Pioneer spirit in times of crisis

How Bucerius reinvented itself during the coronavirus pandemic

Lehre & Studium |

Bucerius Law School has leveraged its strengths and unique profile to join the handful of German HEIs that have adapted virtually all operations to a digital format in a matter of days. With a core curriculum rooted in the humanities, legal education enjoys a privileged position in not requiring specialized facilities—such as laboratories. Beyond this central theme, the Law School has in recent years committed resources to the establishment of a comprehensive digital infrastructure. Combined with the commitment of its faculty and staff, this underpinning has proved crucial in guaranteeing continuity in teaching and the possibility to avert an operational shutdown. A review of the past few weeks illustrates this.

The feeling of operating in crisis mode has slowly given way to a new sense of normalcy despite only six weeks having passed since the coronavirus pandemic forced Bucerius Law School to abandon its routines in an effort to tackle new challenges. Without advanced notice, Law School leadership has had to radically rethink its own benchmarks—with the intention of minimizing additional stress on students and keeping educational routines in place through different methods. “I am incredibly impressed with the way the entire staff and faculty have come together to work toward a common goal: adapting all teaching operations to a virtual format that is acceptable to students,” notes Law School CEO Meinhard Weizmann in reviewing the first week that followed the campus closure. “As a law school that focuses on one-on-one interaction and active dialogue between students and their professors, transitioning to a purely virtual environment has not been an easy prospect. Although we have been testing different lecture formats for years, interactive teaching on campus is still at the core of Bucerius. This has made it all the more admirable that lecturers—professors and tutors alike—openly engaged with the new situation.”

Starting the new trimester: moving from analog to digital

“New situation” does not refer only to the coronavirus pandemic but also to implementing customized software solutions and establishing task forces; these elements are essential in undertaking a successful transition of Law School operations to a virtual space. “Early in the year, we began to build the necessary infrastructure for virtual meetings,” says Martin Meier, Technical Director of the Bucerius Event Team. “We implemented this carefully but quickly, assigned licenses to all necessary personnel, offered trainings and answered many questions—it was a somewhat hectic but exciting time.” Given the preexisting infrastructure, it was possible to adapt courses to a digital format with minimal delay. Moritz Nickel, a research assistant, offers a first-hand account of this: “When we were suddenly asked to leave campus due to a suspected COVID-19 case, I had just finished the first twenty minutes of the small group tutorial that I lead. I immediately told the students that we would make up the lost time via video conference that same afternoon. It took a couple of sessions until I had found the optimal settings to be able to show a presentation and white board at the same time. Meeting in person makes for more lively discussions but our virtual small group tutorial is the next best thing.”

His colleague Philipp Kleiner, a Bucerius alumnus, recounts a similar experience. He was surprised at how lively online small group tutorials proved to be: students were able to share their contributions and, with the use of cameras, discuss them face-to-face such that the casual atmosphere of the physical classroom could be maintained. “It is important for me to point out the amount of gratefulness that I felt from the side of the students. They did not take for granted how smoothly courses continued despite the campus being closed,” says Kleiner. “With regard to my small group tutorial, it is of the utmost importance that students have the same opportunity to ask questions and receive explanations as they would during an in-person session. Furthermore, I wanted to alleviate their fears and concerns about writing online exams.”

Law School leadership and the examination board faced a particularly difficult challenge as the next exam phase had been set to begin just after the decision was made to close the campus. They had to decide whether students would be able to take their exams at all and what possibilities for this would exist given the technical infrastructure already in place. The solution proved to be a web-based assessment tool that had been in use in the International Exchange, Master of Law and Business and Foreign Language Communication programs since 2016.

Before students were able to take exams in the comfort of their own homes, frameworks and terms had to be established. Professor Karsten Thorn, Head of the Law School’s examination board, summarizes: “We were reminded of the pioneer spirit that accompanied the founding of Bucerius Law School when a small team of highly motivated individuals from different departments conquered ‘terra incognita’ and went above and beyond. We were very busy during the exam phase as we constantly had to grapple with new practical and legal issues.” Christiane Fischer, Head of the Registrar’s Office, pointed out that students’ gratitude was the main motivation during this unprecedented period. “It was very touching how much appreciation the students expressed toward us. This made the many night shifts worth it.”


Law School Spirit in times of social distancing

In addition to the exam phase of LLB students, the state exam preparation course also continued without delay. Professor Anne Röthel was one of the first members of the faculty body to hold a lecture via video conference: “My first experience in the virtual lecture hall was indeed a very special Law School moment that I will never forget: when more and more students joined the feed, when they asked their first questions, when time just flew by and then, at the end of the lecture, when we continued to discuss matters in a smaller group—just like in an actual lecture hall. It wasn’t easy to find the right moment to leave the virtual space. I’m very grateful for how friendly, open and curious the students were about embarking on this endeavor with me. The appreciation and community spirit were palpable and I realized how much we professors can contribute in these times—offers that go beyond guidance in the immersion of Law: confidence, perspective and assurance.”

