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ASU Law embraces new realities, opportunities in remote teaching environment

photo of ASU Law seminar class

Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law Associate Professor Kaiponanea Matsumura teaches his seminar class, and was able to make an easy transition to the virtual realm because of the strong rapport the small class had already established.

April 10, 2020

Stunning change has swept across the globe in 2020, rewriting the language of everyday conversation. “Coronavirus,” “N-95” and “COVID-19” are now firmly entrenched in the lexicon, as are concepts such as “social distancing” and “flattening the curve.”

New realities have set in everywhere, including at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, where legal studies for the spring semester have been accompanied by crash courses in virtual learning, breakout rooms and Zoombombing.

As infectious disease spread across the nation in March, schools closed their doors and went to work on continuity plans. ASU Law faculty quickly converted an entire law school to a remote teaching operation. Over 170 classes were moved online with 154 instructors mobilized, teaching from all corners of the state, Washington, D.C., and California.

For Professor Charles Calleros, who has been teaching at ASU Law since 1981, it was an abrupt and drastic change.

“A few professors at the College of Law have been teaching online courses for years now and are real pros,” he said. “For the rest of us, spring break was an exciting week, because we learned that we would be teaching through Zoom when classes resumed.”

Calleros said what followed were several days of crash courses, trial runs and adjustments in pedagogy.

“Thanks to some great support and coaching from several sources, it’s working well enough that teaching may never be the same.”

An adjustment for all

Associate Professor Laura Coordes is among the ASU Law faculty members with previous experience teaching classes online. But those online classes were asynchronous  instead of holding live classes via Zoom, her students reviewed prerecorded lectures and submitted work to her through Canvas.

She said she was nervous to learn a new system but has been pleasantly surprised by the user-friendliness of Zoom. Coordes is dealing with two distinct audiences, currently teaching a Chapter 11 bankruptcy class with 13 students, as well as a secured transactions class with 72 students.

“The students have been very conscientious about keeping up with their work, asking questions and staying engaged, so I have been really impressed with how they've been handling all of the challenges and changes,” she said. “​This experience has really brought to light how much the students care for one another and for the faculty here. It’s very encouraging to know that we have such a compassionate community of future lawyers here at the law school, and I am proud of the work the students and my colleagues have put in these past few weeks to adapt to online learning so quickly.”

Like Coordes, Professor Rhett Larson had taught online before using prerecorded lectures, and was new to the real-time remote environment of Zoom, which he said was a big adjustment.

“Honestly, the thing I’ve noticed the most is the silence,” he said. “I love teaching, and I especially like to have fun while I teach. With remote teaching, students understandably tend to mute their microphones unless they want or need to speak. But it means that every time I crack a joke, I’m met with silence and I can’t tell if my joke landed or bombed.”

Larson is teaching first-year property law to a class of 65 students, along with an advanced water law seminar with 15 students. In some ways, he says, the virtual environment has brought everybody closer together. And although he’s left guessing about his own jokes, the online format has brought some newfound levity.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that students communicate very well with one another in this format,” Larson said. “They answer each other’s questions through the chat function, and offer help and encouragement. They also bring a great sense of humor  I love it when they have funny Zoom backgrounds, and I love to see their families and pets. I worried that this remote teaching would combine intrusiveness with isolation, but in many ways, it has created a uniquely warm intimacy for the class as we see a little corner or our homes and home life.”

Professor Valena Beety believes the challenge of teaching online has been good for the faculty.

“I’ve been most surprised by our creative faculty members who are creating innovative classes that succeed in teaching our students in different ways,” said Beety, who is teaching Criminal Law, a first-year course with 69 students. “The overarching goal is for our students to continue learning about the law, and faculty have been using new tools to make sure online classes are accessible, engaging and interesting to students. We’re all trying different methods and tools.”

The students have adapted well and stayed engaged, Beety says, stepping up with great discussions, chats and lively breakout rooms.

Associate Professor Kaiponanea Matsumura said his seminar class, with just 14 students, was able to make an easy transition to the virtual realm because of the strong rapport the small class had already established. For his 36-student Family Law class, he made more adjustments  and took full advantage of Zoom’s capabilities.

