Is Online Education Law Schools' Future?

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Could A Hybrid Law Program Change The Game?

Admit it: You’ve imagined law school going online. If your professor were to call your name, you’d dive under your desk. And if gunners were to pound on the respond button, you’d roll your eyes without anyone noticing. Sure, question-and-response might lack immediacy – and just try starting a study group when your peers are 200 miles away. But there’s something enticing about learning on your own schedule.
Alas, the ABA feels differently, which is why it hasn’t accredited any online J.D. programs. While a handful exist, their graduates can’t sit for the bar exam except in California. Now, the ABA is softening its stance, giving approval to a hybrid program at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, which will launch in January 2015.
The majority of this program will take place online. Each semester, students will complete 12-week courses online, often relying on live webcasts. In addition, students will earn half of their credit hours on campus during week-long seminars. Overall, students will return to campus nine times during the program.
“This is not an online degree,” Dean Eric Janus told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “But it will open up new possibilities, especially for students in rural areas, who would otherwise have to quit their jobs or uproot their families. This is going to allow us to [reach students] in ways that were never possible in a traditional sort of program.”
The addition of a hybrid program produced some opposition among William Mitchell faculty, including former dean Douglas Heidenreich. “I don’t think it’s a good approach for education in general,” he said. “I think there is something about legal education that makes the direct, face-to-face contact important.” Overall, the faculty supported the decision, according to Janus.
William Mitchell’s hybrid J.D. program is just another step towards increasing the presence of online education in the law school space. The Washington University School of Law and USC’s Gould School of Law are already offering online LL.M.s. And Vermont Law students can now take the same online environmental law courses available through the school’s LL.M. program, according to U.S. News and World Report.
Still, don’t expect law schools to rush into e-learning. For starters, online programs lack the prestige of traditional law school programs, which hurts in hiring, according to Professor William Henderson of Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law. What’s more, as Vermont Law Associate Dean Rebecca Purdom notes, it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop online programs. That’s a hefty price tag in a shrinking marketplace where schools are battling to meet margins.
Still, the online program offers fresh flexibility to stodgy law school teaching. Same could be said of business administration and management models. “It moves them slightly forward into the 21st century,” Robert Oliphant, a professor emeritus at William Mitchell, tells the Star-Tribune. “Law schools are about the last institutions in the world to try to change. They’re just very stuck in the mud.”
Source: U.S. News and World Report, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

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