.

The last week or so I saw, at least at Utrecht University where I work as an associate professor and as Director of education for the law bachelor, a tremendous explosion of positive energy and solidarity to continue teaching our course online and at a distance. We are vital but not in that we need special exceptions (such as being able to bring our children to school or day care when others cannot). We continue our work for a number of reasons: to avoid or limit study delay that otherwise would lead to side-effects in the (near) future; side-effects that are not only financial but also organisational, socio-economic and pedagogic in nature.

Necessity knows no law. (The Dutch version of this adage is less extreme.) This crisis allows for deviating from educational rules and regulations, finding alternative ways to cope with learning goals and end terms. Indeed, it is in my experience and in how I act (and many with me: other directors of education, vice-deans, exam boards) that I see that we do not hold on to the perceived bureaucratic demands enshrined in learning goals and end terms. These demands, actually, provide structure to consider and consult about what is possible and what is not, in order to make choices and decisions in respect of alternative teaching methods, methods of assessment, deadlines, resits, internships, entrance into master programmes, etc. It also allows students to hold on, as much as is possible, to the academic trajectory they have chosen for themselves. Business as usual it is definitely not, it is rather usual business.

This is the more practical side of the current situation – problem-solving oriented wherever possible, with a dedication that is an academic’s hallmark. But I also see something else happening. Continuing teaching and learning also fulfils an existential function. In the current situation, we are thrown back onto ourselves, seeking to give meaning to our daily existence, reflecting upon existential questions between all the usual business and daily chores, holding on to existing structures and patterns, and discovering new ones.

But we also look each other up and more than usual or so it seems. We console and help each other, in mutual connectedness between lecturers, schedulers, policy advisors, it-experts, study advisors, support staff and educational experts; we see/meet each other children passing through our screen, or pets; we talk, laugh and cry. The same goes for students. Students, as I am told, find grounding and structure in their studies. They meet each other online, exchanging knowledge and insight, study the literature, writing their papers, watching the lectures online and have ‘live’ sessions with their lecturers through Skype, Teams, ZOOM or Google Hangouts. They see the function of law in this situation of crisis and how fragile the tile law can be. We may not meet eye-to-eye, but we do challenge each other’s minds, we do study and discover together.

Thrown back onto ourselves we discover a great sense of responsibility for the future, of the world and for ourselves, and what this means for academic education. In the meantime, we do what is possible, the impossible is not what is demanded.

Bloggen in tijden van corona – nr. 1: Business as usual?

Bald de Vries (maart 2020)

Deze blog is de eerste in een reeks waarin ik rapporteer op ontwikkelingen in het juridisch onderwijs in tijden van corona. Mijn blogs zijn de ene keer praktisch van aard, waarbij ik inga op initiatieven, problemen en andere zaken, en de andere keer zijn ze meer reflectief van aard, waarin ik wil ingaan op wat wij kunnen leren van deze situatie en wat dit betekent voor de toekomst van academisch onderwijs in het algemeen en het juridisch onderwijs in het bijzonder. De blogs verschijnen in het Nederlands en het Engels. Suggesties kunnen gestuurd worden naar:

Business as usual?

Met de coronapandemie komt de wereld tot stilstand. Dat geldt ook voor de universiteit en rechtenfaculteiten. De situatie confronteert ons met de vraag: Wat te doen? Het antwoord is dat de universiteiten inzetten op continuering van het onderwijs. Overal zijn collega’s bezig het onderwijs zoals we gewend zijn te transformeren tot online-onderwijs. We ontdekken nieuwe mogelijkheden, zien problemen en lossen die op, met kunst-en-vliegwerk. Het mantra is om studievertraging te voorkomen. Maar dat is niet het enige waar het om draait, naar mijn idee.

