unizeit Schriftzug

Law studies go online

Law and corona. It's not exactly a dream combination, but day-to-day study has been less problematic than expected. That has a lot to do with the character of this discipline.

iStockfoto / Montage pur.pur

"Compared to other faculties, we have relatively little potential for problems," said Professor Manfred Heinrich of the corona-related circumstances at the Faculty of Law, of which he controls the fate in his position as Dean. What he means is that in the subject of law, no one conducts laboratory research, there are no field trips, and face-to-face encounters are otherwise not generally necessary to a great extent. "We are a science of books in the true sense of the phrase," summed up Heinrich. Legal science simply doesn't require much more than written words that can be read on paper or a screen. Other than the ability to think, but that ideally resides in each individual mind. "Of course, jurisprudence thrives on discourse and exchanging thoughts," said Heinrich. But if nothing else is possible, it's also viable to meet virtually and discuss legal matters with one another there.

Not least due to these circumstances, the Dean's Office of the Faculty decided to switch to digital teaching from day one in the winter semester of 2020/21. It is true that classroom formats would have been possible for a few weeks, yet those responsible didn't want to risk it in view of the uncertain situation last autumn. Although it didn't cause any insurmountable problems, noticeable adjustments were required to teaching operations, including dispensing with some fondly held traditions. More than 480 young people had enrolled to study law, yet contrary to the usual custom, no major welcome event was held for them in the auditorium this time. "It simply would have been too many people," argued the Dean, who did not consider a welcome event split into several smaller groups to be a meaningful alternative.

Nevertheless, the Faculty managed to organise a virtual welcome for the first-semester students. And the departmental student organisation was able to take the new students under their wing in person in the first few weeks of the semester, which were still relatively relaxed, so that there was at least some element of human interaction at the start of their studies. That said, digital teaching really isn't as soulless as some might think. "Astoundingly dynamic discussions come about," reported Professor Heinrich, whose colleagues have had good experience, especially with smaller teaching events of up to 25 participants. "You can see more than you normally can," said the Dean, referring to the boxes showing the faces of the students in attendance that are usually displayed on the screen. If someone is about to fall asleep, someone else furrows their brow in disbelief, or a student is desperate to object, then it's far easier for the lecturer to detect such things on the screen than in a lecture hall.

Nevertheless, switching to digital lectures is occasionally challenging. Manfred Heinrich knows this from experience, as in the last summer semester he recorded his lectures in advance in order to achieve the best possible results without stress. In the end, the professor did so much fine-tuning that the time required bore no sensible relationship to any noticeable improvements. Since the autumn, Heinrich has been doing things differently and teaches via live stream, which is recorded so that anyone who missed out is able to catch up later.

One striking thing, though, is that online lectures in real time occasionally rouse greater interest than the live originals in the auditorium. At his introduction to criminology, Manfred Heinrich initially reached up to 450 viewers in the winter semester, with subsequent attendance remaining constant at around 300 to 350. "In the lecture hall, numbers would have dropped off much more sharply," admitted the lawyer, who explains this phenomenon with the fact that online teaching requires neither travel nor styling and can even be enjoyed in the background if need be.

One problem does arise from the medium itself, however. Although private recordings of lectures or seminars are not permitted, the fact is that they cannot be prevented. Should a somewhat too flippant remark end up on the internet and cause a scandal, things can get very uncomfortable. For established professors, Heinrich does not consider this to be a major problem, but for younger lecturers it is certainly an issue: "They may be extremely careful not to say anything wrong, which could land them with a reputation for being dull and boring."

Meanwhile, the subject of online exams is causing less consternation than would perhaps be expected in the Faculty of Law. "Of course it's an issue for us, too," admitted the Dean, yet he considers the risk of cheating to be minimal, "as law doesn't actually pose any questions of pure knowledge, but requires case tests." From the very first semester onwards, the aim of teaching is to discuss and solve example legal cases within a specified time. Legal texts can always be used for this, yet Heinrich sees little use in consulting textbooks during such exams, as the forbidden act of looking things up would take far too long given the individuality of the cases. Despite all controls, however, it would be hard to prevent a completely different person from taking part in an online exam. Yet this problem would only exist in the Faculty of Law for interim examinations and not for final examinations in any case. The ultimately decisive tests for the state examinations are organised by the State Office for Legal Examinations at the Schleswig Higher Regional Court and still require personal attendance – even though strict hygiene rules apply.

Author: Martin Geist