Online law degrees flourish under tight supervision

Hybrid courses offer face-to-face and internet-enabled classes

(Excerpted from The Financial Times, November 20, 2016 by Ian Wylie)

A year’s tuition fees at Harvard Law School for its juris doctor degree — a graduate legal qualification — is $59,550. Housing, insurance, books, supplies and other expenses are likely to push that closer to $90,000. Even the tuition fees at less prestigious — but good — schools can be around $40,000 a year.

It is little wonder, then, that online, distance or hybrid law programmes are now being mooted as a more accessible option for would-be lawyers unable to afford the in-person campus courses…

“US legal education is at the intersection of a historic downturn in traditional applicants and the upsurge of high-quality distance education optionalities,” says Ken Randall, who served as dean at the University of Alabama School of Law for 20 years.

“US law schools can, and should, be reaching new and non-traditional students, whether preparing them for a full-time practice of law or enriching their lives and adding value to their careers in diverse professions. It’s right that accreditation is aimed at protecting consumers, but regulations must advance creativity and new ways of delivering quality education to diverse student groups.”

Mr Randall is a founder of Aspen-iLaw Distance Education, which provides online learning platforms to around a fifth of accredited law schools in the US. “For some law schools, online education is still a novelty,” he says. “But there’s an important role for online education in training the next generation of lawyers. Since their law practice will be technology-centered, their legal education should also optimise technology.”

In the US, the number of applicants and enrollments to law schools entered a downward spiral in 2011. Early indicators suggest 2016 may halt that decline, but it will not turn the tide. Last month, Indiana Tech University announced it would close its law school, with $20m losses, less than a year after it was provisionally accredited by the ABA. “The significant decline in law school applicants nationwide represents a long-term shift in the legal education field, not a short-term one,” explained the university’s president, Arthur Snyder.

Even elite law schools like Yale, Harvard and Stanford may need to explore and serve new markets for their legal education, before someone else does. “Law schools still using a pedagogy developed at Harvard almost a century and a half ago are slow to embrace change of any sort,” says Michele Pistone, professor of law at Villanova University and co-author of “Disrupting Law School”, a report published this year by the Clayton Christensen Institute. “Many law professors look upon technological change with about the same enthusiasm as they have for getting a tooth pulled.”

But according to David Amos, associate dean at the City Law School, University of London — which offers a distance learning LLM (master of law) in international business law — online programmes enable law schools to reach entirely new markets. “It allows us the possibility of addressing a broader audience both geographically and in terms of the profile of the students,” says Mr Amos.

“Students who can’t come to this country for visa or other reasons can now take our courses. Similarly, students in this country who would have difficulty in attending a face-to-face course for work or family reasons will now have more options open to them. They allow law courses to become more accessible.”

Technology also enables faculty to have an individual relationship with the student. “You’re able to monitor whether a student has accessed and engaged with the material. You can also check their progress by quizzes, tests and so on. This allows us to spot areas of concern and address them.”

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