When April Keaton had the option of taking a bankruptcy course at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law online or in-person, she chose the classroom.
The subject was something she had not studied before, and she felt the traditional lecture format would best help her learn the material. Having to be in class at a specific time and be prepared to answer questions would impose the discipline she needed.
“I was very concerned about me, personally, as a student, whether or not I could have fully grasped a new area of the law online,” Keaton said.
Studying in the evening program at IU McKinney, Keaton did an impromptu poll of her classmates about distance learning and found the ability to attend classes virtually appealed to many. The students who responded said they wanted more courses, especially those covering the required subjects, to be offered online.
Now, the American Bar Association appears poised to allow law schools to meet the demand for more online options. The Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar has proposed a new rule for distance education that would increase the amount of law courses that can be taught on the internet.
Under the current Standard 306, law schools may not grant more than 15 credit hours from online courses toward a J.D. degree, and may not enroll any first-year students in distance education. The proposed new rule would permit law schools to offer up to one-third of the credits for a J.D. degree online, and first-year students would be able to take up to 10 credits online.
The ABA is taking written comments on the proposal and has scheduled a public hearing April 12 in Washington, D.C.
At Indiana University Maurer School of Law, dean Austen Parrish sees the ABA’s proposal as a way to foster innovation in distance learning, but he does not expect online content to become dominant in legal education. If the rule is changed, he anticipates only a small number of law schools to significantly expand their internet offerings.
The attraction of distance education is limited, Parrish said, because having a catalog of online courses will not enhance or maintain a law school’s reputation. Moreover, law schools such as IU Maurer that have a strong residential program will not want to take away from the unique aspect that comes with studying on campus.
“The heart of our program is being here in person and having that close interaction with the faculty,” Parrish said.
Face to face
Concord Law School at Purdue University Global is a completely online institution that offers a couple of legal education programs including a juris doctorate degree. As such, it does not qualify for ABA accreditation, but its graduates can sit for the California Bar Exam because that state allows applicants from unaccredited institutions to take the test.
Purdue acquired Concord through its purchase of Kaplan University in 2017.
Concord dean Martin Pritikin said students are enrolling in the online program because it fits their hectic schedules. The average Concord student is 43 years old and works a fulltime job or is the primary child care provider in the family. Also, many live far from the nearest law school — some are even serving overseas in the military — so traveling to campus is not feasible.
In an email, Pritikin wrote that Concord students, compared to traditional law students, have “reported participating more in class; having better relationships with their professors, being better trained in critical thinking, legal research and writing and ethical practice; and being overall more satisfied with their experience.”
Keaton did take a legal research course at IU McKinney that was taught totally online. The class was divided into modules with the different topics presented through video lectures and PowerPoints, followed by quizzes.
True to its nature, the seminar reviewed internet-based resources such as Westlaw and materials available from government agencies. Never did any of the students have to go to the law library and pull a book from the shelf.
Keaton said she enjoyed the class. However, echoing Parrish, she noted physically being on campus and having conversations with professors and classmates is a key part of her education. Interacting face-to-face with people from different backgrounds who have different views has added to her emotional intelligence and, she believes, will make her a better attorney.
“I think it does help me not only as a student but also as a person who is going to be a part of the legal profession,” Keaton said.
IU McKinney professor Shawn Boyne has started using a hybrid format to teach criminal law to first-year students. The lectures and quizzes are put online while the class sessions are reserved for hands-on, interactive assignments. When they are together in the classroom, students discuss the issues, debate answers to questions, and practice arguing a point of law as a prosecutor, then as a defense attorney.
Boyne brought a digital element to the course because the typical Socratic method of teaching is becoming less effective. The new generation of students has been raised with cellphones and laptop computers. They have limited attention spans, wait until the end of the semester to memorize the rules and have no idea what they missed until they get their final grade, she said.
Keeping them engaged by having them apply the material and then giving immediate feedback enables the students to go deeper into the subject matter and retain the information longer. Boyne said she has noticed with the hybrid method, the essays the students write on the final exam have noticeably improved.
Still, she believes distance learning should have only a limited role in legal education.
“I would be against having completely online courses for the first year,” Boyne said. “Even with the best design, we can’t really guarantee academic integrity unless we make them go to a test center to take the exams.”
Both Boyne and Parrish noted law schools must have a good reason for putting a class online other than convenience for the students and professor. Some advanced degree or certificate programs aimed at working professionals can work well in a digital platform. The students enrolling in those courses would probably be established in their careers and looking to gain additional skills rather than learning a new subject area.
Also, Boyne and Parrish emphasized in-person contact is essential. The spontaneity that happens in class and the conversations that take place in the hallways all present opportunities to learn that cannot be replicated in an online format.
Pritikin said the most successful online courses mix activities. Concord’s classes include synchronous components of live seminars where the professors and students are logged on at the same time to analyze cases, discuss the material and even role play. This is balanced against the asynchronous components such as video lectures, ungraded quizzes and activities such as drafting a brief or doing legal research.
Concord students are kept engaged through discussion boards where they can connect with one another and their professors. In addition, they are given frequent assessments through graded tests and evaluations of their written work.
Pritikin noted online courses require more effort than traditional in-person ones. “The conventional wisdom is that it is best to map out the course goals up front, which drives both the delivery of content and the assessment of that content,” he wrote in an email. “But with online classes, that is not just a best practice; it is a practical necessity.”•