On-Line Discussion Boards Create a New Arena for Engaged Learning Environments

What’s better than the Socratic Method to engage all students in a course?  On-line discussion boards.

One of the challenges in creating the virtual classroom is to strive for students to substitute time that would have been spent sitting in a seat in an actual classroom for time spent engaged in the discussion on-line.  In addition to viewing short slide presentations with audio, and participating in occasional other on-line instruction (for example, this week the students were registered for and participated in a 45 minute on-line ethics training program developed by the NYS Commission on Public Integrity; and they were registered for a one hour ALI-ABA teleconference on the attorney-client privilege), the remainder of our instruction hours for the week are spent on the discussion boards.

So far I have opted to post three questions per week, and I have required the students to respond to at least two of the three questions, and then post replies to at two postings made by their colleagues (requiring 4 postings in total).  With 22 students enrolled in the course, it would be near impossible in a seminar of this size to actively engage every student in every class hour.  With the on-line discussion board, however, each and every student is an engaged learner who must participate in the class discussion.  In other words, no one gets a “bye” for the weekly class reading, and everyone must learn to be reflective, analytical and articulate in the written postings they make to the discussion boards.  Not only do I read the postings, but every class member reads the postings as well.  By week two, I realized the power of the discussion boards.

The two discussions I opened were:

1)    Based on Chapter 2, it is fair to conclude that defining exactly “who” is the client of the government lawyer is a difficult and challenging task, yet one that it is extremely important (at least in terms of confidentiality of communications which we will discuss in another posting).  Please respond for making a case that one of the following should be appropriately viewed as the client of the General Counsel to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and explain why: 1) The Governor; 2) The Commissioner of DEC; 3) The Counsel to the Governor; 4) A high ranking official within the agency other than the Commissioner; 5) Anyone in the Agency who sits down for a conversation with the Agency Counsel; 6) The public; or 7) Other (be specific). Is your answer the same if the attorney is not the DEC General Counsel, but rather an Assistant Counsel who reports to a deputy counsel who reports to the general counsel?  What if you work in the attorney general’s office and your job, according to the New York Executive Law, is to represent the State?

2)    From reading both Chapter 12 and the article in the folder for week 2, it is apparent that the federal courts are in conflict as to whether a government attorney-client privilege exists. This is an issue that will likely get before the U.S. Supreme Court some day. Please explain why you believe there should or should not be an attorney-client privilege. Your answer may consider the following: Does it matter whether the underlying conversations and litigation involve civil or criminal matters? If a privilege exists, does it belong to the government official or some other office/agency in government? What type of legal and regulatory arguments can you make to support your policy position?

These questions were directed, yet open ended enough to allow students to craft carefully thought-out responses and to challenge and engage students with differing perspectives and interpretations.  In the classroom, students may have responded with short answers in a sentence or two and full explanations may have had to be painstakingly extracted. Using the on-line forum, however, I received outstanding responses that demonstrated students did the reading, applied the applicable laws and policies, and considered the legal and policy challenges in reaching conclusions.  Their responses ranged from one full paragraph to four or five paragraphs.

In short, the discussion boards are proving to be an excellent teaching tool.  

Patty Salkin, Albany Law School

7 Responses

  1. I am pleased to see a forum where we can explore this topic. I have used discussion boards (I have used Forums in TWEN and Discussions with Blackboard) for students enrolled in full semester long externships (90% of the time these externships are clinical but sometimes the students never do get immersed in a representation experience. I am beginning my 6th semester of using these on-line classes. I wonder if there might not a chance for people to get together for a day or two, perhaps with Randy Wesign from Blackboard? and maybe the new distance eduation person Vermont has hired (a wonderful VLS grad who will begin this summer) and share actual posts (as Patty did) and our students responses as well.

    My question for now is…how to you keep students from “stepping on each others toes’? When they get these good questions some of them sit down and compose a complete answer. Then we’ll get 4 or 5 thorough answers and it makes it hard to have a conversation.

    Looking forward to discussion. thanks.

  2. Hi Liz, I think a program on on-line legal education is a terrific idea. I would include all interested faculty, vendors and instructional technologists. Maybe CELT could sponsor such a gathering.

