Applying Pedagogical Insights to Large Online Courses

April 20, 2020

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

William FisherWhen William Fisher, WilmerHale Professor of Intellectual Property Law, was approached to create an online course version of his Harvard Law School Copyright course, he agreed with the stipulation that CopyrightX be paired with the residential version, that enrollment be limited to 500, and that students meet in discussion sections of 25. Both online and residential students watch the same 90-minute lecture video prior to class time. When the class meets, Fisher facilitates case study discussions with residential students and 15-20 teaching fellows do so for sections of online students. Sometimes, residential and online students meet virtually to hear from a guest speaker.

The benefits: Viewing lectures prior to class allows students to have a richer discussion because they’ve already reviewed foundational concepts at their own pace and can focus on working through the complexities of the case study. “In the past, I simply wouldn’t have had time for these exercises,” Fisher notes. Additionally, the online version brings in diverse learners from a dazzling array of professions, experiences, and countries.

The challenges: Due to the nature of the course content and because the law changes every year, Fisher finds that he must update at least one lecture video every year. Though time-consuming, this task is vital to ensure that the foundations and cases to which the students have access remain relevant.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Ensure lectures are comprehensive and incisive. Prior to flipping his residential course, Fisher hadn’t prepared formal lectures but used the Socratic method for courses. To create the necessary 90-minute lecture videos, Fisher first used dictation software to produce a draft transcript. After heavy editing, he then recorded his lecture a second time and refined as necessary.
  • Develop a network of teachers. The teaching fellows who lead case discussions in the online course earn course credit and gain experience teaching law. Additionally, Fisher holds a summit every May for anyone who has ever taught a section of CopyrightX, which is now offered at affiliate universities. Participants discuss new developments in the course, pedagogical strategies, and areas for improvement.
  • Allow for flexibility in case selection. Fisher presents cases cold to the residential students to build skills for analyzing on the spot. Students develop arguments for the plaintiff or defendant at the start of the semester for each case; halfway through the semester, their assignment is swapped. For the online students, teaching fellows assign cases chosen from a repository to be read prior to the live discussion, allowing them to tailor to different interests.

Bottom line: Using the flipped and blended classroom approach, Fisher’s students have consistently shown a stronger understanding of copyright law than in the course’s previous iteration. The student evaluations, increased student knowledge, and high completion rate (80%) of this “networked course” speak to the effectiveness of his approach. He encourages faculty creating an online version of their course to “aim high—assume your audience can handle the hard stuff, and they will.”