Things I’m trying in our first-ever self-paced, asynchronous legal English course

Stephen Horowitz is the Director of Online Legal English Programs at Georgetown Law.

Since I started my new position at Georgetown Law in January, 2020 (just a couple months before the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon us), my primary focus has been developing a self-paced, asynchronous online legal English course. It’s been an exciting learning and creative experience, and the course now happily exists!

It’s called OLE: Orientation to the U.S. Legal System (though we have also created another iteration with the perhaps more literally descriptive title OLE: U.S. Legal System – Core Concepts & Vocabulary), and though it felt like this day would never arrive, I’ve now actually begun teaching it. (Note: OLE = Online Legal English)

Of course, I’m not teaching in the traditional sense. I’m not in a classroom and I don’t even have any lesson plans. All of that is embedded into the self-paced, do-it-yourself course. The course is set up so that students essentially work through it on their own, with various activities due each day and a final graded writing assignment due at the end of each week. The only synchronous component is are one or two Zoom office hour sessions each week that provide a chance for students to ask questions and discuss anything they want, and for all of us to get to know each other better. It’s this sort of “flipped classroom” model in an online, asynchronous set-up that I’ve never done before. And that I think has not yet been done in the legal English world. (And by the way, if I’m wrong, please don’t hesitate to let me know.)

So here are some things I’m focused on as I design the course:

1. Engagement: I feel like I could design the greatest curriculum in the world. But if there’s no sense of connection or engagement, then students won’t buy in. And they’ll lose motivation. Learning is about communication. And communication is about interacting with others. Especially language-related learning. So I don’t know what it’s going to look like yet, but after the course design is all set, I’m going to need to experiment with and figure out ways to engage students and create ways to interact–student to instructor as well as student to student–that go beyond the curriculum despite not having a regular lecture or in-person interaction. I think it will involve a process of daily communications and somehow making the communications things that students look forward to reading–not just dry information.

2. KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid): When I teach in person, I like being able to devise tangential mini-lessons and activities that are responsive to student needs. However, in this context of a self-paced/asynchronous course, I won’t be able to do that. As a result, the focus will need to be very streamlined and efficient in terms of connecting activities to goals and objectives.

For example, in my initial efforts I was trying to creatively work grammar into the modules. However, I had to finally concede that if the goal is for students to come away understanding the core concepts and vocabulary of, e.g., the three branches of government, then devising a derivative grammar activity based on those materials will distract and complicate things in a way that will reduce buy-in and motivation on the part of the students. Even though in my mind mining the text for grammar learning is a pedagogically sound, efficient, and effective approach. I’ve been conditioning myself to get more comfortable letting go of some of these ideas and save face in the court of my own mind by telling myself I’ll develop a separate derivative course at some point that takes on that grammar idea in connection with those texts.

In other words, a) pick a content goal (e.g., 3 branches of government); and b) pick a language-related goal (e.g., vocabulary.)

That said, there are ways to teach vocabulary in more linguistically interesting and helpful ways. And so I can still focus on language, but within the box of vocabulary.

3. Additional Resources: In a self-paced course, I think an area for adding value to an independent learning course like this is to really curate a good list of resources that ties in with the course’s learning goals and objectives. Two resources I plan to use in one way or another are Khan Academy and New Hampshire Public Radio’s podcast Civics101.

4. Experiment with new tech: This is always a bit of a mental struggle for me. It’s exciting to think about using a new tech tool, but also intimidating. But I’m committing to investigate and try out a few, and to budget time to do them. I think it’s a fear of missing out or a fear of being left behind that ultimately pushes me over the edge. But hey, whatever works.

Three tools I want to play around with so far are:

  1. Flipgrid
  2. Hypothes.is
  3. VoiceThread

And my motivation is that so far I don’t love the Canvas Discussion board. I want to figure out if there are better ways to foster discussion and student interaction. At the same time, I don’t want them to feel burdensome or unnecessarily intimidating to the students. So I’m going to need to just delve in and wade around in the muck for a little bit and try not to get too squeamish.

5. Assessment is key: And specifically self-assessment. Students need to be able to assess themselves in a self-paced course so they can tell if they’re learning and feel their improvement. If they don’t have that, I imagine they’ll drop off after the initial novelty and excitement of the course wears off. I’ve developed self-assessment tools before. But generally in a context where I will be in the classroom with the students or see them the next day after they try them. So I can help clarify or make adjustments or give nudges as necessary. In this course, I won’t really be able to see what they’re doing while they’re doing their work. So I’m trying to think creatively and logically about what will be most effective for helping the students self-assess in concrete ways and also provide me feedback on their self-assessment process.

6. Developing listening activities that are genuinely helpful: When I took a course on Teaching Speaking & Listening in my MA TESOL program, perhaps the biggest revelation for me was that everything I thought I knew about teaching listening was pretty much wrong. Play an audio recording or a video and get students to then do something with the recording — answer questions, write a response, etc. It turns out that that’s not really teaching listening. That’s really assessment–seeing if students understand the listening.

More helpful teaching of listening involves training the students’ ears to be able to hear various sounds–especially sounds that are not as familiar. That required a re-think for me of what it really means to teach listening.

It also helped me understand the connection between listening and pronunciation. Namely, that it’s heard to use “correct” pronunciation if your ear can’t hear the sound (or the difference between two sounds.)

Additionally, it’s also important to scaffold listening. It’s hard enough to read a text if you don’t understand a lot of the words and grammar. It’s even harder with listening since you can’t see and review what was just said. Flashback to Spanish class in 7th grade: The teacher would play recordings in Spanish and we had to answer questions about Fernando listening to records on a record player with Marta. We were given two shots to listen and then figure out the answers. Despite the fact that up to that point most of our studying had been in written texts, not audio format. I always felt so inept and discouraged. Since learning more about the teaching of listening, I feel a huge wave of retroactive relief and self-forgiveness. And I really want to make sure I don’t put my own students in the same situation, because engagement and motivation are so key to student-centered learning, particularly in a self-paced, asynchronous course.

To accomplish my aims, I do plan to use texts that are appropriate level and also provide transcripts so students can always check their listening on their own. Additionally, I think it will fit in well with the course language focus on vocabulary, because part of knowing a word is knowing what it sounds like as well as what it sounds like in connection with other words around it and a a piece of chunks of language.

For example, if a vocabulary word frequently has “the” before it, it’s really part of that word, like a collocation. And so it’s important to be able to train one’s ear to hear the “the,” because small words like “the” are often reduced in natural speech and difficult to hear. And this ear training for articles and prepositions, among other words, can also likely help with grammar, since a lot of grammar is really about developing a sense of what “sounds right.” I know, for example, that I have never stopped myself in the middle of talking to review any rules for when to use “the” or “a” in order to reach my final decision on which article to use.

Conclusion

These are some of the thoughts and ideas whirring through my brain as I pull this course together. I’ll try to follow up with a future blog post on how it’s all gone. Stay tuned!

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