Rising to the challenge: how our students are staff are thriving online

Remote learning
ANU College of Law students engage in a Zoom discussion with Dr Esme Shirlow during International Investment Treaty Law and Arbitration (LAWS8336/4306).

The students were amazing on Zoom – they came prepared and ready to contribute to the class discussions and made this teaching setting much more dynamic and enjoyable than I anticipated.

If there’s one word that encapsulates students and staff at The Australian National University (ANU) College of Law in 2020, it’s “resilience”. From bushfires and hailstorms to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been a challenging year for everyone (and it's only June)!

Our community’s resilience has come to the fore in adapting to a new and – at times – isolating world of online learning. Although there have been moments of confusion (“you need to unmute yourself!”) and Kambri caffeine withdrawals, it’s been a journey made easier by the collegiality that has come to the fore.

In this Q&A, we check in with one of our lecturers, Dr Esmé Shirlow, and students in her postgraduate course Principles of International Law (LAWS8182) to learn about their transition and tips for thriving in online study.

For some students, engaging in discussions is easier online than in face-to-face lessons. Photo: Startup Stock Photos/Pexels

What was your opinion of remote education prior to COVID-19?

Until this semester, I had only ever taught in-person classes so up until recently I had very little exposure to online teaching. My main concern was that online delivery of an intensive course might detract from the network-building and discussions that can take place more organically in classroom settings. In my opinion, these features are major advantages of the on-campus Master of Laws (LLM) program, which provides students with an intensive on-campus experience and chance to get to know their peers. 

How have your classes changed since teaching went online? Did attendance increase and were your students more engaged?

My teaching style relies heavily on class discussions and engagement with students. Something I found particularly challenging with the conversion to online was the loss of many of the interpersonal cues I use to check understanding as I introduce students to the course materials. I found pre-recording lectures particularly challenging for this reason as the lack of real-time student interaction was a big change to my teaching practice. Engaging with students, and checking their understanding of the materials, was much easier in the Zoom discussions and through the Wattle forums and emails. I didn’t notice a particular change in attendance (particularly as attendance is required for LLM courses) and for the most part students were as engaged as they would be in class. One advantage of online delivery was that students who were stuck overseas due to closed borders could still engage with the courses, including through both synchronous and asynchronous activities. 

Do you think conducting Zoom sessions has helped with building relationships with your students?

The Zoom discussions worked surprisingly well. I think that we managed to largely replicate in-class discussions through the use of breakout rooms, and through the raised hands and chat functions. The students were amazing on Zoom – they came prepared and ready to contribute to the class discussions and made this teaching setting much more dynamic and enjoyable than I anticipated. We also managed to use Zoom to have organic discussions both before and after class, but I think that relationship-building remains much easier in person, particularly for an intensive class!

What other challenges have you faced with the transition to online learning and how have you overcome them?

My major challenge was that there was very little lead-time to convert both of my courses for online delivery. Balancing the conversion to online with my pre-existing research and service commitments meant a month of extremely long hours. I also encountered various inevitable technical glitches along the way, including having to re-record a number of lectures (fortunately, this at least means that some of my more impromptu law jokes might never be heard by students!). These issues were made considerably more manageable due to the masterful support of Melissa Drummond from the LLM Course Support team. Mel’s patience and incredible assistance throughout the two courses, including over public holidays, were invaluable. She really went above and beyond, and I am very grateful for her support. The Library staff also assisted me to overcome various challenges, including by hyperlinking my reading lists and developing and delivering a Zoom research seminar for one of my courses that went over extremely well with the students. 

Will you continue with online learning after COVID-19?

I think online delivery can have potential, particularly for a field like international law. Ultimately, its success depends very much on making available appropriate infrastructure, resources, and training for course conveners and support staff. It has worked well given the current circumstances, but I would definitely hesitate to use it as a replacement for the on-campus experience in more normal times!

What tips can you give other educators about teaching online?

