Teaching in the time of COVID-19: Discovering teachable opportunities amid challenges

Dr. Kathinka Fürst has been teaching the course “ENVIRON 835K: Environmental Law, Governance and Regulation” to the students of the international Master of Environmental Policy Program since the spring of 2018, at Duke Kunshan University. In the syllabus, she emphasizes that this introductory environmental law course will focus on the application of legal concepts within the context of China and beyond. It is not a traditional environmental law course, but designed based on a socio-legal approach where Dr. Fürst’s objectives are to lead students to explore the role of law, regulation, and governance in protecting, managing, and restoring the environment and natural resources.

As scheduled, students would sit in the classroom and explore several environmental law cases from various aspects. Originally, students were also supposed to work in groups with external ‘clients’ to help them solve environmental legal problems and to co-learn from the different environmental legal client group projects.

But when the DKU campus was closed down due to the COVID-19 in January 2020, and teaching moved online, all of these in-person interactions and teaching pedagogics had to quickly be replaced.

As most instructors at universities throughout the world, Dr. Fürst needed to adopt to an online teaching mode in a short time. Actions such as teaching on Zoom, pre-recording lessons, and joining group discussion through WeChat were taken by her to continue a sense of community and to fill the gap between campus-based and online study experience.

As a part of this transition, students were required to write a short blog with an analysis of the assigned reading before class and to submit a reflection after it. Tianqi Wu, a student in the class, said: “The blog helped me understand how to apply the laws I just learned in class to a particular case I saw in the news. The timely interactions happening in the blogs comment section between professor, TA and my classmates were very enlightening.”

But, as explained by Dr. Fürst “the biggest rearrangement I made after we had to move the semester online was to abandon the originally designed environmental governance group projects where the students were supposed to work with external actors to identify solutions to their clients environmental legal problems.  This was a hard decision, as I had spent a lot of time last semester to develop this approach and identify external stakeholders who were willing to work with the students throughout the course. But, since students spread across the world and due to all the travel restrictions and regulations pertaining to social distancing, it was not realistic to continue this group project approach. More importantly, the COVID-19 outbreak presents a unique teachable moment. So, I decided to incorporate the COVID-19 into the syllabus and make it a key feature of the course. I saw that the students struggled with understanding how the world changed overnight and I thought it would be useful and interesting for them to use this course as an opportunity to try to make some sense of this unprecedented situation.”

As a result, Dr. Fürst changed the final project of this course to several group projects under the heading to Making sense of the COVID-19 outbreak and preventing future scenarios”. She offered four new topics to students to choose from to form a group project:

 a) Drivers of the COVID-19 outbreak in China. Students were expected to conduct a comprehensive analysis outlining a timeline of the unexpected COVID-19 outbreak and how it spread to the world; accounting for the legal, political, bureaucratic, cultural, scientific, and other factors contributing to the outbreak and the responses to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Lessons learned from dealing with SARS, Bird Flu and/or other similar contagious diseases should be included in the analysis, focus should be on how such past experiences had informed amendments to existing regulatory frameworks and/or the creation of new regulatory frameworks.

b) Preventing another similar outbreak in the future. By conducting comparative cross country legislative and administrative analysis this group of students focused on developing  a set of recommendations with strategic plans pertaining to legislative, political, bureaucratic, and cultural (social norm) changes which should take place in China to prevent a similar scenario from occurring in the future.

c) Legal, political, and bureaucratic response to scientific uncertainty. Students working on this topic focused on understanding how the utilization of science and involvement of scientist in legislative process occurred in China and beyond in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan.

d) Multiple stakeholder governance and the COVID-19 outbreak. This group focused on analyzing the COVID-19 outbreak through the lens of multiple stakeholder governance. One of the assumption in multiple stakeholder governance theory is that information transparency is a key component for effective multiple stakeholder governance, the COVID-19 outbreak proved to be an interesting case to study and analyze this assumption. The group of students working on this project focused, amongst others, on analyzing the legal framework governing access and barrier to information and information transparency in China. This group also discovered and analyzed the role of media outlets and civil society organization during the COVID-19 outbreak and obtained a better understanding of the laws and regulations governing these stakeholders participation in governance processes.

Yingjie Chen, another iMEP student and a Wuhan resident, who stayed in Wuhan during the semester, was overwhelmed by staying at the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. She feels: “the group project presented a practical issue happening in my city which hugely influenced my life. In the last semester I devoted a lot of time trying to understand why and how this could happen from the perspective of law, governance, and regulation, and tried to propose my solutions to the problems.” Her group analyzed the legal framework of open information disclosure, identified the legal and bureaucratic loopholes in the system and offered recommendations to amend it. She and her group mates also examined the supplementary and active roles played by media outlets, NGOs, and the private sector as a respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and extracted lessons for multi-stakeholder governance in the environmental field in China based on this analysis.

In addition to student’s academic performance, Dr. Fürst also pays attention to their safety and mental health during this challenging time.

I really want to express my gratitude to Prof. Fürst. She knew I was trapped in Wuhan and how hard it was to me to focus on my studies. Her comfort released me from tremendous stress while I was fully held by the continuous bad news on social media. She also approached to the graduate school to allow me more time to finish my thesis.” Yingjie added.

No one including Dr. Fürst, really has the experience of teaching online overnight,  especially when they are dealing with all the uncertainties brought by the COVID-19 outbreak at the same time,. But with the agility and faith to turn challenges into teaching opportunities, she guaranteed students’ academic experience and warmed them in this hard time. Students thanked her on social media, chat group with sharing the moments and stories they were encouraged by her. In the online Duke Kunshan Graduate Program Graduation ceremony, Prof. Kathinka Fürst was awarded the Excellence in Teaching Award of 2020.