By Christine S. Lassey
University of Ghana, Legon
The coronavirus pandemic has stretched its tentacles into diverse facets of life. The educational sector has been hard-hit by this pandemic. In the early stages, to minimize the transmission rate, schools were completely shut down. In time, stakeholders began to explore alternative means of teaching and learning to save what was left of the academic year in 2020. This development introduced new teaching modules for most higher learning institutions across the world. Legal education, like other sectors, has been destabilized by the pandemic, which has exposed inherent problems and introduced new ones.
The Dilemma of the Law Student
In his masterpiece “Learning the Law,” Glanville Williams opined that a good lawyer knows where to find the law. During this pandemic, law students have been thrown into oblivion with no roadmap on where to find the law. In March 2020, most law faculties adopted the online module of teaching and learning. The antecedent problems of online education began to surface.
First, students were unable to access adequate online legal databases to facilitate research. Prior to the pandemic, students customarily relied on texts in the library for academic research. The General Legal Council of Ghana, which is mandated in the Legal Profession Act, 1960, Act 32 to ensure quality legal education, reported in 2020 that some law faculties did not have sufficient volumes of law reports in their libraries or e-libraries. The pandemic has exposed the inefficiency of some schools in this regard. In reality, most students are “information-starved” and compelled to rely on inefficient case reviews on the internet for research. Some law faculties have not invested in online databases like Hein Online, Westlaw, or LexisNexis.
Second, unequal access to technological tools and internet connection affects the online learning space. The harsh economic disparity in society means that law students who cannot afford laptops or mobile devices or reside in rural areas with poor internet connection are unduly prejudiced. Their frustration is compounded when they are required to take exams online with little or no assurance that they will submit within the stipulated time. Further, duty bearers must throw the spotlight on the digital needs of women in our law faculties. The issues posed by new learning modules may prima facie appear to be gender-neutral. However, a critical probe into online education's intricacies exposes the digital barrier confronted by women in their legal education. Women living in low or middle-income-earning countries such as Ghana are on average ten percent less likely to own a mobile phone than men and twenty-six percent less likely to use mobile internet. Women in law may be deprived of technological tools or internet connection, both of which are essential for quality education during and after COVID-19.
Furthermore, due to the lockdowns initiated across the world, the 2020 academic year was delayed. As a result, educational stakeholders reviewed the academic calendar to minimize that delay’s adverse effects, but students were left to suffer the brunt of their decisions. Initially, teaching and learning in the LLB program lasted approximately eleven to fourteen weeks in a semester. This gave teachers and students ample time to teach and learn at a good pace. Now, most schools have adopted an abridged academic calendar, with double learning hours. The challenge is that most schools have not down-sized their syllabus to accommodate this period's pressing needs. The role of women in the family exacerbates the strain of online learning. Unlike their male counterparts, women are saddled with the extra responsibility of combining their duties at home with an accelerated academic calendar's demands.
The pandemic has also shifted assessment styles and extra-curricular opportunities in law schools. Before the pandemic, law schools in Ghana employed in-person teaching and traditional assessment modules. Often, students were required to sit an exam at the end of the semester, which constituted a hundred percent of the final grade. Some stakeholders have criticized this approach because it is inefficient and does not reflect students' true standards. Also, an archaic content-driven approach to teaching was the status-quo. Students were burdened with the onerous duty of sifting through hundreds of books to regurgitate them during an exam. Instead, continuous assessment modules are encouraged because they provide both faculty and students with feedback on teaching and learning effectiveness. Practical methods of teaching like writing labs and community outreaches were non-existent.
In response to the pandemic, most of the law faculties have adopted online teaching and learning and continuous assessment. However, extra-curricular activities like moot-court competitions and internships have also been taken off the radar for law students because students are swamped with academic work in an abridged semester. Also, in line with government directives, most firms are operating virtually. However, the majority of law firms provide only in-person internship opportunities to law students. In essence, students are deprived of the essential practical internship experience during this pandemic.
The Way Forward
In conclusion, a famous African adage is to the effect that “you can force a horse to the riverside, but you cannot force it to drink water.” The legal education system is that horse that has been forced to the riverside of reform. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic does not give it any other option but to drink. The pandemic is a catalyst for reform. The legal profession and education must embrace reform and not hide under the cloak of conservatism. Stakeholders ought to reflect on the problems compounding legal education and posit solutions that do not compromise quality. This pandemic has taught the legal fraternity some valuable lessons. The teaching staff in law schools must be oriented in the use of modern technological tools. Students should be given sufficient data allowances and schemes instituted to procure laptops for needy students and women. Legal resources should be provided to assist students with research and academic syllabi should be reviewed to deal with this pandemic's challenges and any future effects that may arise as a result of this pandemic or future unforeseen emergencies.