Alongside managing lectures and exams and upgrading digital library services to meet research needs, it was equally important to empower the institution’s administrative staff in being able to work from home. “We worked at full speed to evaluate technical possibilities that would provide staff members with access to all relevant administrative databases. We quickly compiled a list of FAQs to give our colleagues a chance to find answers to their questions, while we responded to the many email inquiries we received,” reports Mirco Schmedicke, Head of the IT department.

Since the middle of March, Bucerius students have submitted 1,200 exams and participated in more than 40 small group tutorials. The Bucerius community conducted more than 600 video conferences and the IT department received around 1,400 emails and 400 help desk tickets. Bucerius was able to overcome all initial obstacles and challenges by trusting in its internal processes, drawing upon the sense of responsibility and commitment of its staff and faculty bodies, and reaping the benefit of an IT department willing to provide tireless assistance. This laid the foundation for a new way of running a law school.
“We wouldn’t have been able to conquer these challenges as successfully and quickly if it hadn’t been for the very unique Bucerius Law School Spirit,” says Schmedicke.

Jonathan Schramm, Executive Assistant to the CEO, has been tasked with coordinating the virtual course offerings and communications regarding the coronavirus pandemic. He explains how Bucerius continues to build upon its previous successes: “I’m absolutely speechless at how this unprecedented situation has been embraced as an opportunity to try out new ideas. Professors taking the switch to online teaching in stride, our social media campaigns under the hashtag #BuceriusBleibtZuhause (#BuceriusStaysHome) and our virtual info day are merely three examples of this. Working virtually across hierarchies and departments in such a productive manner is a valuable and promising experience—especially in looking ahead to the coming months.”

Through it all, video conferencing has been used not only for the weekly meeting of faculty members, communication with the student government and the assembly of departmental heads, but also as a way to meet with colleagues after work, during lunch breaks and for “story time” with the children of Bucerius community members. “There’s an increased level of care for one another. Everyone is focused on making sure that no one gets left behind. The campus is a central element of our identity, but our community spirit lives on without it—perhaps it will grow even stronger. Despite the physical distance, I feel closer to my colleagues. Maybe because we’re basically meeting in each other’s living rooms,” comments Meinhard Weizmann on the current lack of “campus life.” Philipp Kleiner adds, “I have the feeling that our community has drawn closer together, so that we can now indeed refer to it as the ‘Bucerius Law School Family.’”

After corona: a quantum leap in digital teaching formats

Currently, the Bucerius community is preparing for a digital summer trimester with interactive webinars—no small feat with over 110 courses. The IT department, a pool of colleagues with an affinity for all things technical and the recently established Learning Innovation Lab are supporting the transition to a virtual space. Even in crisis mode, Bucerius has not lost its pioneer spirit. Dean Katharina Boele-Woelki elaborates: “A large amount of digital learning material is already publicly available for independent study on our website (in German) and can be used free of charge by students from other law schools. As ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’ we are currently developing a new concept for an upcoming lecture on Copyright Law that will combine 30-minute videos with opportunities for students to independently treat thematic concepts before convening for discussion groups. This complements our other blended learning formats. We hope that our endeavors will be supported by a grant from a charitable foundation for advancement in scholarship.”

Regrettably, not all Bucerius community events in the upcoming trimester could be moved to the virtual space: the LLB graduation, Law School Ball and annual summer party have been all been postponed to later dates. Sadly, the Bucerius Summer Programs and ChampionsTrophy had to be cancelled completely.

We do not yet know what the coming months will bring. The only thing that is certain is that, by the end of this pandemic, every educational institution will have learned that it is imperative to reconsider structures and methods, seek opportunities for redevelopment and establish a concept for digital teaching to prevent operations from grinding to a halt in the event of unforeseen circumstances. During times of crisis, digital teaching formats are an alternative, but they will never be able to fully replace face-to-face interaction in a physical classroom setting.

“What’s next? What kind of decisions will we have to make for the near and perhaps even distant future? This is what concerns us daily, across all departments,” says Dean Boele-Woelki. “Nothing will be as it was; we will notice this especially in the teaching sphere. Digital formats are undergoing a quantum leap right now. Students will have to be even more actively engaged in their studies.”

In the meantime, members of the Bucerius community continue to band together and have found a degree of normalcy in these unprecedented times, albeit from a safe distance. A statement from Professor Röthel drives home this feeling, “Something that holds true for students and lecturers alike: that which gives meaning and stability to our lives right now is the continuation of all those things that were important to us and gave us meaning before the coronavirus pandemic. For the students, this is their studies; for me, it’s teaching.”

Text: Lena Johannes
Translation: Inga Diercks-Ferm