Legal education in India is majorly conventional classroom-based learning squarely supported by internships, assignments, clubs and other activities such as Moot Court, Mock Trials, Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR), client counselling and more.
The knock of Covid-19 brought an abrupt shift in our lives and we law students were no special.
Nearly after a month of lockdown and closure of educational institutions, my college switched to an online mode of teaching, assuming every student to be in the luxury of internet connection and electronic devices. This decision came as the sole alternative which is quite understandable but stands unfair and discriminatory against students who went back to their native places including Jammu & Kashmir.
Amidst the confusion, classes began within the comfortable spaces and logging in to MS Teams – understanding law subjects via virtual means. Little did we know that we were amongst the lucky ones as urban dwellers with access to devices, connectivity and the internet.
The extension of lockdown left everyone anxious, struggling to go back to their hometowns. This shift blatantly ignored students who left Delhi-Noida, many leaving their books and laptops, expecting to come back after 21 days.
With this degree of unfairness, lethargic way of teaching, and constant tussling of maintaining health, education became limited to mere completion of the syllabus.
As a law student, online mode came at a disadvantage of regular face-to-face discussions over topics. As the discipline heavily demands opinion based and interactive learning, it became monotonous over a period of time. For us, institutional education limited itself to juggling between completing the syllabus and preparing for exams in MCQs. Attending or not attending meant the same thing and students logged in only for attendance.
The fatigue and strain caused by constant exposure to the screen only add up to disinterest and dullness. The luxury of sitting at home can be distracting too.
One of my classmates, Gunjan Mehta, said, “Online education is for the sake of it. For actual learning, proper communication is required. You need to be able to talk to your peers or teachers effectively which is not possible in an online class.” Although this is the only way we are left with presently, it curbs overall growth and learning.
Another classmate Bhoomika, a 4th-year law student, articulated her experience too. “Online classes have become tedious and boring. It is difficult to be attentive as compared to offline classes and where one could participate enthusiastically. Now, we are at that stage where teachers know that students are neither listening nor asking doubts. We are just pretending to do so. There is a sense of leniency on both sides and we are only there for attendance.” It has made students immune or indifferent to learning.
Attending 4 classes each of 45 minutes an hour for 6 days a week not only takes a toll on students but teachers too. My batchmate, Arnav Gulati, elaborates saying, “For online education, the teacher needs to be trained in a better way, it is very difficult to understand when we are given lectures in a traditional way in an online class. Moreover, in a class from home, we don’t have a different atmosphere for class and we feel less and less motivated for the same every passing day.”
Moreover, the management has blatantly ignored the fact that it would be expensive for most of the students who have left the city and moved back.
It became difficult to even arrange for study materials. Despite paying the full fee in the new session, we were not given notes or even access to the online library.
Despite reeling under pandemic pressure, students were called to appear for exams in offline mode in November 2020. It was unfair and risky. Many students and staff became infected and there was no respite from the management. And what about those who were not in Delhi? They were left hanging, with either an option of risking their lives or appearing next year.
The law school experience majorly includes co-curricular activities like mooting, debating, mediation, ADR, client counselling activities and not to forget clubs like Legal Aid, Corporate Social Responsibility, Gender & Sexuality, Environment etc.
Certain activities have been halted and limited to social media, webinars, online quizzes and campaigns. The outreach programmes conducted by clubs, rallies and other interactive activities receive a setback. In the beginning, these activities were completely out of the question but with some time and new sessions, the structure for certain societies such as moots, trial advocacy was revamped.
In the case of mooting, the opinions can differ, limiting the experience to online platforms.
My friend who recently participated in a moot competition said that “it became a comforting experience as we were in our comfort zone and more confident.” As nothing can replace the experience of such activities in absence of social interaction, the thrill, learning, and overall experience cannot be substituted by online mode. Students get to visit the venue and are free to interact with other competitors whereas online mooting limited this experience. Not to forget that these activities can now only be accessed by those who have connectivity and device, excluding other students due to lack of infrastructure.
Gunjan, supporting the argument, said that “it is not that useful as we cannot get that competitive environment at our homes”.
Webinars, although useful and new in this situation, tend to be limited in acting as a resource as one tends to get distracted and it is the surroundings that can only help us to attend and be active.
Certain activities are difficult being conducted through online mode. For example, moots can be conducted as the participants have to speak their parts followed by questions and interjections by the judges. But as Arnav put it, “mock trial advocacy can be difficult in that scenario. The counsels need to observe the witness while examining which can get disturbed due to various reasons such as connectivity.” The one on one communication gets hindered.
These challenges also show us a mirror on the situation of investment in infrastructure, accessibility, flexibility on the part of institutions and stakeholders like the State.
Despite a restriction on overall experiences such as internships, competitions, interactive sessions and courts, several opportunities opened up for enhancing legal learning through short-term courses. Students had ample time to concentrate on honing skills such as research and writing and also, online internships programmes.
Attending classes from our respective homes has provided us with the stretch to explore our interests in the field of law. Students can virtually access webinars and events happening at the international level or anywhere in the nation. It brought teachers, students, and professionals together via online interaction.
Some of my batchmates have devoted their time to writing research papers and doing multiple internships. Away from the tussle of travelling for 2 hours to reach colleges, we can now use that time productively. Although it is equally difficult to search for a good internship due to lack of work, we can now look for other avenues such as blogging, building a journal, social media presence, contacts and time to spend with ourselves.
Having said that, the constraint of affordability cannot be avoided when education has become a luxury for those from villages functioning without regular electricity and internet connection.
When asked if we should continue this system post covid, Bhoomika suggested that a hybrid approach could be adopted, wherein certain days are devoted to online teaching and others for a classroom. That way we can flexibly devote ourselves to building our law school experience and invest time in other activities which were not possible earlier.
COVID came as a slap on the face of sleeping authorities to revamp the professional courses. But still, the education system, especially when it comes to the law, is archaic and rigorous. We, law students, need an inclusive environment to promote diverse and progressive thought, a practical approach in giving importance to internships, course, experience, open discussions, and time to take a break.
Instead of a pressurising curriculum, what we need today is an approach where practical knowledge is given importance at the stage of learning itself.
There is a need for a realistic plan of action. We all know that theoretical knowledge can be learnt from anywhere. We have certain platforms such as Coursera, Edx and now, various universities are preparing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) to facilitate distance learning.
By overcoming technological barriers, there is a need for accommodating pedagogy of practical aspects, as Law courses must include training students in research, drafting and other lawyering skills. This need has exponentially increased with the success of courses teaching practical skills available on online platforms like Lawsikho and Lawctopus.
At the same time, we must remember that we were not ready for this online system and now that we have been through it, we need to rethink it in terms of discipline, infrastructure, development and State support to bridge the digital divide. Benefits should be proportionate.
Law is already an expensive discipline and access to online legal education should not be yet another privileged experience.
A note of gratitude: I would like to thank my friends, classmates and batchmates who contributed their experiences and thoughts in this write-up. Thank you.