By Susan Gluss
Bill Fernholz stares into a video camera a few feet away as an assistant dabs powder on his face to blunt the harsh light. It wasn’t how he’d imagined himself teaching when he joined the law faculty 14 years ago, but it’s become second nature to him now. Welcome to Berkeley Law Online.
Fernholz teaches Fundamentals of U.S. Law, the school’s first official online course. It comes one year after a pilot online class on intellectual property taught by Professor Molly Van Houweling. That yearlong gap reflects a carefully planned and purposeful move to begin offering select courses online—initially for prospective LL.M. students and foreign attorneys with international caseloads.
Why the leap online? Approximately 6.7 million higher education students were taking at least one online course in fall 2011, an increase of 570,000 students from the previous year, according to the Babson Survey Research Group. Online ed is here to stay, but the key to success is how you do it, said Professor Andrew Guzman, associate dean of Berkeley Law’s advanced degree program. Some of the early MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) gave the field a bad reputation.
“We deliberately chose an anti-MOOC strategy,” Guzman said. “Our courses will be high-touch and interactive. Many will have been taught successfully in bricks-and-mortar classrooms and then re-built from the ground up for online delivery. For students, it’ll be like a small, engaged community, with an instructor leading the way.”
Another reason for the online foray is to “influence what it is, and how we interact and build it” Guzman said. Even though the ABA hasn’t approved a fully online J.D. program, it does accept up to 12 credits of online courses and may increase that amount slightly. It’s a reflection of the times—and the need to expand access to legal education.
“Online courses have the fantastic ability to reach thousands of people that we can’t reach in classrooms alone,” Guzman said, particularly professionals seeking to study a niche area of the law. It essentially expands the law school’s reach into untapped audiences worldwide, as the school’s international executive education program has been doing for years.
Skeptical at first, Guzman now embraces online teaching, if it maintains the quality and integrity of a live class. He isn’t the only convert.
“I never thought an online course could be as good as the real thing,” Fernholz said, after the day’s taping wrapped. “But I soon realized that online experiences could be just as intense and important as those in the classroom.”
Enriched online discussions
In Fernholz’s traditional LL.M. course on U.S. law, students introduce themselves online and start building relationships—even before school begins. They form a global community that enriches class discussions, a fact not lost on Alan Roper, the lead online instructional designer who sat in on the course.
“The class discussion was incredible. So many students were eager to comment on their own country’s constitution and how it determined foreign policy.” Online, the potential was even greater, he thought. “Hundreds more would have the chance to comment in real time—the equivalent of seven or eight classes. That’s how rich an online discussion can be,” Roper said.
Roper and instructional designer Kara Ganter worked closely with Fernholz and Van Houweling to custom-design their courses. The online elements engage students with interactive forums, videotaped lectures, narrated screencasts, and more. Quizzes, team projects, and high-profile guest interviews can help make a difference between a poor online course and a great one.
“The designers are absolutely crucial,” Fernholz said. They “open vistas” about teaching, not just online, but in person, too.
Roper explained their role matter of factly: “Our job is to get into the engine room of the course—the nuts and bolts of it.” He and Ganter focus on key learning objectives: what students ought to know—and be able to do—by the end of the course.
The collaboration inspired Van Houweling to rethink her intellectual property class.
“I wanted to take advantage of the interactivity that’s built into the technology,” Van Houweling said. Since students could repeat her taped lectures whenever they wanted, she allowed more time for thoughtful discussion. She also added online office hours for one-on-one student engagement.
“The students encouraged me to devote our real-time together to talk and reflect on the material, which was extremely rewarding. They offered a European or Latin American perspective and compared notes about the approaches taken by their individual countries. It got to the point where I could sit back, enjoy it, and learn from their exchange,” she said.
It was the first online course for student Matthew Malady, who “assumed it would be kind of a lonesome endeavor.” On the contrary. It “surpassed my every expectation,” he wrote in an email.
“It provided everything one would expect from a top-flight law school: expert instruction; interesting and thought-provoking assignments; opportunities to share ideas and learn from classmates; and all the other hallmarks of an enriching scholarly experience. I was surprised at how quickly I found myself digging into the material and engaging with my classmates on the topics we covered.”
Instructor plays key role
Online courses may open up a world of possibilities, but core principles of successful teaching still apply. Despite the hi-tech wizardry, the instructor plays a crucial role. It all comes down to the interaction, Fernholz said.
“Students want to interact with a human, not with a machine,” said Fernholz, who’s also the director of the law school’s appellate and competitions programs. “’High-touch’ means feedback and motivation. Students need to learn new skills, and we need to keep them motivated.”
Feedback is essential, agrees Roper. It gives students a clearer sense of what’s expected and how their progress is measured. For the lead designer, these courses represent “a new frontier” for the law school, and its first official class is a “flagship” that ranks among the most innovative.