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When the pandemic moved classes at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, online, Lecturer Hemant Sharma of the Department of Political Science created online textbook chapters with videos and real-time current event updates for students in his constitutional law class. The topics are broken into modules, such as Fourth Amendment—Search and Seizure, First Amendment—Freedom of Speech, First Amendment—Free Exercise of Religion, and so on.

“Each module had a voice-over PowerPoint posted on Canvas [the university’s online learning management system] and a link connecting it to an online textbook chapter that I created with videos and real-time updates for current events,” said Sharma. “That was a big help—nothing earth-shattering from a pedagogical perspective.

Lecturer Hemant Sharma
Lecturer Hemant Sharma

“The most interesting part probably was the assignment for each module,” said Sharma. “The students formed online groups, communicating via email and Zoom groups that I moderated, and had to write a legal prompt for a hypothetical court case dealing with their topic and make it connect to current events. What was interesting is that the students came up with prompts that, within a couple of weeks, actually mirrored real-world lawsuits related to speech, assembly, and religious exercise.

“So one prompt that came in early on for the free speech module was that people gathered to protest a stay-at-home order in a town square and were arrested for violating the order. That was written by students before any of that actually happened. Once a group finalized their prompt it was sent to me for further editing, then I sent it back and each student pretended to be a judge and issued their ruling on the controversy—with members of each group arriving at different rulings.

“A different group crafted a lawsuit based on religious exercise during a pandemic,” he said. “And sure enough, a month later the Supreme Court of the United States actually issued a ruling on that. The connection between our theoretical look at constitutional law and virtually immediate application to ongoing current events added an interesting element to the class.

“It was a great group of students and the topics we covered happened to be very relevant to the world around us, so everything just came together and made for a very interesting class,” Sharma added.

“The class is one of the highlights of my academic life right now,” wrote student Emma Grace Thompson. “Dr. Sharma has been patient and understanding through this whole process, and I find myself actually enjoying our new form of lessons even though they are not in person. Getting to look at current events surrounding COVID-19 and applying them to constitutional law has been a helpful learning tool!”