These are unprecedented times for everyone around the world and the staff here at Dublin City University's School of Law and Government are responding to the emerging challenges with their own innovative approaches and styles.
Dr Yvonne Daly, Associate Professor, School of Law and Government, spoke to Moign Khawaja, the in-house School of Law and Government journalist and shared her thoughts about responses to Covid-19 and online teaching.
It's a strange time for all of us. Covid-19 has brought about so many changes to how our world normally functions in such a short space of time. We are worried about ourselves, our families, our friends. Worried about the ability of our health systems to cope. Worried about how we get back to normality. But we're hopeful too: that our leaders are doing all that can be done to prepare and meet the challenge as best we can; that by coming together as a society which agrees to stay apart we can minimise the risk for the most precious amongst us; and, that normality will be waiting for us on the other side (maybe even an improved normality in some ways).
Teaching with technology
Universities in this country and others have had to physically shut their doors, but we are open and functioning in the online world! It's been a sudden and dramatic shift, but we're in the deep end and we're swimming! Academics, like students, have varying levels of tech savviness. I'm probably in a low-to-medium category of technical knowledge! I can use Loop, I can email, I can make PowerPoints, I can use Word! I've even experimented in recent years with the concept of a "flipped classroom", recording voice-overs on PowerPoints for students to watch in advance of class, leaving more time for in-class discussions and application of knowledge. But I hadn't even heard of "Zoom" or "Unicam" until about two weeks ago!
Zoom is a fantastic resource, and the one I have used most since the University was physically closed. Colleagues in the Teaching Enhancement Unit have been wonderful in providing training sessions and instructional manuals for staff to get us off the ground. Different lecturers are using technology in different ways to facilitate the delivery of their modules. I've opted to record video lectures for my Law of Evidence module on Zoom and make them available to students via the Loop page. I've also made the audio link alone available and the plain PowerPoint slides, as students' different levels of access to technology or differing broadband quality is something of which I'm very conscious. Also, I know that students learn in different ways, so an audio only, podcast-style lecture might suit some while others would prefer the video format. I've hosted an online chat forum and a live Zoom chat to check in with students and answer any queries arising. This seems to be working well so far. For me, creating the video lectures is more time consuming than delivering in-person lectures. I feel the need to be quite careful and precise in what I say, as students may listen back to it again and again! I also want to make sure that I'm explaining difficult concepts as clearly as possible, as I cannot see any scrunched-up faces to let me know that I've missed the mark in that sense!
Not all plain sailing
It hasn't all been plain sailing! A few days in to the new regime I recorded a fantastic (if I do say so myself!) 30 minute lecture on the exclusion of unconstitutionally obtained evidence. But, it seems that I did not turn on the microphone function and so it was all picture and hand movements, but no sound! The second attempt was good, but not quite as good as that lost original!! And on Tuesday of this week, my laptop decided that it would be a great idea to lose the plot entirely and cut straight to a blue "recovery - your device needs to be repaired" screen when I turned it on. The wizards in DCU ISS are currently working their magic on it!
Lecturers have also been very busy over the past two weeks planning replacement assessments, both for exams and for other aspects of assessment that ought to have occurred in person. In the Law of Evidence module, for example, we had planned to hold oral arguments in the DCU Moot Courtroom, with students "acting for" the prosecution or defence in a criminal law scenario. We've had to change that plan. Lecturers across the School of Law and Government have been in contact with one another to ensure that assessments are spread out to facilitate students as much as possible.
While teaching and assessment have moved online, the current crisis has also impacted research activities for staff. For example, I am currently leading the Irish part of an EU-funded study on the right to silence in police detention (with colleagues from Maastricht University, Antwerp University, and KU Leuven). We had just begun the empirical aspect of this study in the past few weeks, conducting two focus groups with criminal defence solicitors. We must now revisit our plans for data collection with other stakeholder groups, some of which may need to move online or be postponed. Colleagues on the project had data collection plans for the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy, which must now be reconsidered also.
Finally, I want to mention those lecturers, students, and support staff, who have additional caring responsibilities at this time. My two little girls, aged 6 and 4, are at home from school. They are lovely little things, but they do like to chat, and to be fed, and to ask a hundred questions a minute! And while they can sometimes play happily at the same thing for an hour or more, they will often flit from task to task like two very cute but very busy butterflies! This makes it tricky to carve out enough space to record video lectures, reset and then mark assignments, reconsider and carry out revised research plans, and so on. Happily my husband is available to do much of the childcare at the moment, but it certainly is not the same as a normal workday routine. Like others, my mind is also distracted by the pandemic itself and it's various impacts on my family and those I love, and it can be hard to focus. But there is a great sense of collective endeavour amongst both staff and students at DCU, to do the very best that we can in the reality of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, to support and assist one another, and to make it through together.