There’s no doubt Zara Bending (Law) is viewed as an outstanding teacher by her students: she’s a finalist for a student-nominated Vice Chancellor’s L&T Award, and in the recent survey on their online learning experience, her students declared that she and her colleagues need to be given awards for being amazing supporters – [Zara] is “so helpful and provides information in multiple formats. Diagrams, readings, lectures, podcasts, other images… It makes learning online so easy and interesting!”
Here Zara talks to Teche about how she teaches now in the wake of COVID-19 and the move to fully-online learning.
As told to Karina Luzia and Kylie Coaldrake
Moving my teaching online
I viewed moving to all-online teaching as a challenge… and an opportunity! Decisions had to be made quickly, with the announcement about campus closing coming halfway through our last f2f lecture. We immediately had a meeting with the teaching team about how to proceed from there. I tried not to change our purpose or mission too much – we just adapted the means by which we delivered it. Learning and teaching is an ongoing, collaborative and iterative process between staff and students. That dialogue must remain open, all the more so because of COVID.
So we were going into uncharted territory and we wanted to lean into what we know works; maybe test a few things but always keeping the dialogue open between our students and us as a teaching team.
We particularly wanted to use this as an opportunity for soft skill development for young lawyers as they really do need to get tech savvy for their own workplaces; they need to learn how to use conferencing systems like Zoom, they need to know how to communicate effectively across platforms, how to draft emails professionally, to take regular wellbeing checks, to self-manage their learning.
We also wanted to model good lawyer-client service through how our teaching team interacted with students, that is, our students were under stress, which is a depiction of how a lawyer needs to work with their clients, who are always stressed. A lot of this came down to meeting our audience where they were at a point in time, understanding where their interests and limitations were, active listening, and knowing when to respond reflecting content or emotion.
Teaching my discipline online
In law, everything we do is aimed at persuasion – and so much of that is oral communication and in person, you make connections in the room; you read expressions, gestures, emotions. Trying to teach and use that skill through Zoom was difficult but we did find some things that worked – see my tips below and here!
How I supported my students during the transition to all-online learning
In terms of supporting students, my team and I quickly realised that the worst thing with COVID was the uncertainty. We didn’t know how long this would last, how restrictions might change, and we definitely didn’t know the extent of the impact on learning or the impact on all of our mental health. So as a teaching team, we all agreed…
…anything we do should be about maximising autonomy for students through choice and maximising certainty wherever practically possible.
It was so important to maintain those bonds and support communication – that was our top priority.
How I now work with my teaching team
To support students you have to support staff. For me as the unit co-designer and co-convenor, this meant having weekly team meetings on Zoom to talk about marking, moderation, activities for the week, how students were going, all the usual L&T stuff but also just social calls with convenors, lecturers, markers, tutors. We aimed to maintain as much face to face time with students as possible, not just in class but also outside class.
Because we found that zoom classes were taking longer, I would script to-camera tutorial briefings for students to view in advance of their tutorials contextualising and scaffolding their learning (e.g. announcements, assessment marking updates, then a statement of ‘purpose’, followed by ‘aims’ and instructions). It encouraged retention – students knew what they were doing and why; and enabled those who were unable to attend (or whose connection dropped out) to not miss a beat. The risk during COVID was that if a student ‘fell off’ we’d have to work four times as hard to get them back and on track.
What I’d do differently
The fun answer – I would love to do a zoom background competition that would tie in with the weekly reading. Or something non-uni- specific such as Pets of Zoom.
I am missing being in the classroom so much!
I would love to get a green screen for Zoom to help break up the monotony of our backgrounds. I’d use the screen to get into some immersive experiential learning stuff that I like and the students like too. For example, if I’m taking students through the parliamentary process or court process, I could use my zoom background to replicate a virtual tour – ‘Now we are in the Senate, now we are in the House of Reps’ rather than just putting it all in a powerpoint slide. It could be like a site visit! In Environmental law, I used to take students on a site tour… this could be the next best thing.
I would also have more ‘Ask Us Anything’ sessions – students love those.
I have also been thinking about whether it would be good to use the iLearn check list function for students to self-assess and be able to tick off items that they have completed at the end of this week. I’ve been wondering if this would this be an extra layer that they don’t want or need right now or would this be useful? I’m a list-maker myself, but I try to keep my own preferences and biases at bay!
Video on or off?
I give students a choice. Privacy is something I feel very passionately about. Also, some people can’t have their video on because they are surrounded by others who are all also working from home; younger siblings are being home-schooled, there are issues with bandwidth etc.