Based on my two intensive courses, it worked well to have a diversity of delivery modes (pre-recorded lectures, Zoom group and sub-group discussions, Wattle forum activities, etc). Staggering these throughout the day also made the course feel more layered and immersive. I experimented with this over the two courses, and the best approach seemed to be alternating activities so that pre-recorded lectures were interspersed with in-person activities. Other things that worked well included:

  • Releasing a detailed schedule in advance (or as far in advance as circumstances permitted) so that students could plan their engagement throughout the week. Many students noted their employers were being less generous with study leave given that courses were moving online, and/or they had to navigate attendance amongst caring responsibilities, so this helped them to negotiate time off for at least the synchronous activities.
  • Releasing lectures at least a day in advance of their scheduled slot, so that students could access them flexibly depending on their time-zone, work, caring, or other commitments.
  • Adapting the assessment to reflect the online delivery mode. I found that this incentivised students to get engaged online and opened up fascinating and detailed discussions they might otherwise not have had, even on campus.
  • Emailing or having some contact with each student individually at some point throughout the course to check how they were tracking and to acknowledge their contributions to the class atmosphere on Zoom, on Wattle, or in other ways.
  • Asking students to introduce themselves in the Wattle forum. This replaced an activity I often do in the first session of courses, and was very helpful to get a sense of student backgrounds and course goals. It also helped the students to get to know each other and build a sense of camaraderie amongst the group.
  • Converting reading lists to refer only to online open access materials. This has been something I have done in previous courses to enhance equity and accessibility, but it worked particularly well in the current circumstances given that students could not necessarily get books delivered or access libraries.
  • I heard concerning reports from colleagues overseas about ‘Zoombombing’. Using passwords and non-publicly advertised Zoom session details helped to ensure this didn’t become an issue in either of my courses.
  • Automatically recording Zoom sessions so that students could be provided ad hoc access if their internet played up, or they otherwise were unable to attend certain sessions (including due to time differences).
  • Building in opportunities throughout the course to ask questions or participate in different ways. One thing I noticed from student emails is that some students were unable to participate actively in Zoom discussions because they were studying at the kitchen table with other family members. This meant they could follow along but not necessarily participate verbally. Diversifying participation options was therefore important, for example through the chat function in Zoom, Wattle forums, or activities based on polling or hand raising.
  • Overall, I found it important to be very flexible with students – both in recognition of the difficult situation in which we find ourselves, but also to iron out potential equity issues associated with the timing of activities and their mode of delivery. 

ANU College of Law offers a range of support and wellbeing services to help students thrive academically and personally during their online studies. Photo: ANU/Flickr

Fernanda Benini Kiehl Noronha

Principles of International Law was always intended as an intensive course, but like everyone, we had to move online. At first, I was a little sceptical about how this would turn out – intensives are a lot of work and I thought it would be too exhausting and even impractical to have day-long classes over the internet. But Dr Shirlow surprised me with a well-structured, dynamic, and very creative course delivery plan.

Our week-long course was divided into pre-recorded lectures, Wattle forum discussions, and Zoom discussions/interactive activities. So while we were over the Internet the whole time, this didn't take away the chance for us to get to know each other and have heaps of discussions with Dr Shirlow. Also, the fact that all activities were planned in advance was really helpful because, as I'm currently home (very far from Australia), time difference could be a real challenge for me. Luckily, though, the way the course was structured from the start left very little for me to resolve. We had pre-recorded lectures and Wattle forum discussions which I could engage with at any time. Moreover, Dr Shirlow was super flexible by recording some of the interactive Zoom sessions I couldn't attend due to time difference. I truly feel like I missed nothing from being on a different continent at the time of our classes. I thank everyone involved in planning and preparing the course, Dr Shirlow in particular.

Simon Callaghan

The preparation of the lecture material so that it can be consumed on-demand was really critical to my successful engagement with the course as I live in New York and there are challenges presented by the timezone difference. I really appreciate the effort and thought that Dr Shirlow put in upfront to organise and structure the class so effectively. The blended online class engagement activities enabled us to connect not only with our coursework, but perhaps more importantly with our classmates and Esme herself. As university teaching increasingly moves online, Principles of International Law should be the format replicated for any future online intensive classes at ANU. It is definitely one of the best online delivery courses I have taken.

Snezana Tanevska

Thank you, Dr Shirlow, for the personal effort you took to make the class both fun and engaging in the current circumstances. The online courses are working a lot better than I could have ever imagined.

Dr Esme Shirlow

Senior Lecturer

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team