 In een opinieartikel op Science Guide wordt ingegaan op het idee dat het ‘business as usual’ is, en ageren de auteurs tegen dit instrumentele mantra. Zij vragen zich af waarom een deel van het universitair personeel een cruciaal beroep uitoefent en, voor deze blog belangrijker, in hoeverre het verzorgen van onderwijs überhaupt mogelijk is:

In de huidige crisis is de vlucht in het digitale eerder een vorm van ontkenning dan van omgaan met de crisis. Dit is de bittere pil om te slikken: onderwijs, het uitdagen van elkaars geest, samen studeren en ontdekken, is op dit moment niet mogelijk.

De auteurs hekelen de in hun beleving bureaucratische gedachte van leerdoelen en eindtermen waaraan wij geacht worden vast te houden.

Ik ben het daar niet mee eens.

De afgelopen dagen heb ik, in ieder geval aan de Universiteit Utrecht, waar ik werkzaam ben als docent en als onderwijsdirecteur van de bachelor Rechtsgeleerdheid, een ongelooflijke positieve energie en solidariteit gezien om onderwijs te kunnen blijven verzorgen online en op afstand. Wij zijn een cruciaal beroep en niet per se om onze kinderen op de opvang of school te krijgen. We doen ons werk nu om meerdere redenen: het voorkomen en beperken van studievertraging dat anders op de langere termijn neveneffecten zal genereren die niet alleen financieel van aard zijn, maar ook organisatorisch, sociaaleconomisch en onderwijskundig.

Nood breekt wet. In mijn beleving en hoe ik handel (en velen met mij: onderwijsdirecteuren, vice-decanen onderwijs, examencommissies), zie ik juist niet dat we vasthouden aan de veronderstelde bureaucratische eisen gevat in leerdoelen en eindtermen. Deze eisen geven rich­ting en structuur om na te gaan wat wel en wat niet mogelijk is teneinde keuzes te kunnen maken (in ‘grote’ vakken met 200+ studenten bijvoorbeeld): keuzes over alternatieve vormen van onderwijs en toetsen, deadlines, (extra en soepelere) herkansingsmogelijkheden, stages, matching, instroom in mastergrogramma’s, etc. Het stelt studenten zoveel mogelijk in staat vast te houden aan het door hen uitgestippelde academische pad. Business as usual is het zeker niet, unusual business wel.

Dit is de meer praktische kant van de situatie – oplossingsgericht te werk gaan binnen de mogelijkheden die er zijn met een toewijding die ons eigen is. Maar ik zie ook nog iets anders gebeuren. Het onderwijs draaiend te houden vervult ook een existentiële functie. In de huidige situatie zijn we allemaal op onszelf teruggeworpen en trachten we zin te geven aan het dagelijkse bestaan, reflecteren we op existentiële vragen tussen alle bedrijvigheden door, houden we vast aan patronen en structuren, en ontdekken we nieuwe patronen en structuren.

Maar we zoeken elkaar ook op en meer dan normaal lijkt het. We troosten en helpen elkaar, in onderlinge verbondenheid tussen docenten, roosteraars, beleidsadviseurs, it-experts, studieadviseurs, ondersteuners en onderwijskundigen; we zien elkaars kinderen en praten, lachen en huilen. Hetzelfde geldt voor studenten. Studenten, zo hoor ik om mij heen, zoeken in de studie houvast en structuur, ontmoeten elkaar online en wisselen kennis en inzicht uit, bestuderen de boeken en schrijven hun papers, bekijken online colleges en hebben ‘live’ sessies met docenten via Teams, ZOOM, Skype of Google Hangouts. Ze zien welke functie recht vervult in een crisissituatie en hoe fragiel een rechtsstaat kan zijn. We zien elkaar dan wel niet in fysieke zin, we dagen elkaars geest wél uit, studeren en ontdekken sámen, juist nu zou ik zeggen. Dit laat onverlet dat we op elkaar moeten blijven letten, dat niemand uit zicht raakt.

Teruggeworpen op onszelf ontstaat een groot besef van verantwoordelijkheid. Een verantwoordelijkheid voor de toekomst, van de wereld en van onszelf en ook wat dit betekent voor het academisch onderwijs. Ondertussen doen we wat mogelijk is – het onmogelijke wordt niet geëist.

