A digital teaching revolution due to the corona crisis?


“Knowledge is not a good to be communicated and consumed: it is something that forms and develops when lecturers and students come together; when a student poses a critical question; when a supervisor comments on an argument in a bachelor’s thesis; or when students debate amongst themselves in a seminar group.”[1]

Due to the COVID-19 virus, Universities and University Colleges in Norway closed on 12 March 2020, with little warning. All physical teaching stopped, students still had their belongings in their lockers, teachers grabbed what they thought they needed to work at home, and all people left the buildings.

It was not possible to change the schedule for the exams. Therefore, the students had to be given sufficient instruction to complete these. And most of the teachers had no experience with digital teaching before they swapped to online teaching almost overnight. With the help of colleagues, friends, and family, they tried out the digital tools before going online. Most teachers at the University of Oslo used Zoom[2] for live teaching, and some made videos, recordings, and other digital teaching material.

To help the teachers, the faculty appointed an expert for digital teaching and involved the Centre for Experiential Legal Learning (CELL). CELL[3] was established at the Faculty of Law in 2018, and the aim of the centre is to evolve legal teaching and Norwegian legal didactics and to extend practice-based legal education in a digital age throughout Norway. Approximately 20 passionate academics, students, librarians, IT and administrative staff are presently involved in the centre’s projects. The centre threw all other projects aside and took part in getting sufficient technical help and competence needed in the first weeks of digital teaching. Also, several other teachers at the faculty offered their advice about different technological tools. Support was provided on all platforms, by video, e-mail, chat, telephone etc. Videos were made, and a digital teaching resources guide put together, both in Norwegian and English.[4]  

Digital “dugnad”

In Norway, we have a word called “dugnad”. It could translate to unpaid voluntary work done by groups, for different causes. The term was voted Norway’s word of the year in 2004.[5]

You could say that the first weeks of teaching in the corona crisis was a dugnad. For Norwegian readers, you´ll find the word mentioned “everywhere” in the context of digital teaching and Corona in higher education in Norway. The support and competence sharing extended to the entire higher education community of Norway. Malcolm Langford, the director of CELL, co-founded the Facebook group “Digital dugnad i høyere utdanning – Digital Teaching for Higher Education”. It is an arena for teachers to ask low threshold questions about digital teaching, and other members of the group will help. This Facebook group has become unbelievably valuable. Also, digital events on technical and pedagogical issues have been arranged through the group.

A (digital) fairy tale?

There has been much debate after these efforts to support students learning in a time of crisis. Teachers report exhaustion, digital overload, being tired of black Zoom-screens and doubt on students learning outcomes, and they hope that the fall semester will mean physical teaching again. CELL evaluated the first three weeks of online corona education in Norway, based on feedback from the students after the first week, and the teachers after three weeks.[6]

Did the students learn enough? The evaluation showed that the teachers are not sure of this. Many of the teachers reported that the lack of direct contact and feedback from students was challenging. Students reported poor learning conditions due to the coronavirus situation, lack of equipment and suitable working spaces, stress and so on, but they showed some positive attitudes towards digital teaching. The teachers struggled with making live sessions more interactive and getting the students to take part more. They reported a considerable number of black screens on their side.

The findings of the student evaluation suggested that students felt that digital teaching provided good learning outcomes, and they wanted more of it. However, many students also reported a need to meet fellow students and teachers in person. Their comments on the black screens were that they lacked sufficient workplaces, living together with family or other students, not wanting to expose themselves digitally, convenience on not having to dress up and so on. Several of the students also said that they did not show their faces because others did not. And many realised that this resulted in less student activity online.

More research on digital teaching, law students and learning outcomes are needed in the time to come, and CELL will follow up. The corona crisis threw the law faculty into a big research environment on digital learning that couldn´t have happened by itself.

For the fall semester, the University makes plans for both digital and physical teaching, but most teachers hope for a normal and traditional teaching regime. What students want for the future teaching at the faculty, CELL will try to find out in the weeks to come.

CELL will continue to support the legal education community in changing the education to equip the students better to meet the demands of the legal profession in the future. From June 1 this year, the centre has been granted the status Centre for Excellence in Education (SFU, Senter for Fremragende Utdanning)[7], meaning a substantial funding regime for five years with the possibility for renewal for another five years after a mid-term evaluation.

Future work and the digital courtroom

Before the corona crisis CELL started to develop “the digital courtroom” together with other stakeholders. The plan was to create an Online dispute resolution (ODR) learning platform that could provide an infrastructure for developing skills through real work-life experiential learning. And the idea was to create the platform in partnership with INSJ UiO (University of Oslo) and the Norwegian Court Administration. INSJ UiO is a hub for student innovation, and students can get guidance on getting started on ideas.[8]  INSJ UiO has laid the groundwork for the development through a pilot study, involving stakeholders through interviews. An early technical assessment was conducted, simple prototypes were made, and an implementation plan was proposed. The goal was to get started on the development process soon when the crisis hit Norway, but then the crisis has speeded things up.

During the corona crisis, the Norwegian courts saw the necessity to be able to conduct remote meetings and hearings. Therefore, the Government adopted a temporary regulation based on the temporary corona act with measures necessary to enable and ensure a sound and safe settlement of cases in the judiciary without all participants being present in the courtroom.[9]

Still, the court’s present technical solutions are not sufficient for effective digital court hearings. Hence the digital courtroom project also would benefit the Norwegian court administration greatly in the near future. CELL, INSJ UiO and the Norwegian court administration have therefore decided to start up the development of the digital courtroom platform rapidly. Hopefully, a first version can be tested in the fall semester.

Will the changes to more digital environments and work processes persist? Several stakeholders suggest that learning and working environments will become more blended. Businesses have discovered that the workforce can work efficiently from home. However, some attendance at work is still needed. The same goes for the learning environment. Both students and teachers report that they need to come together, being able to discuss face-to-face, in groups, with colleagues, fellow students and between teachers and students.

We do not know how long this coronavirus pandemic will last. There will probably be more waves of infection, and some say that there will probably be other pandemics in the future. We should utilise this time to find out if blended learning environments make better law students. The teacher’s and student’s ability to drastically change learning processes and attitudes in a short time at the Law faculty at the University of Oslo shows some optimistic tendencies towards more digital teaching in the future.

Hilde Westbye
University of Oslo, Law Library
Administrative Manager, Responsible for teaching and research support, Expert coordinator at the Centre for experiential legal learning (CELL)

This Blog contains entries by members of the International Association of Law Libraries on issues germane to the Association’s areas of focus. Views expressed in an individual entry only represent the views of the author.

[1] https://www.regjeringen.no/contentassets/aee30e4b7d3241d5bd89db69fe38f7ba/engb/pdfs/stm201620170016000engpdfs.pdf

[2] https://www.zoom.us/

[3] https://www.jus.uio.no/cell/

[4] https://uio.instructure.com/courses/26392

[5] https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20180521-how-dugnad-shaped-a-nations-work-ethic

[6] https://www.jus.uio.no/cell/digitaldugnad/nasjonal_evaluering_laerere.html. https://www.jus.uio.no/cell/digitaldugnad/evaluering_forste_uken.html

[7] https://diku.no/en/programmes/centres-for-excellence-in-education-sfu

[8] https://insjuio.no/en/