    For the most part I have found that when the questions are broad enough and have multiple dimensions, the students do pick up on different aspects of the issue. While I completely agree that some postings are longer and more thoughtful than others, at least in the area of government ethics there is so much policy tied into the development, implementation and interpretation of the law, that the disucssions have been really interesting. I may not feel this way as the semester goes on, but so far, my students get a “two thumbs up” for their initial postings and the replies to their colleagues.

  3. BB Discussions AND Wiki function in TWEN…

    I have been using Blackboard in many classes for years. The discussion board has been a very important tool for peer-to-peer feedback for me. I concur with many of Patty and Liz’s observations, and add one more…I have used it in recent years to “prime the pump” for engaged in-class conversations because a required posting means they both read AND start thinking before we meet in person. Our conversations thus start at a higher level and we get more accomplished in limited in-person time.

    I wanted to add one thing to this discussion, however…this year I am experimenting with the wiki function in TWEN and finding it very engaging… Wikis are places that students can jointly construct one document (like wikipedia). I have students in a seminar class working on a joint research project and they are able to iterate between themselves and add thoughts/sources to one overall document. Other than the difficulty that only one person can work on it at a time (we have developed a work-around for that) it is an amazing tool. TWEN also allows limited guest access for people not in the law school, so this week I will have lawyers from the Environmental Law Institute and EPA joining the on-line discussion and adding some of their own thoughts to the group project. Note that this is not a clinic project, so confidentiality and other concerns are not raised…

  4. good question Liz — similar I think to the students who raise their hands and potentially dominate classroom or the student who moves so fast in case representation that she leaves her co-counsel in the dust and sometimes complains that she is doing all the work. Those who step into a void fast can sometimes dominate the void. In class and in supervision, I have some techniques but have not really thought about it on line. In class, we might slow people down with quick writes, establish a “only speak once per class” rule. In supervision we can talk about collaboration.

    Creating space is important on line as well. Maybe try to post at same time, hide posts for a day while all post, assign different questions to different students, have posts public rotate? meet in buzz groups on line and report? Do an organized chain with certain students assigned to post first then others to respond with assignments to first rotating each week?

    Not sure if any of these make sense – trying to find analogies to what I do in the classroom and in supervision. Look firward to heraing from others.

  5. One thing that seems to work is to divide the class into small groups, randomly chosen, and to assign roles that rotate with each assignment. The smallness of the group makes for a kind of intimacy and esprit de corps. It’s also harder to hide in a group of 5-6 students. The smallness also helps students get that sense of getting to know a fellow student pretty well (these judicial externships last two terms). The random choice of colleagues has the incidental effect of making students learn to collaborate (on assignments) with colleagues not of their choosing (as in practice and other lawyering work). The roles that I have assigned thus far are “Reporter,” who is a chair-like figure charged with focusing on the big picture of the assignment, and moving the small group’s discussion agenda, and “Devil’s Advocate,” who is charged with looking askance at the discussion, questioning premises, asking in role the questions and making the critical observations (on process as well as substance) that law students typically refrain from asking. Everyone understands that (s)he will eventually have her/his turn in each role, so there is that incentive to cooperate as well. Students draw from assigned readings and the “text” that is their placements, and engage in a Lexis/Blackboard online threaded discussion that requires at least one substantive, reasoned and supported posting weekly, and at least one responsive posting. As for the Chat function, we use it mostly as a socializing tool -a means for students who are spread throughout a 4-state region to check in with each other regularly and get to know one another. Even in the small groups, students have been frustrated with some of the things mentioned by others in this discussion (stepping on each other’s thoughts; real-time discussion participants distracted by sports on TV, etc.).

    I am intrigued by the wiki thing. Does anyone know if Lexis has a similar tool? Also, I wonder if we might commandeer some time at Externships 5 in Miami to have the conversation Liz mentioned. Randy Wesig, by the way, has been a huge help, as has the local Lexis guy, Tim Broms. Lexis seems to have a new focus on supporting this tool.

    • Hi Fran,

      I am co-presenting this topic down in Miami (along with Julian Russo, Christine Church, and Cindy Faulkner).

      In particular, we are focusing on the use of technology, such as TWEN, in externships (including the discussion forums, distance learning, etc). Hopefully you will find this presentation to be helpful.


      Jessica Tillipman

  6. Alas, Lexis does not (yet) have a wiki…though they say they will add one soon! It is a terrific tool.

    Would like to hear more thoughts about concepts for creating space on-line for student participation…

    Best, Kim

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