The Renaissance Institute’s Notification Point for ‘Postmodern Ideological Indoctrination’

Arie-Jan Kwak (May 2019)

Truth and politics. Spinoza taught that in politics there is no higher law than the safety of its own realm. When this realm is threatened harmful truth is totally subservient to the useful lies that might safe the realm from collapsing. The opening lines of the newly established Renaissance Institute’s website are therefore rather disheartening. The scientific institute of the Forum voor Democratieopens with the proclamation of crisis and the call to political action. Our children are spoiled in our schools and universities as they are indoctrinated with ‘postmodern ideology’. We need a Reconquista: we should reclaim our educational institutions and safe our children from this corrupting influence. In this struggle a ‘notification point’ is established. Readers are encouraged to report postmodern ideological indoctrination to help estimate the magnitude of the problem involved.

Although the opening lines are discouraging, the fact that the Institute is prepared to consider the indoctrination-thesis as merely a hypothesis that deserves to be empirically researched is laudable. But is a notification point useful in this regard? Let’s consider the pro’s and cons of such a notification point.

A charitable interpretation may make us think of it as a kind of ‘crowdsourcing,’ a method which is in itself a legitimate and appropriate for scientific research. This initiative can be construed as an attempt to gain ‘inside knowledge,’ the kind of information that you could also get from panels for instance. We may also take the motivating normative concern seriously: in a democracy educational institutions should offer a politically and morally divers environment and dominance or ‘hegemony’ of one political or moral worldview is therefore undesirable. There is nothing to quarrel with here.

We might compare this notification point with, an initiative to improve the recording and reporting of discrimination and harassment on the work floor. The site uses a ‘chatbot’ that is programmed to talk to you and lead you through a list of questions about the incident or incidents you feel you bad about. Interestingly, the report that is made is not going to be shared with anyone else, it is just a mean to make a note for yourself in order to be able to share it with someone later, or to report it to your boss if you decide to do so. The main goal is to help the victims of discrimination and sexual harassment by making it easier to report the incidents, and by improving the accuracy of the reports. But the report is not shared with anyone, not with the police nor with any outside (political) organization. In that sense, it seems to be very different from the Renaissance institute initiative.

Maybe it is more instructive to compare it to the ‘meldpunt kinderporno’ (child porn notification point) whichwas established in the Netherlands in 1995 in an effort to gain access to information that would otherwise be very hard if not impossible to obtain. The website of this meldpuntgives ample information with regard to the independent organization behind it, the fact that it will immediately notify the police when the notification gives reason to do so, and that all the materials will be stored in a secured database. Crowdsourcing (if we can call it that) by means of a notification point does raise serious questions however, both with regard to its scientific merits as to its ethical aspects. In the case of the sexual abuse of children, we judge this instrument to be justifiable and we try and mitigate its obvious dangers and pitfalls.

How may the Renaissance institute’s notification point be helpful to truly learn something about the schools and universities in the Netherlands? We should first have a look at the research question. The website suggests that there is a problem in our educational system that necessitates scientific research: the adherence of teachers and university professors to ‘postmodern ideology’. The word ‘leftist’ is not used on the website, but postmodernist ideology seems to be readily associated with leftish political preferences, and many have interpreted the notification point as an invitation to report teachers with leftist sympathies. But this is not explicitly stated on the website; the relation between postmodern ideology and political preferences is not explicitly addressed or explained at all. Do the students that are encouraged to report ‘postmodern Ideology’ know what this is exactly?How are we going to be sure that the reports are indeed about the particular phenomenon under scrutiny if postmodern ideology is not clearly defined and explained?

