We sat down (virtually) with Ronald J. Colombo, Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Distance Education, for a Q&A to talk about distance education at Hofstra Law and the shift to all online classes in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Professor Colombo recently published “Teaching a Synchronous Online Business Organizations Course to J.D. Students: A Case Study.” The article will be published in the Hofstra Law Review.
He also teaches in Hofstra Law’s Online Health Law and Policy degree programs.
How did Hofstra Law respond to “NY Pause” and the shutdown of the schools in New York?
Hofstra Law responded quickly and effectively. Our administration deserves a lot of credit for how it handled the sudden shutdown. The dean’s office was very proactive. It had already reached out to me two or three weeks before the University shutdown occurred. The administration saw the writing on the wall and wanted us to be as prepared as possible for a potential shutdown.
Thus, we were already in the process of preparing our faculty for a transition to online education before the University closed. We had already circulated a list of resources, including links, training videos and articles to help instructors get up to speed on online teaching. I personally fielded numerous calls and emails from colleagues to help them learn how to best use distance learning technologies to conduct their classes.
All this helped make the transition a little less bumpy.
What was Hofstra Law doing with online education before the pandemic?
One of the reasons Hofstra Law was able to transition quickly, and fairly easily, to online education this semester was because it was already offering a number of online classes.
In 2014, we launched two fully online programs in Health Law and Policy: an LLM in for lawyers who wanted to continue their studies in the field, and an MA program for non-lawyers in the health care field.
It is a little more difficult to launch online learning in a JD program because there is heavier regulation of JD programs by the ABA and the state bars, (although the rules are being slowly liberalized over time).
At the JD level, we started small with one online Course taught by Professor Vern Walker a few years ago. Shortly thereafter, I too created and taught a small JD seminar course.
Our most ambitious online JD offering to date, rolled out just last summer, was Business Organizations, a 4-credit, bar-tested course.
The online business organizations summer course went over smashingly with students. Most were grateful for the opportunity to take the course online. Many said that they would not have been able to take the course otherwise. We found that many students said they learned better in this format.
How did your experience with these online programs help Hofstra Law transition to all online learning this semester?
Because we already have this online experience, we had in-house experts and some instructors, including me, who were already familiar with the technology used for online learning and knew what was already working for our students. That gave us a little bit of a head-start. It gave us a strong bench of faculty to support each other and the students during this transition.
Hofstra Law students benefited from this – from the Law School’s efforts as a pioneer in the field of online education.
How successful was the switch to all online classes this semester?
I think the switch has been very successful.
Admittedly, the circumstances have not been ideal. For example, this semester I am teaching contracts, and I have 92 students in the class. That’s not the kind of class I would have ever thought that I would teach online. I prefer to limit online classes to 25 students, maximum.
So, while it wasn’t perfect, I think our online classes this semester nevertheless went well for all the reasons discussed previously.
Some of us know how to use the technology, and everyone else committed themselves to learning the technology. We do what we can to make the classes engaging and interactive. Indeed, you can do things online that you can’t do in person. There are lots of online tools that are superior to what is available in the real-life classroom. Plus, there is a comfort level in learning from home.
It will be interesting to see what the students say about this experience. A lot of them will find that they prefer this, and they will want more online learning opportunities, while others are craving human interaction and will welcome a return to more traditional classrooms.
What are some things that have surprised you about online legal education?
This experience has challenged my assumptions of legal education.
Done correctly, the class is more like a conversation. Maybe that’s because the students are less intimidated, or maybe it is because since they are alone, and not sitting next to other students, they are less distracted by their neighbor’s activities. In a typical in-person class, only a fraction of the class contributes on a regular basis without being called on. But with the online classes, many more students are engaging, participating and asking questions.
In a lot of ways, pedagogically, teaching online is more effective than teaching in the classroom. Ultimately, I think many students will find online classes superior to the traditional classroom.