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Teaching Media Law Online

By David Cuillier
Division Head 2011-2012
University of Arizona

Is virtual learning just that? Virtual?

Teaching media law online can be more time consuming, challenging, and less effective than teaching in-person, but with creativity and hard work we might be able to come up with better methods that serve diverse populations and engage students.

Distance learning is increasingly important in higher education because of demands by non-traditional students for classes that work around their careers. And who wouldn’t want to work from home and save a little gas? Although often relegated to professional degrees, certificate programs, and diploma mills, online classes have some advantages.

For example, classes open to people outside the program or university often attract students from different backgrounds, regions, and eras to provide perspectives and alternative views that challenge and enrich the thinking of their homogenized 19-year-old classmates.

Teaching media law online can reach more people who need it, particularly the growing numbers of citizen journalists and bloggers spread throughout the country who are unfamiliar with libel, privacy, and copyright law.

Also, an online class can be effective for specialized law seminars or electives, especially if they are taught during special sessions during winter break or in the summer. Often, for special-session classes, universities will give a cut of the tuition to departments and a little extra money for the professor.

Last winter break I taught a three-week online class on government secrecy and freedom of information and it worked well. Students had time for the class because most didn’t have a job or internship, and the course provided a good reason for them to excuse themselves from family holiday obligations (“Aunt Mae, I would love to talk more about your trip to Bermuda, but darn it I have to work on this class assignment that is due tonight”).

The class was effective, in part, because assignments could be done from home. For example, in addition to short papers, reading summaries, and daily discussion board posts, I assigned each student to use public record searches to background a house for sale in the towns they were staying in during the break. I also provided a computer simulation game in gathering public records that they could do from home.
But teaching media law online can be challenging, particularly because it is so crucial in this subject to work through legal reasoning in person. Students have a tough time understanding how to think like a lawyer and applying legal tests to hypothetical cases. Seeing a puzzled face and responding immediately is something best done face-to-face.

In a December e-mail through the Law & Policy Division listserv, Dr. Paul Siegel, a professor of communication at the University of Hartford, wrote that the online media law course he taught was fun but time consuming. He also missed the live in-class oral arguments session and wished he would have had the first session in person to get to know some of the students.

Dr. Clay Calvert of Penn State University agrees. Penn State teaches one section of media law online in the spring, in addition to the several sections taught year-round in-person.

“The in-person version of an undergraduate media law class is, in my mind, more valuable in that it allows for real-time discussion and interaction in which I, as the instructor, can tell from the students’ facial reactions and body cues how much they are tracking,” Calvert wrote via e-mail. “I teach the marketplace of ideas theory in my media law classes and, suffice it to say, it is much easier to foster and facilitate a marketplace of ideas when the students are in front of me, I have their attention, I can field their questions and comments, and I can ask other students for their thoughts.”

The online media law section at Penn State, initiated by Calvert, is now taught by Dr. Matt Jackson, who continues to change his teaching methods to help students learn.

The class ranges from 15 to 38 students a semester and includes students from the main University Park campus, from other campuses around the state, and some students from abroad.

Jackson said he posts assignments and homework on the university’s Angel distance learning system, which is similar to Blackboard. Students upload their work to individual folders in the system. He e-mails his students often to remind them of upcoming assignments and legal topics in the news.

This past spring he broke the class into groups of four, and for each of the semester’s eight topic units (e.g., libel, copyright) he required students to post at least two substantive comments on a group discussion board.

Jackson doesn’t give tests or quizzes, or require a final term paper, but instead requires short assignments, such as finding news stories for each of the eight units and writing two-page summaries tying in the legal aspects learned from the text and posted lecture notes. Jackson said next year he’ll post PowerPoint lectures, about 10-15 minutes each, that include audio voice-over so he can emphasize key points.

“I did find in the first half of the semester that it was a very big challenge to get them to think like a lawyer and understand the law,” Jackson said. “They are used to using language very loosely. They are used to not paying attention to factual distinctions. That’s a real challenge online.”

Do the students learn better online than in person? No, Jackson said. And I agree. At this point the face-to-face discussion is invaluable for teaching media law, especially when working through complicated cases and application of legal tests.

“Students probably don’t leave the online course better than they would if they had taken it in person,” Jackson said. “I’m sad to say even the students who do really well probably are not learning as much than if they took the class in person.”

It’s even more troublesome for correspondence courses offered by community colleges or similar institutions.

For example, a media law course offered by Canyon College of Caldwell, Idaho, requires students to simply read the Mass Media Law textbook by Don Pember and Calvert, watch the PowerPoint lectures provided by the authors and then take a test comprised of 100 multiple-choice and true-false questions at the end of the term provided by the text. I doubt students leaving that class would be able to apply the Branzburg test if subpoenaed or counter dubious public records request denials.

So we still have more work to figure out ways of engaging discussion in the virtual world for teaching media law. Some professors have started using Second Life for online class gatherings. Others try group chats online with Skype, Facebook, or chatrooms. Our division should encourage more experimentation and foster sharing of methods.

We also should assess the learning outcomes of students who take media law courses online, and compare the results to in-person media law courses. While distance learning has potential for media law, ultimately the focus should always be on learning, not on technological gee-gaws and convenience.

Tips for teaching online:

Winter-break sessions are good times to teach online because students are at home bored, not doing internships, and have the time to put into the class.

Try to meet as a class in person if possible before the course starts.

At the beginning of the session, assign an “introduce yourself” summary for each student to post online so students can get to know one another.

Send e-mails and post messages at the course Web site frequently to remind students of upcoming assignments and keep them engaged.

Require online discussion board or blog posts to foster debate.

Schedule periodic live class meeting times online and discuss topics using an online chatroom. Could try a Skype session or meeting in Second Life, but simple chatrooms probably work as well.

Schedule “office hours” online through instant messaging or Skype, but don’t expect many students to take advantage of it.

Provide short assignments and papers that can be completed at home and away from the university.

Create short (10-15 minutes) online lectures rolling through PowerPoint with voice-over, emphasizing key points and issues. These can be made into Flash files from programs such as Camtasia and posted online for easy viewing. Camtasia also allows you to inset video of yourself talking.

Provide lots of practice exercises early on to convey how one analyzes a court case and applies legal tests to hypotheticals. This is tough to do online, so use a lot of examples, practice, and feedback.

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