But even if the researcher manages to clearly define the subject such that a better focused question can be asked, other issues should be addressed. We already noticed that some of the reporters in the crowd are minors. When we ask students to report behavior of their schoolteachers, we should be very careful with regard to the interpretation and evaluation of the ‘data.’ Not only are the reporter not trained ‘participant observers’ whose observations we can trust to be as neutral and objective as possible, the reporting children are actually in a relation of dependence to the teachers they report on. The work of the student is regularly judged and graded by the teachers, and the student’s future is strongly dependent on these judgments. In other words, the students depend on these teachers, objectivity requires at least some degree of independence.

This works two ways. The student may be angry because of a bad grade, and feels the need to take revenge. But on the other hand, the student may also be feel inhibited to report a relevant incident of indoctrination because of the teacher’s power to influence his future. How can we get a representative picture of indoctrination when we know that many incidents are motivated by spite and others are not reported because the students do not feel free to do so?

Can the students report anonymously? This may solve the latter problem to some degree. For obvious reasons, the Dutch child porn notification point allows for anonymous reports. But this raises different problems because anonymity may also strongly influence the quality of the data. The Renaissance institute provides us with no instructions with regard to the names or characteristics of the teachers whose classroom behavior is reported. How trustworthy is an anonymous report on an recognizably named teacher? How informative is an anonymous report on an unrecognizable anonymous teacher? How can we make sure in such case, that the same incident is not reported several times? How can we makes sure a report is about a different incident or teacher reported earlier?

The most important scientific problem however, is that many if not most incidents of ideological indoctrination will not be reported because many talks to the supporters of the FvD party and this will be insufficient, to say the least, to seriously estimate the magnitude of the problem researched. To get a good idea of what is going on in our schools and universities you need reports from a broad cross-section of society, not merely from your political supporters.

But there is also an ethical problem. With regard to medical research a formal statute proscribes the critical assessment of research proposals to protect the patients who participate in scientific research projects. Several universities provide researchers generally with explicit guidelines and established ethical committees to asses and judge empirical research, particularly with regard to ethical aspects. You cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs, but in such scientific research we are dealing with human beings and these statutes, guidelines and critical assessment by ethical committees should guarantee that researchers do not damage the interests of their subjects of study and generally respect their human dignity.

There is no mention of any precautions with regard to the interests and human dignity of the human beings that are the subject of study of the Renaissance institute. No information whatsoever is given with regard to the formal requirements of the reports, what the institute is going to with them, whether this information will be collected and kept in a database, and who will have access to this information. All this should make us wary.

We conclude that it is rather hard to see how this information point is going to be successful. How can we decide that there really is a problem, and indoctrination with postmodern ideology is not incidental but a structural feature of the education of our children? Even if we could trust the reports to be truly informative, how many reports to you need to decide that your hypothesis is confirmed? To what are you going to compare the findings? Or is this research meant to establish a benchmark for future research? Is the hypothesis in any way falsifiable? If only a few reports are filed, are we then justified to conclude that we were merely chasing a chimera and there is no real problem worth investigating? The answer to these latter questions seems to be no.

The more we think about it, the more difficult it becomes to charitably consider this ideology hotline to be a genuine and sincere attempt to learn something about our educational system. The carelessness with which this notification point is instituted and introduced to the public confirms the suspicion that the hotline is merely an instrument, not in our collective scientific quest of knowledge, but in the political Reconquistaof our schools and universities. This only serves to illustrate why science and politics are uneasy bedfellows. In politics truth is a mean, not a goal in itself; and this is why our schools and universities should remain as independent as possible from the powers that be.

Engagement and the Future of Legal Education

Bald de Vries (March 2019)

On 14 and 15 November last year, the Law Schools of LERU (League of European Research Universities) organised a workshop on the future of legal education, in Lund (Sweden). The two-day workshop was hosted by the law school of Lund University and we were welcomed by its Dean, Mia Rönnmar, and Oran Doyle (Trinity College Dublin), who initiated the workshop. The central theme of the workshop was how to engage students in legal education and prepare them for professional practice in the future. Some fifty colleagues participated and were involved in about fourteen presentation in which best practices, new ideas and past experiences were shared in a constructive critical fashion.

