“The wheels firmly on the bus” Reflections on teaching a new module in the ‘new normal’

by Jeanette Ashton & Paolo Oprandi

About the authors

Jeanette Ashton is a Lecturer in Law and a Non-Practising solicitor, having joined the University of Sussex after 8 years at Brighton University.  She teaches Contract law, Equity and Trusts and Understanding Law.  Her research interests are legal education, whistleblowing and contract law.  She is Employability lead for the Law School and co-leads the CLOCK legal companion scheme.

Paolo Oprandi is a Doctor in Education with a colourful and varied academic background. He is currently working at the University of Sussex as a Senior Learning Technologist in the Technology Enhanced Learning team. He has an interest in technology in teaching, curriculum design and assessment and enhancing the student learning experience so that students can make the most of their years in education.

“The wheels firmly on the bus” Reflections on teaching a new module in the ‘new normal’

There is no doubt the 2020/21 academic year has presented educators with unprecedented challenges, and I cannot help feeling a sense of relief at having made it through the Autumn semester without, as one of my colleagues said ‘the wheels having fallen off the bus’.  I want to reflect on the effectiveness of learning and teaching techniques I used in delivering Understanding Law, a module for first year non-law students on the Legal Studies pathway, which I convened for the first time.

Introducing Flipped Learning

Dr Paolo Oprandi and I have explored the flipped learning approach. Many advantages have been found with this approach including more students meeting and exceeding the learning outcomes (Lee & Choi 2019) and more students taking self-regulated learning approaches to learning (van Alten et al 2020). It is a curriculum design where the content that the student is expected to learn is presented before a face-to-face session via a recorded lecture presentation, an academic paper and/or any other medium that students can engage with in their own time. The face-to-face session is used to discuss, analyse and critique the learning material with the tutor present. It is called a flipped curriculum design as it sits in contrast with curricula that present the learning material during the face-to-face teaching session and confine opportunities for students to discuss, analyse and critique the material to homework tasks and reading groups when the tutor is not present. The major worry for academics taking this approach is that students engage with the learning material before a taught session.

Planning the module delivery

With the benefit of having attended various TEL training sessions during the summer, I decided to utilise Panopto to frontload preparation via short, pre-recorded lectures.  To facilitate communication and engagement I planned to use the Padlet tool and Zoom quizzes within live, follow-up lecture sessions.  When planning the module, for around 75 students, I did not know who would be delivering the four two-hour seminars, so I took the decision to run these as synchronous online sessions.   

The key objective of Understanding Law is to give students a solid foundation as to how law is made, interpreted and developed, an overview of human rights law, and the different types of public and private law, alongside a working understanding of the court system of England and Wales.  This equips them with the legal skills necessary for the subsequent modules on the Legal Studies pathway.  The usual form of delivery is via live two-hour lectures and two-hour seminars.  Particularly as this was my first time convening the module, and mindful that arrangements for students starting in September were uncertain, for each topic I decided to record 3 x half-hour content sessions, with a Padlet wall on Canvas for each, which I would then use to build a live dual mode session, complemented by an in-lecture quiz. 

Students’ views

To find out how the students felt about the flipped learning approach and the effectiveness of the Padlet tool, Paolo and I drew up a Qualtrics survey, to ask how this approach compared with other modules without pre-recorded material, how effective they had found Padlet, and their thoughts on the live session quizzes.  The response was low, to date only around 15% of the cohort, and this may be partly due to survey fatigue, and perhaps if I had been able to see more students in person, they would have been more inclined to complete. 

Students’ views on pre-recorded content

Despite the limitations however, the qualitative responses are interesting. On the pre-recorded content, a common response was that this enabled the students to manage their time, work independently outside of the live lecture, pause and take notes, and replay parts which needed clarification. 

In our study, students were able to access the pre-recorded materials ahead of the live session and the corresponding seminars. I had the peace of mind that, whatever the semester might bring, the content was there. Many of the students appreciated the recorded lectures saying,

 “[They gave] context to the required readings”

“I was able to take notes effectively at my own pace, since I was able to pause the recording and re-listen to parts I was unable to understand the first time I heard it.”