“First, instead of cold-calling, I notify the five to eight students who will be on call the afternoon before class,” he said. “It obviously reduces the incentives for everyone in the class to prepare, to the extent that cold-calling provides those incentives, but at least it raises the quality of discussion over Zoom, which would otherwise be stilted.”

Matsumura has also been utilizing the breakout room feature on Zoom, but with one important requirement for the students.

“I tell them that they must appoint one person on behalf of their group to report back to the class what the group’s ultimate position is on the particular issue they are discussing,” he said. “I’ve found that the additional accountability gives them at least a little bit of focus.”

Zoom has a poll function, which Matsumura has used to stimulate discussion. He’ll pose a simple question, such as: Should parents owe their children a duty of support after the children reach the age of majority?

“I take the poll, share the results, and then we have a discussion,” he said. “I’ve found that they like to see how other people are feeling about the issue, and it generates enthusiasm for the question itself.”

Seizing new opportunities

Associate Professor Ilan Wurman had never taught online before, and he still prefers in-classroom instruction. But he says the Zoom technology provides some useful tools he would not have in the classroom.

“The breakout rooms, for example, are quite nice,” said Wurman, who is teaching a Constitutional Law class with 60 students. “It forces students to chat with different classmates each time I have them discuss some question or problem.”

He says it’s important for instructors to do whatever they can to help students in the present circumstances.

“I was pleased to watch a movie virtually with a dozen students last Saturday night,” he said. “We watched ‘Lincoln’ and used the movie to engage in discussions about the president’s war powers, legal equality, and other provisions of the Constitution that made an appearance. It was a great success.”

Beety says professors are embracing the opportunity to try new teaching methods, and she and Calleros have both made efforts to “flip the classroom”  providing a short recorded lecture or reading assignments in advance, then freeing up more class time for discussions, brainstorming exercises or timed writing assignments.

Calleros says the best consultants for online instruction might be the students.

“The students themselves are experiencing the online teaching firsthand and can be a great source of ideas to maximize our effectiveness,” he said. “After class one day this last week, I asked interested students to stay online after class to chat about ways that they have addressed challenges of online learning. For example, several students had suggestions for canceling out distractions from noisy neighbors or roommates. One even posted a link to a pair of inexpensive noise-canceling headphones. We also addressed problems of juggling several documents on screen at one time, such as an essay question, the Word document for the student’s answer, and one or more resources that the students are allowed to consult during a writing exercise.”

Larson echoed the idea that students can be a great resource for the faculty, and he encouraged them to be proactive in giving feedback to their instructors.

“We made this transition very quickly and are still learning and adjusting, so if you see something that you think would help us teach better, don’t be shy and let us know,” he said. “Along that same line, be generous in helping others. A lawyer is above all other things a servant  we help people in need. This is a great time to develop that skill and attitude.”

Beety is proud of how ASU Law’s collaborative spirit has carried over to the virtual environment, with students and faculty using online classes and resources to stay connected during a difficult time.

“We’re in a time of social distancing and isolation, yet by using these online class platforms creatively, we’re able to provide a space where students can know that they’re part of a team,” she said. “They’re not alone. We’re all in this together, and we’re all facing struggles, and still we’re also showing up. The students and professors are together creating a space for learning and growth, even in the midst of uncertainty and national challenges.”

Larson explained the pressure he and other faculty members felt when classes had to make a sudden move to a remote environment.

“I love my students, and I really worried that I would let them down by not making this transition to remote teaching as effectively as they deserve,” he said. “And I derive a lot of energy from my students, not just in teaching, but in research and writing. I worried that having them far away would be a drain on my energy. But they have been so kind and encouraging of my efforts, and they still return all of the energy I put back to me, with interest, even during a hard time.”

Necessity is the mother of invention, especially in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. And Calleros is excited about the expanded opportunities that now await when life returns to normal.

“Using Zoom, I may not need to reschedule a class again when presenting at a conference out of town on a teaching day,” he said. “So long as I can get away during the scheduled class time, I am now convinced that Zoom offers an effective means of convening class in the cloud. It still doesn’t fully substitute for the more immediate and engaging experience in the classroom, but it will do in a pinch — or a pandemic.”

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