In this blog, I reflect on some of the themes the presentations shared and consider some issues at stake in the future of legal education. (In doing so, I have chosen, for clarity of reading, not to refer to the presenters and the titles of the presentations.) The main theme which surfaced in most presentations was how to engage students to study law in a more meaningful way and what this demands for legal education, now and in the future.

Engaging Students – the Introduction

It was appropriate that the first presentation addressed the theme how we introduce new students to law and legal education. Usually, there is some kind of introduction week that tends to be characterized by a lot of information transfer of a practical nature, acquaintance with fellow students, lecturers, tutors and buildings as well as by social events. In a way, such an introductory period is the first step in the process of socialisation. Indeed, it is an important first step for students in academic life. What we tend to ignore is that students are fully unaware what it is to study and what it is to study law. This presentation begged the question to what extent we should challenge students in those first weeks with getting acquainted with meta-cognitive skills – learning how to learn and learning how to study law. A thought that struck me later was that the start of their academic career is also the start of, in a way, specialisation. Most students have finished their secondary education, consisting of a variety of different disciplines and now start on a monodisciplinary adventure – in our case: law.

Engaging Students – Living the Law

This last theme was picked up on that first day, enquiring into the transitional phase towards university life. As law is by nature a textual discipline, students need to learn (paradoxically) how to read, how to write and how to express themselves as lawyers. To this end, a toolbox was introduced consisting of reading strategies, differentiating between different legal texts – case law, legislation, contracts, etc. while stressing the importance to understand the context of a text and for students to identify for what reason or purpose to read a text, by imagining to be its author: a legislator, judge, legal advisor, etc.

Engaging students also implies challenging students to “live the law”. Considering the relatively small amount of contact hours in legal education, students tend to study in a fragmented way – a lecture here and a workshop there, prepared or not. Using blended learning and a clever spread of contact hours during an education week, another presentation reported on how digital tools (a course-specific digital learning environment) could function as a bridge to connect the physical contact hours during an education week in a course, in which students had to engage with the course every day of the week, online and offline.

In a more unconventional way, two other presentations introduced novel ways of studying law. The first emphasised the importance of play and playfulness in legal education. Being playful is a light-hearted state of mind and is associated with curiosity, creativity, spontaneity and humour. Being playful also entails being able to cope with uncertainty. The integration of these states of minds in law courses, as the presentation showed, allows for creativity and imagination when engaging with legal problems.

The other presentation introduced the concept of constraints-led learning in legal education. This pedagogical concept employs methods used in physical training, guiding athletes in motor skills acquisition. The approach focuses on designing assignments such that athletes independently come to solutions of motor problems, while minimizing verbal cues from coaches. Empirical evidence is mounting that the constraints-led approach leads to more efficient skill acquisition and better performance of athletes in high-pressure settings. The presentation demonstrated examples of constraints-led teaching for law students, while exploring the (dis)advantages of this approach in knowledge and skill acquisition.

Students tend to be exam orientated when they study, looking beyond the normal educational week towards the final assessment. This inhibits them to engage with law meaningfully. We are “to blame” for this, as we decide on the type of assessment. One presentation showed how changes in the curriculum opened up the way for many different types of assessment, such as response papers, case notes, take home exams, reflective learning assignments, online discussion boards and blog posts. Indeed, one other presentation reported on an educational experiment, using blog posts as a means of learning. It is meaningful, as students not merely write a blog as an exercise in writing but write a blog that is actually published for the benefit of a wider public audience. To realise as a student that your work is published and read by unknown creates ownership and responsibility.

Engaging Students: (Transferrable) Skills

When we teach law, we aspire to introduce students to the law, disclosing its concepts, goals and function, deliberating on important notions such as legal certainty and equality, justice, liability, rules of fair competition, mens rea, etc. Law is about learning principles and concepts, but to do so meaningfully, requires an active learning approach.

