Dean's Desk: Distance learning comes of age at NDLS

September 10, 2014

dean-newton-notre-dameWhen I got my first teaching job, a great classroom experience was the gold standard for legal education. It still is. Law students continue to benefit from the personal attention of a professor and the intellectual benefits of regular interaction with fellow students striving to master the same material at the same time.

Today, however, the law school classroom often encompasses more than one physical location. Indeed, every day some Notre Dame Law School students gather in a South Bend classroom while other NDLS students gather in one of our Chicago or London classrooms and proceed to attend class – together – via interactive audio-video. Thanks to distance-learning technology, professors as well as students have much more flexibility than previous generations did. Today a professor might teach in Chicago one week and in South Bend the next. Classes can be co-taught by two professors who take turns appearing in-person and by video. This fall, for example, Indiana Supreme Court Justice Steven David (in Indianapolis) and Adjunct Professor James Zieba (in South Bend) are co-teaching a course in military law. Usually Justice David will be teaching from Indianapolis, but sometimes he will be in South Bend and it will be Professor Zieba who will be participating by video.

Similarly, guest speakers and experts now routinely join class discussions from remote locations. Former FEC Chair Trevor Potter (and attorney for Stephen Colbert) visits Professor Lloyd Mayer’s election law class without ever leaving his Washington, D.C., office; Professor Mark McKenna uses Google+ to bring Fred von Lohmann, Google Inc.’s legal director for copyright in Mountain View, California, to his copyright class. Just this week, Adjunct Professor Kenneth A. Adams, a nationally known expert in contract drafting, invited two pillars of the transactional community – Glenn West, the managing partner of the Dallas office of Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP, and Steven O. Weise, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Proskauer Rose LLP – to join a session of his Intensive Contract Drafting course by video.

At NDLS, the technology that makes all this possible is directed and maintained by Scott Hengert who monitors all of our classroom connections from a studio-quality control room on the first floor of Eck Hall of Law. Surrounded by banks of monitors, Scott makes sure the technology works seamlessly for students and professors alike. Earlier today, for example, he worked with NDLS Adjunct Professor Chuck Roth, who is director of litigation at Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago. Professor Roth teaches immigration law in Chicago to both NDLS students who are enrolled in our ND Law in Chicago program and to NDLS students in South Bend who participate by audio-video. Today Professor Roth wanted to make sure the PowerPoint that he was going to show in his Chicago classroom would appear simultaneously to the NDLS students participating from South Bend.

Scott explained the process, and as promised, the display worked flawlessly. When Professor Roth showed his Chicago students a slide, that same slide appeared on one of the large flat screens in the South Bend classroom even as Professor Roth continued to appear on two additional flat screens on either side of the PowerPoint. When a South Bend student wanted to ask a question, she pushed a button at her seat. The camera that had been displaying the entire South Bend classroom automatically zoomed in to focus on the student so that Professor Roth and his Chicago classroom could see who was speaking. The microphone by the student’s seat picked up her question perfectly, and when she was done the camera automatically pulled back to display the entire classroom again.

A few courses even lend themselves to being entirely online. For example, we are planning to offer an innovative online degree in our Chicago facility in the Loop, a collaboration among the law school and the Colleges of Science and Engineering. The Online Certificate in Patent Prosecution program is designed for working professionals with science and engineering backgrounds who are unable to relocate to Notre Dame for an academic year. The online certificate courses blend live interaction and pre-recorded lectures to provide maximum flexibility to busy professionals.

From South Bend to Chicago to London to ???

I first began exploring the possibility of expanding our distance-learning programs when I discovered that many superbly qualified but extremely busy practitioners with exciting practices were eager to teach at Notre Dame – but simply did not have time to commute to South Bend twice a week. The solution took form as our Associate Dean for Experiential Education Bob Jones and I studied this challenge. With Chicago a major job market for our grads, we had already begun planning our ND Law in Chicago program, which allows NDLS students to work in Chicago four days per week in nonprofit legal organizations, governmental law offices, judicial chambers and in-house corporate counsel offices. I knew the program would need distance-learning technology in order to ensure that the program participants would have convenient access to classes and professors back in South Bend. But then it occurred to us: Why couldn’t distance learning take place in the other direction as well? Why couldn’t our students in South Bend participate in classes taught to our Chicago students in Chicago? It turned out that the maturation of distance-learning technology meant that they both could and would.

As busy Chicago lawyers like Professor Roth learned they could teach NDLS students in South Bend from Chicago while supplementing the classes they commute to with classes they teach through distance-learning technology, our pool of experienced Chicago adjunct professors grew broader and deeper. Indeed, the Chicago program worked so well that we began to look beyond Chicago for other opportunities to use this technology. Thus, while she was in the United Kingdom for a semester, one of our law school’s top scholars, Professor Mary Ellen O’Connell, taught a course on international law for our students studying at our London Law Centre that we decided to open to our students in South Bend via audio-video. This course too was a hit, with both our London and South Bend students giving the experience high marks.

The program continues to expand. This fall we are offering (in addition to the immigration law and military law classes discussed earlier):

• Business torts, co-taught by Adjunct Professors Paul Peralta and David Pruitt with Professor Peralta teaching by video from North Carolina;  

• Comparative law, taught by Adjunct Professor Efstathios Banakas from London and open to NDLS students in both London and South Bend;  

• Federal criminal practice, taught in Chicago by Adjunct Professor John Gallo and open to NDLS students in both Chicago and South Bend;  

• Labor & employment law, taught in South Bend by Associate Professor Barbara Fick and open to students in both Chicago and South Bend; and 

• Patent law, taught in South Bend by Associate Professor Stephen Yelderman with our London-based students joining by video. 

Looking ahead, I see distance-learning technology continuing to evolve and to become even more embedded in the typical law school experience. At Notre Dame we have proven that, used wisely, distance learning can enhance the classroom experience while acting as a force multiplier for deans seeking to expand their specialty course offerings, grow their pool of adjunct professors, and establish new off-campus experiential-learning programs.•


Nell Jessup Newton is the Joseph A. Matson Dean and Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School. She has served as dean since 2009. The opinions expressed are those of the author.


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