Seattle U Law faculty quickly pivot to online teaching during COVID-19 crisis

April 03, 2020

In early March, as the spread of the coronavirus was beginning to accelerate, Seattle University made a difficult yet necessary decision: to protect the health and safety of students, classes would no longer meet in person, and all instruction would take place exclusively online. Practically overnight, the Seattle U Law faculty found themselves having to adapt their courses to the virtual world.

“I am immensely proud of the way the faculty immediately went to work to ensure that they would be able to deliver their classes remotely, with an extremely small window of time to make this change,” said Dean Annette E. Clark ’89. “Thanks to their efforts, we’ve ensured that our students are able to finish out the semester and continue to make progress toward completing their degree without missing a beat.”

Faculty tapped into a range of resources, including online programs and tools, to make the online learning experience as similar as possible to traditional classroom learning. In the process, they have discovered benefits to the online-only format.

Some faculty, like Margaret Chon, Donald and Lynda Horowitz Professor for the Pursuit of Justice, were well-positioned for this change. This semester, she had been teaching one of her two courses in a hybrid format, with a mix of in-person classes and online components. Because of her experience developing this course, Chon could more easily move both of her courses entirely online.

“I was skeptical at first about online education, but I’ve found that it provides a variety of ways to complement and enhance the curriculum,” she said. “Plus, it provides valuable flexibility to my students.”

Most, however, were in the position of Professor Deborah Ahrens, who considers herself “low tech” and had never taught an online class. Yet she is surprised by how well the transition has gone, in part because of the ease of using tools like Zoom, a web-based program that facilitates virtual meetings.

“I’m holding live Zoom lectures online and calling on students the way I normally would. I thought it was going to be a lot harder than it’s been,” she said.

Professor Mark Chinen feels there are some advantages to teaching online. With a program like Zoom, “it’s easier to present and share material on the screen, especially legal documents. And the chat function is particularly useful – students can continually feed me questions, and I pause every so often to read and address them,” he said. “It’s a great way to gauge understanding of material in real time.”

To be sure, it hasn’t all gone smoothly, with this unprecedented situation creating stress and uncertainty for everyone, including faculty and students.

“As a faculty, we are trying to approach this as professionals,” Chinen said. “Lawyers are trained to deal with stressful situations, and it’s our responsibility to model how we should handle these situations for our students.” He has also been impressed with the way the faculty have supported each other. “We have done a great job of sharing best practices and ideas.”

Professor Laurel Oates has made a point to connect virtually with her legal writing students during this period of social isolation. “Some of our students are facing a huge number of challenges. I’ve been hosting informal coffee hours [via Zoom] where we talk with each other about how things are going, to provide support,” she said.

While some faculty have had to take a crash course in online teaching, many Seattle U Law students are comfortable in an exclusively online/digital environment, which made the transition less jarring.

Amanda Simantov ’21 felt relief at Seattle U’s online-only instruction announcement, which would limit her exposure to the virus. Thus far, her classes are going well.

“I’m having a really positive experience so far with my online classes,” she said. “Two of my classes are live instruction through Zoom. Both professors have been prepared with slide presentations and are engaging students through the Socratic Method. My other two classes are prerecorded. One of the prerecorded classes has an online discussion module following the lectures where students work through hypotheticals together.”

Faculty accustomed to traditional classroom teaching have experienced some downsides, most notably the difficulty of “reading the room.”

“It’s hard to replicate the immediacy of the live classroom and to measure student engagement,” Chinen said. “It’s impossible to see everyone in the class, but students have been great about volunteering and participating.”

And while Simantov likes being able to reclaim her commute time to campus, she misses connecting with her professors and fellow students in person.

No one wants the current period of social distancing to persist for the long term, but if there is a silver lining, the crisis had helped to build the law faculty’s online teaching expertise.

“Because we plan to transition our current part-time program to an online hybrid format in fall of 2021, it has been helpful for professors to have this experience, which will only assist us in developing the best possible curriculum for our part-time students,” Clark said.