Engaging with law means challenging students to submerse themselves into law and one important way of achieving this is emphasising the importance of writing and reading skills: the ability to understand and express (legal) thoughts in text. Some of the presentations focused on this type of skills education, emphasising legal craftsmanship, critical writing skills and argumen-tation skills. Its importance cannot be over-emphasized as these types of skills teach students to develop their own autonomous voice as lawyers, being able to engage with other professionals to find solutions for societal problems. It asks for creativity for us as lecturers, also considering the limited amount of contact hours and other constraints. Feedback is effective, as shown in one presentation, when it is an in-class activity. Another presentation showed how to integrate argumentation theory in writing skills assignments. It allows students to understand and recognise the importance of argumentation structures, structures like modus tollens and modus ponens as well as logical fallacies.

In addition, a number of other presentations showed the importance of transferable skills and how these connect to the idea of interdisciplinarity in legal education. Indeed, one important question is to what extent the professional field should be (more) involved in opening up for students a wide range of transferrable skills, over and beyond the traditional legal skills. The follow-up question relates to the professional field itself, which is and will be much broader than the legal professional field, where legal professionals have to communicate and cooperate with professionals from other disciplines, such as economics and governance. How to start up an innovative legal practice is perhaps also something we as law schools must pay attention to, as shown by one presentation.

Engaging Students: Diversity and Outreach

The population of law students tends to be quite homogenous. For a variety of reasons, it seems difficult to reach out to groups of secondary school students to enter academic life and in particular the law school. It is important to remove real and perceived obstacles for these groups to enter academic life – for these students themselves as well as for the future of law, considering its societal function. One presentation reported on how a law school developed an online programme meant to entice students to get acquainted with (legal) education, which would allow them to enter university without going through the usual selection and registration procedure. This programme was specifically targeted to groups of students who would typically not choose an academic career although they would well able to, intellectually. Another presentation emphasized that diversity and inclusivity is not only an issue to diversify the student population but should also be part of the legal curriculum. Through a critical analysis of case law, the focus in one course on human rights was the way that cultural diversity has influenced the interpretation and implementation of human rights.

The Future of Legal Education

The legal landscape is changing dramatically and the professional field will ask for a different type of law graduate. Processes like digitalisation provide challenges as they generate new legal questions and, perhaps more important, will impact on law itself. One presentation posed the question to what extent new complex techno enable phenomena be subsumed into existing laws and regulations (and how)?

Furthermore, the keynote address – by professor Burkhard Schafer – pointed to the idea to what extent legal work will be digitally outsourced and, hence, lawyers could be replaced by computers? This implies not only technical issues but, more importantly, normative questions as to the role of law and of human decision making. One approach, as sketched in his presentation, is to figure out where we, as humans, beat machines, for example in respect of creative endeavours and social interactions and identify legal skills that are least likely to be substitutable by machine intelligence. Knowing this opens up the possibility to redesign the law curriculum around them. Indeed, redesigning legal education was the topic of one other presentation, introducing the idea of the Temple-shaped lawyer (as opposed to the T-shaped lawyer), introducing the mnemonic phrase of the homo faber, considering the lawyer as an artesan, an entrepreneur and as a caretaker.


The search continues and what struck me were the normative questions that popped up when discussing legal education within this wide variety of presentations and topics. This normative aspect of legal education is the theme of the upcoming special workshop at the IVR World Congress in Luzern, Switzerland. In this workshop, we seek to explore the challenges legal education is facing and explore ways to rethink the (normative) foundations of academic legal education and to reflect on its aims, content and pedagogy. Email Bald de Vries – – if you are interested to participate in the workshop.

Engaging Students: Bridging the gap between abstract law and concrete life events

Bald de Vries (November 2017)

Imagining, hesitating, memorising through metaphors 

One thing that strikes me as a lecturer in law, is the distance between the abstract law and real-life events. Usually we present students with a set of facts, from which they have to distill the legal issue, translated into a question which they seek to answer based upon the law they study in the given course, be it contract law, administrative law or criminal law.

