April 2006
Volume 2, Number 3
Table of Contents

Yes Virginia, Law Can be Learned On-Line

By William I. Weston, J.D., Ph.D.

Clinging to tradition is important in any endeavor; no less so in training lawyers who base their work on the concept of precedent. It is hard to bring change to a profession that takes change so very slowly. For legal educators, systemic change is even harder to accomplish because the process of law teaching has never been based on educational theory, adult learning theory or on innovation. Rather legal education is consistently look back to Harvard Professor Langdell and his teaching innovation at the end of the 19 th century. To be sure, there have been changes including on line research, the use of websites and new approaches by individuals. However, the educational model in other fields of endeavor continue to march past legal education. One such model is on line learning.

There are many myths about on line education and most are based on a lack of understanding. First and foremost, on line education requires a much more significant substantive and philosophical analysis of each course than in fixed facility programs. When a student begins an on line course, the entire course is completed, is based on stated learning objectives (usually unit by unit) and guarantees a consistency not based on individual faculty but based on a model grounded in learning outcomes and in outcome measurements. So the old rubric that one’s success in a law course depends on which faculty member is chosen is not part of the fabric of on line learning. The second important aspect is one that is well established in educational circles with the exception of legal education. That principle is frequent assessments with detailed feedback. Instead of the one exam a term approach in which a bluebook is returned containing little more than a grade, on line learning has frequent and varied assessments built into nearly every unit. One unit the assessment might be a quiz, the next might contain a short essay. Each is returned promptly with a model answer and specific feedback. On line education also allows for extremely creative assessments such as hands on drafting and innovative assessments. All include detailed feedback provided with a quick turn-around. The assessment in on line education is considered an important part of the teaching and learning matrix as it should be in any educational environment. Assessments are only one part of the learning matrix. Student discussion boards, live on line classes and quick responses to student inquiries provide a complete matrix.

The third component is the faculty. Instead of choosing faculty whose experience is limited to the acquisition of an LLM and or clerking for an appellate judge, on line professors are usually people who practice in the field and also have teaching experience. The emphasis of the faculty in the on line environment is first the ability to be an effective teacher and then the ability to engage in research and scholarship. The reality of the law school environment in general is of course the exact opposite. Moreover, faculty are evaluated frequently and on a variety of metrics. Detailed student evaluations of faculty performance have considerable weight along with regular visits to faculty classrooms – often unannounced. In addition such metrics as the speed and quality of responses to student inquiries (email) and the quality of feedback on assessments are an important part of the evaluation of faculty. There is no tenure; so faculty earn their stripes every year no matter how long their service to the institution.

One of the major criticisms of on line education is that it lacks the direct student/faculty contact that comes from what is called in the academy – “seat time”. Somehow (and unsupported by any data), there is a belief that if a student sits long enough in a law school seat, he or she will better learn the law. Some students, especially younger students who have no professional experience may need the discipline of “seat time”; but the reality is that increasing numbers of students today are taking some or all of their undergraduate education on line and succeeding in the process. Some students also need more direct contact in order to succeed. No one is suggesting that one size fits all and that the only way to go is on line. However, for an increasingly large group of students, the self-discipline coupled with the approaches indicated above, provide a learning environment that results in success. Moreover, on line education affords larger groups of people access to legal education and the opportunity to grow intellectually, to become better and more effective citizens and sometimes to change careers. The limitations of the current law school environment that require “seat time” and are limited to certain geographic areas and day programs, result in denying access to a significant group of potential law students.

Student/faculty contact can come in different forms and can appeal to different types of a students who may not need the frequent contact or the enforced discipline of the fixed facility school. Single parents, people in rural locations, individuals with high profile or intense employment situations are examples of those who can function well in the on-line environment. Not everyone needs the personal, face-to-face interaction with a law professor to achieve success. On line programs provide the same contact; it is just not face to face. There is some thinking that the absence of face to face contact removes the chance for prejudice, judgments and innuendo and replaces it with decision-making based on actual performance. In an increasingly web-based society, the use of email and video conferencing is already supplanting the use of face to face meetings and that is only going to increase.

On line education for lawyers is an alternative approach. It has imperfections and does not work for everyone. However, the myth that it is somehow less than a fixed facility education is just that – a myth. One significant difference is that on line education is constantly changing, reevaluating every aspect and thinking out of the box; unlike its fixed facility counterparts. In addition on line education is focused on the student rather than the faculty; on quality teaching rather than scholarship and on the delivery platform rather than pure academic freedom. In many respects the on line program has provided some interesting answers and new approaches to long standing concerns about the quality and delivery of legal education in fixed facility law schools.

The demand for greater acceptance will come from the consumers as is already occurring in LLM and Master’s level programs. One can only hope that the legal academy will listen and open their minds to a new approach.

William I. Weston, J.D, Ph.D. is Associate Dean at Concord Law School.


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