Teaching law in a lockdown

Ben Chester Cheong

The lockdown has increased my propensity for introspection. Of the many synapses of memories through my encephalon of late, one particularly stands out, i.e. teaching students through Zoom during the lockdown. While I have lived through the SARS epidemic and was in secondary 1 when it struck in 2003, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly been on an unprecedented scale. Hence, if I were to crystal ball gaze back then, it would still never have occurred to me that something so straightforward as teaching a face-to-face class would turn out to be such a precious affair many years later. 

During the first semester of 2020, I taught two law subjects, one 10-credit subject, LAW305 Contract & Civil Litigation (LAW305), with about 18 students in that tutor group, and another 5-credit subject, LAW301 Legal Methods & Singapore Legal System (LAW301), with about 26 students in that tutor group. LAW305 was taught over two terms while LAW301 commenced in term 2 and I had my first class on 12 March 2020. 

The second-year students I taught in the LAW305 program were not new to me. I had taught them previously when they enrolled for my 5-credit subject, LAW303 Law of Business Organisations (LAW303), in their first years. I had built up the rapport with them earlier on when they were first-year students and they were familiar with my teaching expectations. However, I had not taught the students in LAW301 before as they were first-year law students. Hence, my face-to-face interactions with the LAW301 students were extremely limited as I had only met them once for a face-to-face session on 12 March 2020. After that first and only face-to-face session, the remaining 5 other sessions were all conducted on the Zoom platform. Yet it was also one batch of students that I particularly enjoyed teaching as many remained steadfast in the face of adversity. To build rapport and maintain a line of communication during this trying period, I utilised the Whastapp for Business platform. The tutor-group student leader added my direct office line to their tutor group chats. Through these group chats, I shared many recent updates in the law with the students and discussed wide-ranging issues from course content and COVID-19, to the future of legal education.

In a previous post on the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) Facebook page, I explained how I used a range of technological tools to enhance the learning experience for LAW303, including the use of Kahoot!, Nearpod and Study.com video resources. For instance, I utilised the platform, ‘Nearpod’ for my teaching subjects to interact with students. Through an application on the platform, known as ‘Time to Climb’ (this is a highly interactive gamified activity that increases engagement with friendly classroom competition), I was able to achieve my learning objectives in an engaging manner. The platform also allowed me to deliver content directly to the students’ screens for a more interactive learning experience.

I also made use of another platform, ‘Kahoot!’, to design and deliver interactive timed-online quizzes for students on the LAW303 course. Kahoot! enabled me to add content after every quiz question to explain key concepts and relevant legal principles to students. I also made use of a range of relevant video materials from ‘Study.com’ to facilitate the teaching of LAW303. The videos with its illustrations and diagrams helped to further crystallise the students’ understanding of the course content. These were some of my teaching approaches before the onset of COVID-19. Through teaching and course evaluations, students have consistently rated these learning tools very highly and praised its effectiveness in enhancing their learning journey, since some of these law courses can be challenging. To adapt to the dynamics of online learning during the lockdown, I created YouTube videos for the remaining classes on the Zoom platform. I also anticipated that online learning would continue for the second semester of 2020 (I teach LAW303 during the second semester). Hence, I converted the didactic segments of the live online teaching sessions to pre-prepared lecture recordings (which I have hosted on the YouTube platform, on an access by link-only basis, for students’ convenience).

To facilitate this process and to make the videos more interactive, I have supplemented the creation of some of these ‘PowerPoint’ slides with the use of ‘Camtasia’, a video editing software. This freed up the time for a more interactive discussion during the Zoom sessions, which was better at captivating students’ attention as compared to a chalk-and-talk method of teaching. The challenge with using a myriad of technological interfaces on the Zoom platform was that it added slightly more complexity for the less technologically savvy student to toggle through the different screens (users of Nearpod and Kahoot! would understand) and less technologically inclined students might find it slightly discombobulating. Hence, creating YouTube lectures that are longer in duration than the usual chunk lectures do help students in their quietude to adjust to the pace of online learning.

Teaching entirely online with no face-to-face sessions has also become a modus vivendi which one would not have thought possible just a semester ago. While there is a push towards entirely online learning for many years now, COVID-19 has increased the pace of this development. I would never have imagined that it would be possible to teach from home had I actually not taught students this semester on Zoom. Yet, the Zoom platform has been facilitative. It has enabled students who would not normally speak up in class to speak up. While we are all far apart, it has actually brought the classroom closer into the students’ homes. If COVID-19 had happened when video conferencing technology was not as advanced as present, the circumstances would have been very different. It would have brought interactions necessary for business and education to a complete standstill.  That is the silver lining to be grateful for. 

The lockdown has increased the pace of uncertainty in our lives. Many students I taught have recounted their personal stories and resolute aspirations to become a lawyer. They are extremely determined and relentless in their pursuit to practice community law for the betterment of society. Yet one acknowledges the anxieties and struggles these students face as they live through a very challenging milieu. 

One student related to me how as a police officer he had to perform essential duties during the circuit breaker. This meant extended shifts. On 21 April 2020, he shared with his fellow students on his WhatsApp group that he had not seen his wife and his son in more than a month due to the need for social distancing in his line of work. In spite of this, he submitted his tutor-marked assignments on time and tried his level best to attend all my Zoom classes. He even recounted how he was functioning on little sleep in order to juggle work, university and family. The law programme is indeed a rigorous program. Yet, a majority of the students persevere and manage in spite of their challenges and struggles. COVID-19 has increased the stress on our students, especially those at the frontline performing essential services. 

To those who constantly experience a nagging feeling of whether the choices they have made would end up being the right ones many years later especially in light of COVID-19, I encourage them to read the poem, ‘Desiderata’ by Max Ehrmann. I have also shared this with all my students that I teach. The poem really stuck a chord with me, especially the words in the final stanza, ‘And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.’ This has definitely been one of the better advices amidst the gloom of COVID-19.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Ben Chester Cheong is a Lecturer, Law Programmes at the School of Law, Singapore University of Social Sciences. He also serves as an Of Counsel with RHTLaw Asia LLP. 

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