For students, the case study method, although based on facts, makes the law an abstract entity. There is a distance, indeed, and students merely engage in the legal analysis, not concerned with the correlation of law and life. We do not train students to bridge this gap and create in them a sense of empathy and ethical awareness when they engage in addressing legal questions. I say this, as law and legal problems stem from or based in real life trauma, of all sorts, chilling events.

It is this what struck me at the joined meeting of the Dutch Socio-Legal Studies Association and the Dutch Association for the Philosophy of Law, held on Friday 3 November in Utrecht. The theme of this meeting was in exploring new perspectives on active learning and teaching in legal education, from the perspective of jurisprudence and socio-legal studies.

The background to organising the theme is that the field of legal education is changing. On the one hand we see the development of new ‘supra’ legal programmes, in which law is combined with other disciplines, like economy, politics, philosophy and the like. On the other hand, we see new kinds of courses in existing programmes, such as courses like ‘law, society and justice’, or courses such as ‘perspectives on law’ and ‘ law and human behaviour’.

But what is striking, in my opinion, is that these developments see the study of law as instrumental and outward-looking, geared towards preparing students for practicing the law as an abstract entity. But this is insufficient. There is in inward looking aspect of the study of law. Indeed, these developments pose a variety of questions, pertaining to the status of ‘traditional’ jurisprudence and sociology of law courses. How can we engage students in thinking about the law fundamentally, both philosophically and sociologically? How to bridge the distance between the (perceived) abstract nature our disciplines and the imagination of our students?

Maksymilian del Mar addressed this fundamental question in a fundamental way, in his keynote address, setting the scene for the day. He stressed the importance of using metaphors and artefacts in order to allow the suspension of judgment. It enables, first, to submerge in the facts of a case and, second, to confront one’s prejudices and assumptions. This reflexivity strengthens, in the end, the legal judgment of students, as they realise the impact of law and the facts beneath it. It enables them to live the scenario the parties (real people) actually experienced.

This message translated in a variety of workshops in which lecturers showed how to engage and challenge students in thinking about law. Our Turkish guest lecturer, for example, confronts students with their prejudices about detainees in bringing them into contact with them. She uses the metaphor of the mirror first, challenging them to inspect what they see and don't see in the mirror, before confronting them with prisoners - teaching them both. The task is to explore to see the person and consider whether justice is done, or not. In other words, what Gülriz Uygur points to is the importance of ethical responsibility and the ability to emphatise.

In a way, Uygur’s point relates to the importance of observation and imagination. Law has an impact on social life and social life has an impact on law. Our students should be aware, already in their studies, that they carry responsibility - that they will be engaged in making decisions that impact upon the lives of people. Our type of courses can open up our students and contribute to the inward looking aspect of studying law, call it Bildung.

Climbing Bloom’s Stairway: The Case of Kevin Brooks

Arie-Jan Kwak (March 2018)

We need to talk about Kevin. I am not referring to the 2011 movie by Lynne Ramsay but to Kevin Brooks, one of the main figures in The Paper Chase. This successful film by James Bridges, followed by an even more successful television series, was based on a novel by Jay Osborn jr., a novel he wrote when he was a student at Harvard Law school. Especially Professor Kingsfield, a Oscar-winning role by John Houseman, makes a lasting impression. As he explains in the first class of the year Kingsfield teaches contract law using the ‘Socratic method’, and the class-room interrogations by Kingsfield are among the most powerful scenes in this classic movie. Kevin Brooks is one of the first year law students in Kingsfield’s class, his story is a particularly tragic one.

