Great Teaching is Great Teaching, In Any Delivery Mode

By Sara J. Berman, Director of Programs for Academic and Bar Success, AccessLex Institute Center for Legal Education Excellence

Hats off to LSAC for its important June 30th webinar featuring Berkeley Law Dean, Erwin Chemerinsky. As LSAC President Kellye Testy said at the close of the session, I too felt a longing to return to the richness of law school learning while listening to Dean Chemerinsky’s review of recent Supreme Court decisions. The session also provided a hopeful counterpart to Dean Paul Caron’s same day post, Is A Law School Meltdown Coming? Thank you, Dean Caron, for this critically important warning that I hope we all heed, and for the rays of light in between the cautionary notes.

Dean Chemerinsky showed every prospective law student —via a distance learning delivery system I might add — why the law and legal education are critically important—indeed vital to the future of our democracy. And, for all who watched and listened, or will do so when the video link is posted, Dean Chemerinsky’s Constitutional Law session provides irrefutable evidence that great teaching is great teaching, in any delivery mode.

Distance learning is not new. We have long been engaged in deep learning through books, movies, and educational television. How many of us first learned how a bill becomes a law or the proper use conjunctions because of Schoolhouse Rock? And, how many are learning important U.S. history lessons by singing the lyrics of Hamilton and watching the musical online—from a distance, not “in the room where it happened.” Thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of today’s greatest distance educators!

I am a legal ed distance learning pioneer. When people question me about the efficacy of online learning in legal education, I often point to Professor Arthur Miller. Teaching in person for decades at Harvard Law School and now at NYU, and through multiple distance formats, Professor Miller has taught more lawyers, judges, and everyday citizens than anyone could possibly ever count— about civil procedure and the American legal system— through his Federal Practice and Procedure treatise, casebooks, and hornbooks, bar review, PBS series The Constitution: That Delicate Balance for which he won an Emmy, and decades of work providing legal commentary and bringing life and clarity to legal issues on national television, not to mention the lectures he recorded for the first online law school, where I served for some fifteen years as a faculty member and assistant dean.

Quite simply, anyone who categorically dismisses “distance learning” in legal education as some sort of inferior substitute has never heard, watched, or read the teachings of Erwin Chemerinsky or Arthur Miller, or any of the thousands of other brilliant law professors across this country who are right now preparing to teach superb online courses this fall. And, this is precisely what we should be doing —preparing for the fall.

In a June 30, 2020 post, former Northwestern Dean Dan Rodriguez rightly lauds Professor Deborah Merritt, “What Prof. Merritt captures well, and what I and others have tried hard to capture as we have discussed this issue privately and publicly is this: We can and should put on a full-court-press to develop and refine our remote/online teaching abilities so as to commit to giving our students an excellent educational experience — excellent in curricular content, excellent in experiential/skill-building opportunities, and excellent in the community-building that technology can assist us with, if we are diligent and strategic, energetic and empathetic.”

And, to anyone who contests the community building part of the statement above, anyone who claims that unless we are together in person we cannot really build deep and lasting connections, let us remember that history is replete with people who have fallen in love, sustained relationships, started revolutions, and changed the world through letter writing.

The week of June 30th was indeed a busy one for legal education and distance education in particular.  In addition to the webinar and posts noted above, the Summer 2020 issue of the AccessLex Institute’s Raising the Bar (RTB) was published on July 1, 2020.  I am proud to have founded and continue to serve as managing editor of RTB. This issue is dedicated to distance learning in legal education, and features among other content, wisdom from four visionary law school deans who are at the helm of hybrid JD programs that were educating for the 21st century prior to the pandemic. I hope that readers find the issue informative and will feel inspired to continue working to develop precisely the kind of excellent educational experience in learning that Professor Merritt envisions.

As legal education continues in part or fully online in the new academic year and until this virus is eradicated and perhaps beyond, let’s work together with the same fervor depicted in Alexander Hamilton’s writing “like he’s running out of time,” to see the virtual halls of our nation’s law schools filled this fall with the brightest, most engaged minds —students from all backgrounds who are ready to learn to protect the Constitution and to ensure that our nation remains a thriving democracy, governed by the rule of law.

One Response

  1. First of all, I adore the Hamilton reference! And right now faculty at Albany law have been feverishly meeting, designing, learning, zooming, experimenting and imagining how to enhance, expand and engage!

    Second, I am printing out this quote and putting it over my desk (in my adult daughter’s bedroom) and making it my summer Mantra!
    We can and should put on a full-court-press to develop and refine our remote/online teaching abilities so as to commit to giving our students an excellent educational experience — excellent in curricular content, excellent in experiential/skill-building opportunities, and excellent in the community-building that technology can assist us with, if we are diligent and strategic, energetic and empathetic.

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