Integrating Internet-Based and Teleconferencing Resources into On-Line Teaching

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

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On-Line Discussion Boards Create a New Arena for Engaged Learning Environments

What’s better than the Socratic Method to engage all students in a course?  On-line discussion boards.

One of the challenges in creating the virtual classroom is to strive for students to substitute time that would have been spent sitting in a seat in an actual classroom for time spent engaged in the discussion on-line.  In addition to viewing short slide presentations with audio, and participating in occasional other on-line instruction (for example, this week the students were registered for and participated in a 45 minute on-line ethics training program developed by the NYS Commission on Public Integrity; and they were registered for a one hour ALI-ABA teleconference on the attorney-client privilege), the remainder of our instruction hours for the week are spent on the discussion boards.

So far I have opted to post three questions per week, and I have required the students to respond to at least two of the three questions, and then post replies to at two postings made by their colleagues (requiring 4 postings in total).  With 22 students enrolled in the course, it would be near impossible in a seminar of this size to actively engage every student in every class hour.  With the on-line discussion board, however, each and every student is an engaged learner who must participate in the class discussion.  In other words, no one gets a “bye” for the weekly class reading, and everyone must learn to be reflective, analytical and articulate in the written postings they make to the discussion boards.  Not only do I read the postings, but every class member reads the postings as well.  By week two, I realized the power of the discussion boards.

The two discussions I opened were:

1)    Based on Chapter 2, it is fair to conclude that defining exactly “who” is the client of the government lawyer is a difficult and challenging task, yet one that it is extremely important (at least in terms of confidentiality of communications which we will discuss in another posting).  Please respond for making a case that one of the following should be appropriately viewed as the client of the General Counsel to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and explain why: 1) The Governor; 2) The Commissioner of DEC; 3) The Counsel to the Governor; 4) A high ranking official within the agency other than the Commissioner; 5) Anyone in the Agency who sits down for a conversation with the Agency Counsel; 6) The public; or 7) Other (be specific). Is your answer the same if the attorney is not the DEC General Counsel, but rather an Assistant Counsel who reports to a deputy counsel who reports to the general counsel?  What if you work in the attorney general’s office and your job, according to the New York Executive Law, is to represent the State?

2)    From reading both Chapter 12 and the article in the folder for week 2, it is apparent that the federal courts are in conflict as to whether a government attorney-client privilege exists. This is an issue that will likely get before the U.S. Supreme Court some day. Please explain why you believe there should or should not be an attorney-client privilege. Your answer may consider the following: Does it matter whether the underlying conversations and litigation involve civil or criminal matters? If a privilege exists, does it belong to the government official or some other office/agency in government? What type of legal and regulatory arguments can you make to support your policy position?

These questions were directed, yet open ended enough to allow students to craft carefully thought-out responses and to challenge and engage students with differing perspectives and interpretations.  In the classroom, students may have responded with short answers in a sentence or two and full explanations may have had to be painstakingly extracted. Using the on-line forum, however, I received outstanding responses that demonstrated students did the reading, applied the applicable laws and policies, and considered the legal and policy challenges in reaching conclusions.  Their responses ranged from one full paragraph to four or five paragraphs.

In short, the discussion boards are proving to be an excellent teaching tool.  

Patty Salkin, Albany Law School

Course Design – Technology Meets Substance in On-Line Curriculum Development

After setting course learning outcomes for the on-line government ethics course, I had to revise my syllabus to better match my goals and desired outcomes mindful of the on-line format, and I had to develop creative strategies for creating a vibrant virtual discussion that would satisfactorily create a functional equivalent of an in-person classroom discussion.

To be honest, this was easier than I thought it would be using the functionality of TWEN.  I selected one soft cover book as the course text, and have supplemented that with readings mostly available on-line or in the public domain that are posted to the course site in weekly course resource folders.