Soon after school starts Kevin Brooks joins a study group. The participators divide the subjects among each other to make summaries, and they discuss the various topics, all to prepare for the exams at the end of the academic year. Although he works very hard, things are not going well for Kevin, and during the year he gets more and more nervous. Kevin is under is under a lot of pressure: his wife is expecting a baby, and his wealthy father in law pays for his education, so failure is no option. However, he flunks all the practice exams. Furthermore, Kevin also fails to finish and share the outlines assigned to him, repeatedly claiming that they are almost ready. Just before the final exams Kevin collapses and does an attempt at suicide. The attempt is unsuccessful but it does spell the end of his time at Harvard. When he is gone, his fellow-students discover that the promised outlines are non-existent.

We are given hints at what is wrong with Kevin, at why he fails in law school. In an especially engaging class-room scene Kevin is interrogated by Kingsfield and, in an effort to divert the attention from the fact that he does not know the answer to Kingfield’s questions, Kevin tells the professor that he has a photographic memory. Kevin seems to be rather proud of this ability, but Kingsfield is not impressed: “A photographic memory is of absolutely no use to you Mr. Brooks without the ability to analyze that vast mass of facts between your ears.” Kingsfield’s remark is spot on, the ability to analyze seems to be exactly what Kevin lacks. Indeed, he may able to produce the right ‘photo’ at the right moment and, so to speak, read it aloud, but he is unable to truly understand, let alone analyze, this picture before his mind’s eye. His knowledge is therefore very literal and (therefore) highly superficial.

One is reminded of a scene in another movie. In Rain Main (1988) Dustin Hoffman plays what is sometimes called an idiot-savant: a severely autistic man who is at the same time incredibly knowledgeable on a certain subjects. His younger brother Charlie (Tom Cruise) takes Raymond on a tour but Charlie loses sight of Raymond in the middle of a town somewhere. Raymond walks around alone and decides to cross the street at a pedestrian crossing. When he is halfway the light changes from ‘walk’ to ‘don’t walk’. Raymond may be autistic but he knows how to read and therefore stops walking in the middle of the street. When the light turns green for the cars that are waiting for the crossing, the drivers are confronted with a man standing in front of the row of cars staring at a traffic light. Before things really get out of hand, Charlie finds his brother and pushes him of the crossing on to the pavement. It said don’t walk, Raymond says, it said don’t walk.

Kevin and Raymond can read, but they don’t seem to truly understand. You do not get into Harvard law school when you are severely autistic of course, but on a different level the problem seems very similar: they both remain stuck at the first step of Bloom’s famous pyramid. They are able to reproduce the literal phrases they see or hear – indeed Raymond’s knowledge on certain subjects is mind blowing – and they understand its literal meaning, but they are both somehow unable to read between the lines.

We all know that when you are in the middle of the crossing ‘don’t walk’ means ‘run’! Everybody who sees the bigger picture here, and everybody who knows the purpose these traffic lights serve in the larger context of traffic regulation and policies, understands this. This is the second step on Bloom’s pyramidal ‘stairway’: understanding. Both Kevin and Raymond fail to truly understand what they are dealing with; and that is also exactly why Kevin is unable to produce the outlines he promised. Kevin is unable to relate the bits and pieces of information in his head to a bigger picture; a bigger picture which includes the general purposes, values and policies that are served by the law. Only such an understanding of such purposes can help to distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant aspects of a case. Poor Kevin. He cannot distinguish the incidental from the essential, every detail seems equally important to him.

The Paper Chase scenes illustrate that understanding requires the ability to locate a particular bit of information in a larger context of general knowledge and experience. And if you do not see the purpose of it all, the use of the information offered, there is not a chance that you are able to apply the knowledge (the third step on Bloom’s pyramidal stairs) or “to analyze that vast mass of facts between your ears” (Bloom’s fourth step) which is, of course, an essential legal skill. Kingsfield prides himself in teaching exactly this. “You come in here with a skull full of mush, and you leave thinking like a lawyer,” he tells his students during their first day at law school. The Socratic method (or ‘case method’) is supposed to help the student climb the stairs from mere learning by rote and reproduction to the analysis of the legal materials. Whether Kingsfield truly succeeds in this is another matter, but his Socratic teaching style makes very good television indeed.