Innovation during a pandemic—an exercise in collaboration.

Per Bill’s introduction in Post 169, I’ve been invited to share Indiana University Maurer School of Law’s plans for the fall.

The most noteworthy feature, summarized in the above graphic, is a new block scheduling format for 1Ls, which reflects a mix of in-person and online modalities designed to balance the imperative of high-quality education with the individual needs and circumstances of students and faculty, the mandates of the larger university, and risk of future Covid-19 disruptions.

When the pandemic hit, Maurer Law, like other law schools, was forced to make a lot of important decisions very quickly, starting first with the movement of more than 100 courses to a remote online format followed by a rapid rethinking of commencement, summer employment, the bar exam, and many other perennial features of law school life.

As soon as the semester (such as it was) ended, our team of faculty, deans, professional staff, and student representatives shifted to a coronavirus-version of long-term planning. With the luxury of a modest amount of whitespace, it became clear to all stakeholders that a traditional in-person return to campus this fall was out of the question. Crafting an alternative—particularly a meaningful first-year experience that followed public health-and-safety requirements—was going to call for collaboration, consensus-building, and communication among faculty, staff, and students.

Within three short weeks, a committee of faculty leadership drafted, vetted, and presented to the faculty a first-year plan that meets the health-and-safety requirements set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the governor of the State of Indiana, and university administration. The plan is built around the idea that students have differing family, health, and other personal circumstances. Many of them will be comfortable coming to campus every day; others may need to take classes online.

I am pleased to report that what I describe here is what Maurer Law is rolling out this fall, as the plan was unanimously approved by faculty at our June 5 meeting.

The plan itself is straightforward. Instead of taking Torts, Civil Procedure, and Contracts throughout a 13-week semester, 1L students will take one course at a time in concentrated four-week blocks, with each block followed with a final exam. Small-section Legal Research and Writing courses will meet throughout the semester concurrently with the block courses, and so too will a one-credit online Legal Profession course.

Our faculty decided on this approach for at least three reasons:

  • Social distancing and safety requirements. The block approach enables us to create smaller course sections that account for the social-distancing and other health and safety requirements that greatly restrict the capacity of our classrooms. This was the only way to manage space limitations and still provide an in-person experience.
  • Both in-person and online options. We recognize that students will make individual decisions that comport with their needs and their learning styles, and the plan enables them to do that. The in-person and online sections are separate, and faculty are designing their courses in view of whether the course will be taught fully online or in person, so that students will experience the intellectual debate and important interaction that occur with classroom discussions, regardless of the environment.
  • Flexibility and change. The plan recognizes that students’ personal circumstances could change during the semester. If they do, and students find that switching to online from in-person learning (or vice versa) is more beneficial, the plan will enable them to do so. The block format also reduces the extent of disruption if there’s a significant surge in COVID–19 cases later in the semester and state officials impose stay-home orders.

I am grateful to the members of our faculty and staff who worked literally around the clock to put this plan together in such a short time. But even the best plans (including this one) can fail unless other factors are aligned in support.

In my view, at least three other conditions have to be in place for a plan like this one to succeed:

  1. University support. The law school has benefited from a consistent and well-coordinated effort on the part of both the IU–Bloomington campus and Indiana University at large. A university-wide Restart Committee—chaired by Dean Jay Hess of the IU School of Medicine, the nation’s largest medical school—has prepared a report with recommendations on how Indiana University can operate in fall 2020. The Committee’s Restart Report, which many of its recommendations IU President Michael A. McRobbie has adopted, contemplates a model where the university will open this fall with a combination of online and in-person learning. The report details a wide range of health and safety requirements, including social distancing, virus testing, contact tracing, face coverings, extensive cleaning and sanitizing, and other precautions. These specific guidelines, informed by science and consistently applied, gave us both the data and the encouragement to proceed with our own plan.
  2. Consensus-building. Our incoming and outgoing executive associate deans and our dean of academic affairs met individually with each faculty member teaching in the 1L curriculum and talked through the pros and cons of a blended and block schedule. The deans sought additional advice from senior faculty members and other administrators, and a number of conversations were had with upper-division students to get their feedback. Our Educational Policy Committee dissected the plan and put it back together, which made it even stronger. By the time the plan reached the faculty for a vote, its adoption was largely assured. The consensus-building process laid the groundwork for the design of the upper-division courses, which will likely follow a blended format.
  3. Communication. Just two hours after the faculty approved the plan, I convened a Town Hall meeting on Zoom to which I had invited the entire incoming 1L class. More than half of them attended that session or two others that followed early the next week. The plan itself, along with a schematic laying out the details, was posted on our website, and the Town Hall sessions were recorded for those unable to attend. We have also polled incoming students to ascertain their early preferences and promised to keep them updated through additional frequent communications.

It would be naïve to suppose that our fall plan may not change between now and the first day of orientation on August 11. The world around is too uncertain. But if it serves no other purpose, this planning process has underscored how faculty and staff collaboration, with strong and clear guidance from university administration, and clear communication and buy-in from different stakeholders, can lead to a good result in difficult and challenging times.

Finally, Maurer Law is contemplating other innovations for the upcoming year, including those focused on the 2L and 3L experience. Such innovation is driven in part by the University’s decisions to schedule educational activities so as to minimize travel to and from our Bloomington campus.  The graphic below does a nice job of summarizing the revised 2020-21 university calendar (H/T Indiana Daily Student).

To the extent additional changes at Maurer Law are forthcoming, we’ll be happy to share them.  In the meantime, I wanted to report out a bit of miracle–rapid, consensus-based change to the hallowed 1L year.  Many thanks to the IU community for your relentless spirit of intelligence, collaboration, and goodwill.