I typically require students to complete assignments in my courses, and I wanted to find a way that these tasks could add to the vibrancy of the course by being shared with all  participants rather than being e-mailed only to me using the TWEN assignment drop-box. At the end of December, TWEN added a Wiki function to the site, and this was the perfect opportunity.  Each student was asked to sign-up for one state that they will follow through the semester.  I set up a series of Wikis where students will be posting short narratives and links to statutes, regulations and opinions from their state about subject matters we will be studying that particular week.  All of the states the students selected appear on the Wiki page for a given week, and each student accesses the Wiki and inputs the information for their state. So, for example, in week two, students have to merely find and post the on-line links to their state ethics commission, ethics laws and lobbying laws.  In week three, students will have to actually critically read and start to parse aspects of the state statutes in order to answer a series of questions about their state ethics commission.  The assignment reads as follows:

Using the state laws from the state you have selected for the semester (note: the following 10 states do NOT have ethics commissions – Arizona, Idaho, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming), please find the applicable provisions dealing with the composition of the state ethics commission. Under your state listing in this wiki, please answer the questions below:

1. How many people are on the commission (board)?
2. Who appoints the members of the commission (board)?
3. What is the term of office for members?
4. Are there criteria/qualifications/disqualifications for members?
5. Are there provisions for removal of members?
 How is the chair of the commission (board) selected?
7. Who appoints the executive director of the commission (board)?
8. Is the executive director appointed for a term?
9. Does the law provide for removal of the executive director?
10. Does the commission (board) have subpoena power?
11. Does the commission have jurisdiction over both executive and legislative branch officers and employees; municipal employees; lobbyists?

Provide the on-line link to the applicable provisions of state law that support your summary.

When completed, the class will have a 23-state comparative overview of the differences and similarities of state statutes on this topic which will be the basis of a question on our Discussion Board (I’ll write more about the Discussion Boards in a future posting).

For those interested, my colleague Darlene Cardillo, our Instructional Technologist at Albany Law School has posted a summary of week one of the course from a technology perspective on her blog here. The results of our pre-course student survey about their familiarity with on-line learning and with TWEN can be viewed here, you can read about the only in-person class, a one hour orientation here,.

Patty Salkin, Albany Law School

Setting Goals and Evaluation for an On-Line Course

With the recent focus on outcomes for learning, I decided to provide students taking the first on-line course at Albany Law School with written goals for the semester.  The following was posted for the students:

COURSE GOALS:

By the end of the course, students who participate fully should be able to:

1)    APPLY acquired knowledge of government ethics laws in general, and regulations that apply specifically to government lawyers, statewide and nationally to challenges facing individuals who work in the public sector at any level of government in any state;

2)    RECOGNIZE & EVALUATE differing perspectives surrounding the public policy goals and dynamics of regulating the conduct of public officials and employees, and the roles of the various oversight agencies involved in the education, enforcement and prosecution of public actors for alleged civil and/or criminal wrongdoing;

3)    EXAMINE CRITICALLY  laws (existing and proposed), policies, systems and structures which govern  those who work in the public sector as well as those in the private sector who interact with government employees to identify applicable laws, loopholes and opportunities; and

4)    DEMONSTRATE COLLABORATION/COLLEAGIALITY AND PROFESSIONALISM through participation in the active on-line and team learning aspects of the course which will be essential to effective client counseling and representation and/or negotiation in the development of ethics laws and regulations.

Naturally, students want to know how they will be evaluated.  This required a lot of consideration for an on-line class.  When I previously taught the course I told the students I expected that they follow the Law School’s published attendance policy, and that class participation and completion of assignments would count towards their grade.  Since the course was taught seminar style, in lieu of an exam, students were required to submit a 20-25 page research paper at the end of the semester. The paper was weighted significantly in calculating grades. 

After reflecting on the goals to make sure that the students were being evaluated appropriately based on the desired outcomes, I developed the following grading rubric:

Assessment/Grading:  Your performance will be assessed throughout the semester as you participate in on-line discussions, and complete wikis and other assignments.  The amount of time you spend on-line in the course site and its various component assignments, combined with the quality of your postings which should reflect the knowledge and skills you acquire as the semester goes on, will be incorporated the feedback you receive during the semester as well as in your final grade.

