Keeping it real: bringing practical dimensions into online teaching

Pamela Henderson sets out how to bring real world training into the online classroom by developing effective simulated case studies, based on her experience teaching law

Pamela Henderson's avatar
Nottingham Trent University
30 Nov 2021
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Advice on bringing real world practical training into the online classroom through case studies

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Learning needs to have real-world relevance if it is to be meaningful, and if we want students to engage with it enthusiastically.  Problem-based learning is popular in law, but often presents students with a document setting out all the relevant information and no irrelevant information. This does not reflect real life, where information is spread across documents and oral narratives. Its bland presentation can be uninspiring in an online classroom.

Moreover, some tutors love disaster scenarios, as if the law only applies when things go wrong. This is understandable when teaching crime, where no one expects characters to be nice to each other, but must every seminar in contract law start and end in breach? This approach risks producing students who can tell you that a contractual provision is unenforceable but cannot redraft it. They know that trustees will be in breach of trust if they make an unsuitable investment but they can’t identify a better alternative. If we only teach our students through the lens of failure, how can we expect them to get things right in the real world? 

So, how can we represent real life in an online, academic classroom?

One answer is: simulated case studies. These give students a genuine feel for the clients, the dilemmas they face, and what really matters to them. Simulations require students to identify relevant information, discard irrelevant information, and engage with the personalities involved.

However, simulated case studies must be crafted to ensure students achieve the relevant learning outcomes; what should they know, and what should they be able to do, as a result of engaging in the case study? This must guide both the content of a case study and the nature of the activities associated with it.

Developing effective case study narratives

Case studies should be based around common situations, so students see the real-world usefulness of what they are studying. Professional contacts and partners may provide outlines. Bear in mind that more recent entrants to any profession will likely have a better understanding of the role of a newly recruited graduate, and what their knowledge and skills gaps are likely to be.  

An outline case study then needs to be developed into detailed documentation. A key question to ask is: How would this look if it was happening in the real world? Realistic materials can be produced via ubiquitous software, such as Microsoft Office, in formats that are easy to share across multiple online platforms.

For example, rather than presenting students with a single document containing the complete narrative, spread it across correspondence, financial data and other documents.  Similarly, audio recordings can simulate an external interaction, such as a police interview with an individual suspected of a crime. Situate case studies literally in the real world via the use of maps or virtual site visits.

Sourcing supplementary learning materials

Once the case study is ready, the next step is to develop activities around it. First, focus upon developing understanding of the core principles, rather than leading with exceptions.

Start with the materials provided to students before class. Recorded lectures can be tailored to suit the particular focus of the module, but consider external materials too, especially those that are not in written form. There are many professionally produced videos freely available online, which will not only save you time but may be better than what you could produce. 

For example, the UK Parliament has a video showing how a bill becomes law. The judiciary website has videos for members of the public who have been called for jury service, which give law students a flavour of what happens in a criminal trial. 

Don’t overlook wider resources; a colleague has used Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech to great effect when exploring the use of voice and language in advocacy. Likewise, clips from TV and film productions can illuminate real-life situations for students. The aim is to communicate essential pre-class information for students, but in a manner that is engaging, realistic and stimulates their desire to engage in classroom activities.

Designing the case study class activities

In terms of in-class activities, align these to the tasks that a new recruit will be asked to undertake in the workplace, but try to give them a flavour of the whole transaction across a series of activities.

For example, in the context of contract law, you might initially ask students to undertake a mock interview with a client. Later, they could check draft Heads of Terms, to see if they reflect what the parties have agreed.  Another activity might require them to identify a clause in a draft contract that is flawed or unenforceable, and then redraft it so they learn how to get it right. Try to structure activities so that they lend themselves to small group, online collaboration, with a tangible output, to support engagement and produce a sense of achievement. Make sure you leave time for whole group feedback, and some form of plenary with the tutor; this is reassuring for students, while also giving you a clear sense of what they are actually learning.

Post-class consolidation of learning

Learning should not stop as soon as the online class finishes. Post-class consolidation is invaluable, but if left to their own devices, a student may do no more than tidy up their notes. Tutors should suggest specific activities for students, with a clear statement of the purpose of asking them to do it.  Try not to suggest the same type of activity after every class but mix it up to maintain interest and encourage students to explore the subject more widely.

For example, offer them a new activity with a twist on the facts of the classroom case study, or get them to check their understanding of a tricky issue by evaluating a sample of written work. Consider asking them to read an article or blog post from someone with a very different perspective on the issue. Build in some collaborative activities too, such as peer review or the creation of a small “learning object” to ensure that students have ongoing contact with each other outside class.

Finally, don’t forget to check online metrics, and tailor your module evaluations, to ensure you gain data on what resources students use and value.

Pamela Henderson is a senior lecturer in law at Nottingham Trent University.


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