I give students the choice but I do understand how frustrating it is when you can’t see people’s faces while you’re teaching.
On my ed tech wish list
It would be great if there was a function in iLearn where you could write and wipe things off a whiteboard – that would be amazing. I know Zoom has a whiteboard but – again for privacy – having one right in iLearn would add that extra layer of security.
What I think made a difference
We all have very personal reasons for why we go into teaching and how we approach it. My father is the most brilliant person I’ll ever know but I did not know until I was in my twenties that he was dyslexic. So this taught me that people can learn very differently, and as a teacher, it is incumbent on you to make that connection to get through to students.
Students told me that what made a difference to them, was not just that they saw effort and care going into the unit but that we used a variety of different tools, modes, assets to engage, and we used them more than usual – tables, graphs, built glossaries, infographics, short texts, podcasts.
I developed a podcast called Laws Strangest Cases (drawing on more narration-style recaps of bizarre cases as told by Peter Seddon) where I did a reading from a strange case and students could pick out and spot different issues and describe how to go about researching that. It wasn’t for assessment either, just for fun! If anything, this gave them something other than COVID to talk about with their friends and families when dinner conversations wore thin.
I had been given the title of ‘Zoom Queen’ so I embraced that and dressed as Daenarys from Game of Thrones one week. Whatever it takes!
(Although I will say that one of my learnings was you need to use enormous amounts of eye drops to get through classes wearing purple contacts!)
Feedback was so important too – in understanding how we as communicators could tweak our delivery to ensure our students not only heard what we were saying, but really understood the intent and content of our online exchanges.
For example, if someone was more of a visual learner or more tech savvy, it helped them if there was something that they could connect to and lean into – because, in a pandemic, students may not be thinking they want to try something brand new. There is so much change; let them lean into something that they know rather than be overwhelmed with all these different new things.
And then there is feedback in terms of how we deliver instruction and commentary on student performance post assessment- while we do the usual rubric paired with individual comments on papers via Turnitin, we also had greater uptake of group consultations, post-marking assessment ‘review’ zooms, and ‘Ask Us Anything’ hangouts.
We always make it clear that university is about broadening horizons, reassessing what and how you learn, and being open to different personalities and tools in the classroom. I was mindful, however, that with so much change and uncertainty, students may find themselves leaning into the learning strategies that were familiar, so after some discussion with my groups, I was conscious to offer more variety in how information was depicted and delivered (e.g. length of oral delivery, my own tone, a balance of cases and commentary, use of infographics, tables, videos, diagrams, etc).
We all get inspiration for how we teach in the most unexpected places. For example, I’ve learned so much about how we, as primates, communicate and develop community dynamics by working within the Jane Goodall Institute in Australia and globally.
What has really got me through this year was one of my favourite comedians, and a friend of mine, Steve Hofstetter starting a fully-online comedy club. In this article he talks about going from in-person to online comedy and making audiences more inclusive, and this encapsulates how I’ve been able to translate disruption energy into my teaching. Watching him run his shows made me realise this is actually a huge blessing for some students who are not comfortable speaking up in class. Now they still have a live audience and a live discussion, but in Zoom, they also have the chat function so they can communicate in quick written points or paragraphs or by sharing links. It’s important to have the connection with the live audience, but even when some couldn’t have their camera or audio on for whatever reason, they could still participate in the live discussion. It made a difference because everyone could be included.
So COVID as an opportunity for inclusion in learning and teaching – it happened. That was a thing!
My number one tip for teachers
We’re living in uncertain times but our role as teachers remains the same.
Communication is still our superpower – and whether we are in a lecture hall, tute room, a lab or on Zoom, the main rule is the same:
We meet our audience where they are (and that includes their headspace); we engage them, and we keep to the learning outcomes!
My last word on teaching
Students will always bring out the best in me. And what is so reassuring is that, based on their work in Session 1 – which would have been amazing by any semester standards, let alone when we were all students and teachers working from home – I can say without a doubt, my teaching team definitely brought the best out in our students this year.
That honestly means the world.
Zara Bending is a sessional academic and higher degree researcher in the Macquarie Law School. She is passionate about protecting wildlife, serving as an expert in criminal proceedings, parliamentary inquiries and global anti-trafficking campaigns. She is a Board Director of the Jane Goodall Institute Australia and is a recognised expert on illegal wildlife trade. View her Research Profile.