Note: This is a continuing weblog describing my experiences teaching an on-line course in government ethics.
The on-line government ethics course this semester has already benefitted from a number of internet-based resources as well as teleconferencing. With one of my early organizing goals to keep the “virtual class” as interactive as possible through the use of discussion boards and wikis available on TWEN, I also looked to see what other resources might be available on the Internet. To my surprise, there were a number of opportunities to integrate interactive ethics training into the course.
For example, most state ethics agencies now offer on-line training for covered employees. I contacted the NYS Commission on Public Integrity and they were agreeable to providing each of the students in the course with a user ID and password to enable students to take the Commission’s on-line training based on the ethics laws in New York. This training was a wonderful introduction for the students to the types of issues typically covered in an ethics regulatory regime. Another aspect of this on-line training was that at the end of each topical interval there was a quiz for participants to complete. The entire training could take anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours to complete, depending upon whether users go straight through the course, or take the opportunity to click on links to actual statutes, regulations and opinions that go into further detail on the particular subject matter being discussed. I asked the students to evaluate this training experience when they concluded the program. Their reactions were interesting. Almost everyone commented that the training was beneficial and a good introduction for government employees about the law. Many students commented that they thought this on-line training was too basic, yet, a number of these students also admitted that they were surprised to have gotten a lot of the quiz questions wrong. From this, several students observed how nuanced government ethics laws really are, and that the appropriate course of action when it comes to ethics is not always so obvious. This was an excellent teaching opportunity to point out how even people who are “trained” in the law can make mistakes, how individuals may not fully understand the application of the law to their actions, and why it is important to carefully read the statutes and regulations and to critically analyze the facts and the law.
Early in the semester we studied the difficulties surrounding the question of attorney-client privilege in the government context. As luck would have it, ALI-ABA was promoting a one-hour practitioner-oriented teleconference on the attorney-client privilege. Although this was not focused exclusively on government law practice, I thought it would be a good opportunity for the students to get a fuller understanding of the practical issues involved in application of the privilege. Perhaps because I frequently volunteer to teach ALI-ABA courses, I asked and was given permission for my students to participate in the course at no charge. ALI-ABA sent each student a password to access the lunch-time program. While many students commented that they wished the program had focused on the privilege in the government context, a lot of students wrote in their program evaluation to me that the course was interesting and they reflected on how it related to both what we studied in government ethics and what they discussed in their professional responsibility and evidence classes. This proved to be another good experience and opportunity to weave together ethics and professionalism and evidence along the continuum of the overall law school educational experience. It was practice oriented and it also covered doctrinal subject matter tested on the bar exam.
Lastly, for fun, the federal Office of Government Ethics (OGE) offers interactive games to reinforce serious ethics subject matter. I provided students a link in the weekly course materials folders to two of OGE’s interactive crossword puzzles where users can test their knowledge of federal ethics laws. While I didn’t specifically require the students to complete the crossword puzzles, I used it as an optional and alternative on-line teaching tool.
The above are just some of the examples of the various tools available to supplement a virtual classroom learning experience. Although I have not used them yet, there are government ethics training videos available on You-Tube and other web-based sources, and a number of states post on-line the oral arguments before their high court, providing yet another great resource for many different subject areas.
Patty Salkin, Albany Law School