Effort reflected by time on line                                                                  25%

Completion of all assignments and discussions                                  25%

(quality demonstrating reading and reflection of materials and other student comments)

Accurate and comprehensive completion of                                         25%   

Wiki assignments

Accurate and comprehensive completion of group                              25%

project

In future postings I will describe the discussion boards, the use of wikis and the group project.  To determine time on line, which is the closest I could come to an attendance policy for an on-line course, I told students I would view the “activity” reports provided by TWEN.  I cautioned students that I would be able to tell who simply logged on to the TWEN site and then left for a couple of hours with the browser open to make it appear as though they were actively engaged in reviewing information on the site.

Patty Salkin, Albany Law School

Organizing Technology to Teach On-Line

There are many technical issues to explore when setting up an on-line course.  The most important resource with respect to all aspects of technical course design was our superstar instructional technologist at Albany Law School, Darlene Cardillo (here is a link to her technology blog:   http://albanylawtech.wordpress.com). What follows are some of the important issues explored and lessons learned:

1 – What platform was available to “host” the course?  I had used Blackboard in the past, but Albany Law School did not have access to this.  In the end, TWEN was selected after Darlene’s recommendation.  I had some comfort with TWEN, having used some of its functionality last semester, but I definitely needed a tutorial on the possibilities it had for an on-line course. My next posting will provide details on how I am using the TWEN tools to deliver the course.

2 – What other software and hardware did I need? After deciding that I would not be having students log-in for live video chats (this eliminated the need for a webcam/camera in my computer and the need to download software (such as Skype), I did decide to try using slide presentations with my voice over to convey certain information for some weeks. To accomplish this, Darlene set me up with Adobe Presenter and a microphone.  I also got a small recorder that saves recordings as mp3 files for easy uploading to the course site.  This will allow me to post “podcasts” of interviews I might conduct during the semester.

3 – Practice.  I like the Adobe Presenter software since it allows me to record audio one slide at a time and save it.  I didn’t count on the amount of time it would take me to record the audio.  For week one I had 17 slides.  I figured it would take me 25-30 minutes to record the audio.  Wrong.  It took me 90 minutes.  I realized that when I went to record a “lasting memorial” of my words, I sought greater perfection than the more informal patterns of speech in front of the classroom.  I re-recorded individual slides more times that I care to relate.  I resisted though the temptation to “script” the slides.  I thought it would take too much time and my presentations/discussions in class are not “scripted” as such.  I wanted to words and speech patterns to seem real, yet polished.  The ninety minute investment was worth it – except, I did not save the presentation correctly, lost it, and had to start over again.  Hard lesson in what not to do!

4- Size of the files for posting.  Generally I have not had problems opening pdf files I have placed in the weekly resource files.  However, some difficulty was experienced opening the pdf of the slide presentation made with Adobe Presenter.  I may not have compressed the file when I saved it.  It was also advised that Adobe 9 was required to open the document. Aaron Cabbage at Westlaw who works on TWEN design/development has also recommended saving the slides in the future through Slide Share (http://www.slideshare.net ) and then posting a link from the TWEN site.  I may try that next.

Patty Salkin, Albany Law School

Getting Ready for On-Line Teaching

This semester I will be teaching the first all on-line course at Albany Law School. The topic is government ethics.  The desire to experiment with the course format and new technology is due in part to the fact that each spring semester we send students to Washington, DC for a semester in government program (in addition to placing students in New York’s capital city) and all students in the full time semester in government experience are required, among other things, to take the government ethics course.  In the past we have been fortunate to have been able to use distance learning facilities at George Washington University School of Law to have our students participate in the class using the cameras in their classroom and the distance learning facilities at Albany Law School.  With the advances in technology, and my experiences teaching on-line professional development courses for lawyers and planners through Rutger’s, the time seemed right to experiment with the government ethics course for our JD students.  Over the course of the next several weeks I will post entries to explain how the course has been designed, the different ways in which technology has been incorporated into the curriculum, some of the lessons learned in terms of design and technology, and I will report “real time” on both teacher and student reactions to various apsects of the course.  Your comments and suggestions about improvements to the course design/approach are welcome as adjustments can be made along the way.  

Patty Salkin, Albany Law School

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