Online Legal Education

Feb15NJ

I was pleased to have the opportunity to share some thoughts about distance learning in legal education in the National Jurist a few weeks ago. As the article just came out–you can read it here (Education Anywhere February 2015) — I wanted to add a few more thoughts about online learning.

Recently a colleague asked me whether there was a ‘learning curve’ for our students with respect to using technology, more specifically distance learning technology. The question seemed particularly germane for our program, he added, given that many of the ELLM students have 20 years or more of work experience and might not be expected to be very tech savvy. My response to this was that our students are essentially using many of the tools they already utilize in their everyday professional and personal lives. Legal and business practitioners routinely use Outlook, Skype/Adobe Connect, social media, Google Docs, text messaging and related programs and technology every day. The specific functionality used in a specific program or course may be different, but typically that is quickly learned since it is technology with which most of us are already familiar.

Distance learning has, in many ways, ‘democratized’ education as it transcends borders and time zones and, depending on the model, is delivered without traditional economic barriers to entry (a typical MOOC comes to mind in this regard). It certainly affords students a degree of flexibility that is not present in a typical residential-based model of learning. Incidentally, you can also read BU’s short ELLM blog on the topic as well

Legal education is in some ways a bit of a paradox. We replaced the traditional, centuries-old ‘apprentice’ model of legal education–where law students learned from practicing lawyers and attended lectures on the side, typically at night– with a model that was based on a three-year program of study of classroom lectures and the so-called ‘Socratic method’ and case studies….a model, incidentally, where one could take a year-long course on Contracts and never actually see a contract, let alone try to draft one, and be taught by an instructor who may never have drafted one him/herself. In recent decades we began to add clinics and other experiential learning, because it seemed we graduated lawyers who knew little or nothing about actual legal practice. Law schools, the ABA and professional legal associations continue to reevaluate the traditional model and there is a sense of urgency about graduating students who are (a) saddled with less debt and (b) have more marketable and practical skills. Will we abandon the three year model? Will we essentially revert back to what legal education used to be, where there was an emphasis on working knowledge coupled with the academic? I don’t necessarily feel qualified to prognosticate about what additional changes are in store, but we are clearly in the midst of a sea change in the manner in which legal education is structured and conveyed. A greater combination of the theoretical and practical study of law, over a shorter period of time than the traditional three years, seems to me to not be a very daring prediction.

 


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