The live sessions that followed the students watching the pre-recorded lectures worked well. However, one respondent, whilst stating the benefits of doing the work in their own time, felt that the pre-recorded content ‘lacked a personal feel’. The first of these was online only, while room capacity issues were finalised, and the remainder were dual mode, though in person attendance dropped off towards the end of the module, with the majority of students choosing to access via Zoom. 

Personal reflection and students’ views on Padlet

During the sessions I used Padlet to ask questions of the students’ understanding and students to pose questions back to me. The combination of building in additional content to address questions raised on the Padlet wall, Zoom polls to check understanding, and questions via the Zoom chat function in the session, facilitated engagement and connection, albeit in a different way from usual. 

This was the first time I had used the Padlet tool.  At the beginning of the module, students needed a lot of encouragement to post questions, and it took a little time to direct students away from emailing questions to me, and instead to post on the Padlet wall.  However, once they got used to this, comparing with my experience of other modules, this proved more effective than the Canvas Discussion Board.  Perhaps this is because it is more visual, sitting alongside the topic materials, rather than accessing via another window.  It was also easier to see other students’ questions and to know that these will be covered in the live follow up session, avoiding duplication. The students appreciated my efforts; one stated,

“[Padlet] was a really effective way of bringing up a question and making the seminar more useful”

On the live session quizzes, the responses were largely positive, for example,

 ‘I found it motivating to stay on task and up-to-date on lectures’

‘I was able to check my own understandings of some terms and the system of English Law’. 

One student stated that the questions were simplistic and that there wasn’t an incentive to get the answers correct, but hopefully they found the seminars, which required them to analyse a case on the theme of the legal topic area, more challenging.  I deliberately made the quizzes anonymous, to encourage students to answer without fear of getting the answer wrong and participation in the lectures for the quizzes was always 80%+, which was encouraging. 

The students were asked to rate the effectiveness of the Padlet tool.  Again, acknowledging the low response rate, most responses were ‘highly effective’ or ‘somewhat effective’, with a couple of respondents answering ‘neither effective nor ineffective’.  As I had set up the Padlet walls as anonymous, to encourage students to post questions no matter how minor they might be, it is impossible to say how many students engaged with the Padlet.  The anonymity was appreciated by at least one of the students who mentioned,

[I found it] good for asking questions anonymously”

However, even if a student did not personally use a Padlet wall, it was effective in ensuring they were all able to access the same information, either through the live session, which they could also access afterwards, or by the answers on the Padlet wall itself, as per the Assessment Padlet wall below:

Screenshot for padlet wall with Q&As on assessment.
Assessment Padlet

Final reflections

My concluding thoughts on the learning and teaching experience of the Understanding Law module this semester are that I did not feel I built the same connections with the students as in ‘normal’ times, with solely in person two-hour lectures and the rapport which those bring.  However, despite that, I feel that the overall learning experience was positive, that the students were on the whole engaged, and the feedback from the tutors running the seminars supported this. 

I am looking forward to seeing the AB1 assessments and feel confident that the module has succeeded in getting the students where they need to be for the rest of their pathway programme.  The Padlet tool has been effective in facilitating communication with the students and in giving them the opportunity to play an active role in shaping the live sessions (Fuchs 2014)  I have already designed the Padlet walls for my two core spring law modules, but this time giving the students the facility to edit and respond to posts to help each other, which I hope will facilitate collaboration. Now just to plan the rest…….

References

van Alten, D.C., Phielix, C., Janssen, J. and Kester, L., 2020. Self-regulated learning support in flipped learning videos enhances learning outcomes. Computers & Education158, p.104000.

Fuchs, B., 2014. The writing is on the wall: using Padlet for whole-class engagement. LOEX Quarterly40(4), p.7.

Lee, J. and Choi, H., 2019. Rethinking the flipped learning pre‐class: Its influence on the success of flipped learning and related factors. British Journal of Educational Technology50(2), pp.934-945.

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  1. […] Law at Sussex) and Paulo Oprandi (Senior Learning Technologist at Sussex). It is cross-posted from DARE to Transform and the Law Teacher blog. Republished with […]

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