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Virtual courses make professors brokers of learning

Professor Steve Nickles

Professor Steve Nickles

This past summer a group of students gathered for a course taught by the Wake Forest University School of Law. The students and Professor Steve Nickles met at 5:30 p.m. several times a week.

The course was split into two separate courses — debtor-creditor law the first half of the summer; bankruptcy the second half.

As each class began, Nickles looked at the students’ faces. He could see each and every one. He could hear each distinct voice, observe each divergent expression. It was all so clear. Everything in focus. Total synchronicity.

As far as the location from where each student was taking the class, well, in most cases Nickles could only imagine.

The unique course, made possible through a university partnership with Cisco Systems Inc., was taught in a completely virtual environment. Nickles could see the students, and the students saw him. But they weren’t together in a physical sense.

Using the Cisco program WebEx, class participants needed only a computer, notepad — or even just a smart phone — with a two-way camera, audio capabilities and a broadband connection.

Easy as making a phone call, said Nickles, C. C. Hope Chair in Law and Management.

Through the partnership, each member of the Wake Forest University community received a license for WebEx, which, according to the Cisco website, connects “anyone, anywhere in real time.” Wake Forest is the first WebEx university, Nickles says.

WebEx at Wake Forest works in concert with TWEN — The West Educational Network — which Nickles helped to develop. TWEN is the only national, online course management system designed for legal education, and Nickles is recognized across the country as an outstanding scholar and teacher in the fields of business, commercial, and debtor-creditor law. He is the coauthor of several casebooks and textbooks on these subjects and of a three-volume treatise on bankruptcy, which is used by lawyers. 

Wake Forest prides itself on its commitment to promoting personal interaction among students and instructors in smaller, more intimate classroom settings. It’s part of the university’s brand. The WebEx experience, says Nickles, not only enhances that experience but also builds upon it.

“In all respects it is like the traditional classroom, except it’s better … actually much better, I think,” Nickles said. “People worry about it becoming impersonal, but the way we’re doing it in other programs going forward, it becomes more personal. It really does give meaning to that brand.”

An online, real-time course such as this, he says, removes the aspect of anonymity. “Using this model as we are, nobody’s on the back row. Everybody is up front, and you literally have eye contact with each of the students. Wake Forest has small sections, but if you’ve got 40 students, well, that’s still 40 students.

“The gap — the distance between the podium in a regular classroom and that row of students’ chairs — can be thousands of miles. When you are sitting there at that computer screen, you are face to face.”

This is useful for the teacher, who can gain insight into whether students are comprehending the material or, conversely, signal the need to elucidate. If a student speaks up or poses a question, his face becomes predominant on the screen.

“For me, and I think for my colleagues, too, seeing a student’s face — seeing the students’ faces — you can get a much better sense of whether they’re understanding or not.”

Said one student evaluation: “I think this has been the most rewarding class that I have taken at Wake Forest. I had an opportunity to work with each student one on one in a setting that permitted us to talk openly…  Most importantly, though, I feel like this venue is in many ways more intimate than a typical classroom setting.  … In this setting, we could see and hear the professor and the other students in the same way we do in a traditional classroom setting.  …In my opinion, participating in the webinar discourages students from surfing the Internet, playing games and Facebooking, which is rampant and distracting in regular classes.” 

WebEx allows instructors to share information with students — charts, forms, etc. — at will. And because it’s inherently mobile, guests such as respective experts and professionals can take part in the class through a simple invitation, possibly at a moment’s notice. No need to travel, no need to park.

During the summer course Nickles divided students into teams and required them to work with a practicing lawyer, who became part of that team through WebEx. Nickles also applied the technology to assign course mentors, who also were practicing attorneys.

“You can bring folks in, and we can export ourselves to different places. It is very, very easy to bring third parties into the classroom, which I did all summer long. They simply join along with the rest of us. With this system, I can send an email invitation. If they are there and want to join us, they just click a button and bingo, they’re in the classroom.”

One student would certainly agree, writing in the class evaluation: “This allows students to hear from professionals from regions outside of North Carolina, which is where face-to-face class discussion at Wake is generally limited to. This is increasingly important for a school that seeks to expand to a more national approach. I can safely say that after this summer I have made a good connection with a judge and a clerk in Kansas, an attorney in New York, and practitioners throughout N.C., a benefit I may not have had in a face-to-face classroom.”

Synchronicity.

One class period this summer, focusing on ethical issues and the power of a federal bankruptcy judge to discipline lawyers, was especially memorable. Nickles arranged for three judges from disparate areas of the country to take part in the discussion, which included Alice Mine, a law professor at Duke and assistant executive director for the North Carolina State Bar, where, among other duties, she is staff counsel to the ethics committee.

Wake Forest law school faculty members watched the class as a group.

Two of the three judges on the panel actually had disbarred lawyers from their court, so whether a disbarment falls within a judge’s purview and whether the should state respond in some way and is bound to that ruling do, then, become salient questions.

“There was not unanimous agreement,” Nickles said.

“You had them debating and arguing with the students interjecting. The richness and the intimacy of it was the best teaching experience of my career, which didn’t start yesterday. In addition, it was fun.”

WebEx, and programs like it, allow the teacher to become a broker of learning, analogous to the leader of large and intricate orchestra, where the sounds and the rhythms are changing, evolving, expanding.

“I think, particularly in law schools, that is really the principal model,” Nickles said. “The law has gotten very wide, very deep, and you just can’t stay on top of the latest developments.”

Online, synchronous classes, Nickles said, provide the chance to intricately weave and integrate theoretical and practical learning, and to tie those facets to values applying, for example, to the profession and the culture.

Nickles and other faculty began using aspects of WebEx during spring semester 2011, and he approached the law school deans about developing a virtual course or two for the summer.

Dean Blake Morant and Suzanne Reynolds, associate executive dean for academic affairs, embraced the idea. Nickles applauds Morant and Reynolds for their foresight, their encouragement and their support.

 “Until I scheduled these courses,” Reynolds said, “I had never had students thank me for how I arranged their courses. In many ways, the scheduling of classes is a thankless task, but the students were so grateful for these online courses that they wrote me thank-you notes. I know that we have come up with something special when an academic dean gets ‘thank-yous’ for the course schedule.”

Imagine, if you will, the possibilities.

Students, Nickles said, could go to work for a law firm anywhere and continue to take classes. Deans and administrators could recruit adjunct professors from anywhere in the world. “This is ultimately going to affect the traditional model of the tenured faculty member. Your pool is not going to be limited to your regular faculty and to those who are close enough.

“Undoubtedly, online education is coming to legal education. Wake Forest is an early adopter of this, absolutely. Blake Morant is farsighted and wants to be out front.

“But at the same time, and this is very, very important for all the faculty. I can speak for the faculty on this issue. We are OK with online education, as long as we can maintain or improve the quality of education for the students and at the same, equally important, maintain that pro forma relationship with the students, which is the Wake Forest brand. Every faculty member believes that.”

As do the students, and at least one legal professional, one student evaluation said.

 ” [M]y Dad was with me [during a class], and he was completely blown away…’til this day he can’t stop talking about ‘what they’re doing at Wake Forest.’ He’s been practicing for 35 years so to see the level of professors we get, the technology we utilize, and how engaged are student body is, he was completely blown away with how we are prepared.”