July 29, 2020

Paralegal Education and Engagement in the Time of COVID-19

Kristine Farmer, Ph.D., Litigation Consulting Analyst, Perkins Coie LLP, and Adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice, University of North Texas

As the Fall semester quickly approaches, many of our colleges and universities are still grappling with the seemingly impossible decision whether to offer face-to-face classes, online or remote classes, or a hybrid thereof. Indeed, several universities will offer principally remote instruction and limited campus-based instruction, with many moving exclusively to remote/online delivery following the Thanksgiving holiday break.[1]

As educators, we face a myriad of challenges not the least of which is the need for agility in shifting from on-campus instruction to remote or online delivery,[2] coupled with the associated stress of redesigning our courses to fit within the distance learning frame. When you add the importance of student-to-student, student-to-instructor, and student-to-content engagement, the workload can seem immense and intimidating.  Our students also face their own challenges that bring significant stress, including balancing their remote and online coursework, their employment, and other personal and family obligations. Just as instructors have an underlying fear of being back on campus amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and all of the associated unknowns, so too do our students.

Finding ways to bridge this remote delivery divide, especially when you may have been accustomed to only teaching face-to-face courses, is key to our success in the coming months. To that end, focusing on student engagement is likely a good starting point. Effective online learning focuses on the learning community. Using the Community of Inquiry framework, the instructor and student form a community of online learning that encompasses three elements: cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence.[3] Social presence is crucial to the online paralegal classroom, where a student’s sense of belonging in the course as well as the ability to engage with other students and the instructor are fundamental to learning.

Effective online learning focuses on the learning community.

Effective online learning focuses on the learning community.

Just as traditional face-to-face class instruction is more than lecturing, so too is online course delivery more than the mere use of PowerPoint presentations provided by the publisher, asynchronous discussion boards, and weekly quizzes.  When designing online courses, instructors should apply instructional design techniques that facilitate participation and interaction to foster student-to-student, student-to-instructor, and student-to-content engagement. To be sure, instructors can leverage technology so they can become equally as effective in their online classroom as they are in the traditional classroom by adopting technological competencies.  Instructors can augment textbooks and course materials with personal stories and current events available through online videos and blogs. Instructors can also use social media, group texting (such as GroupMe), embedded videos, photos, or other multimedia to foster learning and underscore important concepts. Those instructors who teach online (asynchronous) classes should consider incorporating synchronous aspects, such as live blogging, synchronous office hours, and online chats.  Instructors can record video introductions to weekly course content to lay the foundation for the week’s learning, which can be more engaging than a written, narrative introduction. Also, instructors can create GroupMe texting chatrooms for their classes as a way to provide more immediate and engaging responses to student questions about, for example, course readings, written assignments, or general content questions in a less formal setting than electronic mail.  Importantly, this method will engage Millennial and Gen Z students. Further, this mimics the instant messaging feature so many law firms and corporations use to help ease the burden of the always overflowing email inbox.

The online classroom mimics the kind of virtual or remote teams that law firms, corporations, and other employers of paralegals have necessarily embraced in today’s COVID-19 work environment. We should view this as a crucial opportunity to give our students a sense for how remote teams operate and to better prepare them to communicate, receive assignments, respond to and collaborate with their teams, and manage expectations.

Finally, it is important to remember that we are human, and as humans, we are influenced by the world around us and the endless news reports of the adverse impact of COVID-19. As Anne Murphy Brown wrote in her blog, we can not discount the importance of “self-care, support, and awareness needed to maintain good mental health.”  We should treat ourselves and our students well as we navigate our way through this pandemic, which includes practicing grace and presuming good will. Uncertainty is seemingly ubiquitous, and we are being asked to perform extraordinary work in our online course design and instruction on a scale unlike anything we have been asked to do at any other time in our careers. But, with thoughtful planning to foster and increase student engagement in our online classrooms, we can emerge in a better position to leverage what we have learned to strengthen and improve our online delivery for future courses.

I wish you the best of luck for the upcoming semester.  Please take good care.

[1] Inside Higher Education, COVID-19 Roundup: More Universities Announce Online Plans (Jul. 7, 2020), https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/07/07/coronavirus-roundup-more-universities-announce-plans-largely-online-fall-terms

[2] In this context, “remote instruction” is synonymous with synchronous online delivery and “online delivery” is synonymous with asynchronous online delivery.

[3] D. Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson & Walter Archer, Critical Thinking, Cognitive Presence, and Computer Conferencing in Distance Education, 15 Am. J. of Distance Educ.1, 7‐23 (2001).