Meeting the Moment

UCLA Law Magazine | Fall 2020

Zoom, Babies and Basset Hounds: Tales From the Virtual Classroom

Professor Eileen Scallen’s “classroom” setup is optimized for the virtual world.

As in-person education screeched to a halt in March while the coronavirus pandemic bore down, UCLA Law students, professors and staff quickly took on a challenge unlike any other in the school’s history: a shift to holding classes via Zoom and other online platforms nearly overnight. Though hardly a predicament that impacted this academic institution alone, the experience has shown how UCLA Law’s fundamental ethos of innovation and collaboration creates positive outcomes in legal education – not to mention unexpected community-building moments of levity involving burbling babies, scruffy dogs or a California state senator.

“Logistically, technologically, pedagogically – in every way, our shift to remote learning has been a challenge, there’s no doubt,” says Professor Steven Bank, who in his role as vice dean for curricular and academic affairs has overseen much of the work to move classes online as seamlessly as possible. “But it’s a challenge that our community has embraced with keen deliberation and dedication, from the moment in-person classes stopped in the spring to the many sessions that we spent refining our best practices over the summer, up to today.”

As the spring semester wrapped, law school staff engaged in extensive polling of students and professors to gauge the pluses and minuses of remote learning. The list was long. Many found technical aspects difficult to manage, but they embraced a flexible atmosphere in the virtual classroom. Over the summer, faculty members collaborated with the UCLA Center for the Advancement of Teaching to engage in a series of workshops on mastering techniques and tools of online platforms, encouraging student interactivity in the virtual space and more.

By the start of the fall semester – with students now scattered across California and the country, often surrounded by noisy family members or even, sometimes, with needy infants on their laps – the school was prepared to put many of those practices into play. “I can’t wait until the pandemic isn’t forcing these decisions,” says Dean Jennifer Mnookin, “but clearly great learning will come out of this experience and make our school stronger.”

Even with some minor glitches – and the significant fact that most experiential courses, which typically rely on in-person interactions, had to go virtual – a great many students and professors have been impressed, reporting a wide array of silver linings amid the COVID-19 cloud.

“Teaching on Zoom has been invigorating,” says Professor Jason Oh of his federal taxation course. “I’ve refreshed my approach to material I’ve taught for years, adapted my syllabus and developed new study aids for the Zoom learning environment. I’m excited because some of these changes will improve the learning experience once we return to the classroom.”

Distinguished Professor Emeritus Stephen Yeazell emphasizes a significant loss in “socialization” – face-to-face interactions that students should be having with the peers who will be their career colleagues. But he touts many benefits of teaching online, including virtual breakout rooms, chat functions and podcasts that can augment lectures and be assigned for homework.

“Student-teacher interactions are more natural because there is just one face at a time and the tone of voice can be more natural: There are no raised voices to reach the front or back of the room,” Yeazell says of his online civil procedure class. “It’s also easier to bring in guests from wherever because they don’t have to schlep across the city and hunt for parking.”

Julia Stein teaches the California Environmental Legislation and Policy Clinic, which often introduces students to lawmakers and other climate change experts. In one recent session, California State Sen. Ben Allen, who represents Westwood in Sacramento, was able to spend 90 virtual minutes with Stein’s class, and he enjoyed the experience so much that he ran out of time and asked to return several weeks later.

“Remote teaching has been a boon in this way,” Stein says. “We’ve been fortunate to have guest speakers from the California Air Resources Board, the State Water Resources Board and others, most of whom are in Sacramento. Our online environment makes it easy for them to ‘drop by’ our class in a way they might not be able to if we were meeting in person.” 

Students have also been able to adjust their own studies and initiatives. “I’m grateful for the efforts that our administration has made to address inequities inherent to a transition to remote learning,” says Michael Cohen ’21, the 3L class president. “Student organizations remain active, there’s more mutual support than ever and students have adapted to the pandemic by inventing novel ways to enjoy each other’s company from a safe distance.”

Benefits often extend outside the virtual classroom, other students say. “Zoom might have been the best thing to happen because the flexibility to schedule a discussion of even informal edits has been incredible,” says Ryan Maister ’22, who assists lecturer Julie Cramer ’03, who coordinates the Legal Research and Writing Program. “It’s much better than scheduling meetings around when students are on campus or emailing back and forth on a topic that could be explained in 10 minutes. It should be utilized going forward.”

For other students, the move to remote learning offers rare glimpses into their teachers’ homes or opportunities to dial back concerns regarding cold calls from their professors, instances that often raise their anxiety levels in brick-and-mortar lecture halls.

Professor of Practice Eileen Scallen has adopted and refined a wide array of techniques aimed at making students more comfortable and involved in her civil procedure course. These include interactive polling, small-group hangout sessions, collaborative drafting using shared documents on Google Docs, allowing students to email her and ask to opt-out of random cold-calls and permitting them to turn off their own video cameras for brief moments when they feel like they need a break. The shift has also caused her to update her own work environment, allowing her to be more engaged with her students.

“It was pretty tough last spring, teaching 80 students on a 15-inch laptop, so one technical feature I added this fall was getting a full-size monitor. I can now have all 38 students on my screen and watch for signs of confusion, comprehension or restlessness – time to change up the pace of class!” she says. “I also find office hours easier: My law school office is great, and I miss it, but it has limited seating for students. Now I have room for everyone.”

Finally, there are the many unexpected moments that offer people some much-needed connections to their classmates and fellow community members during a difficult time.

Professor Taimie Bryant, who teaches property and directs the Animal Law and Policy Small Grants Program, recalls one class when she “casually joked that we should have a coordinated ‘Pets as Zoom Pictures’ day. Then, when my computer crashed and I was trying to get back into the class, the students started sharing pictures of pets and inviting their pets on camera. I found out about this later from students who asked if we really could have a ‘Pets on Zoom’ day.”

So they tried it out. “It was popular,” Bryant says. “Students chatted about how to change their pictures to include pet pictures, and it helped build a class community. It was fun for me, too!”