Post coronavirus: Legal education will never be the same. Online is here to stay.

By Andrew Strauss

Last September, in my capacity as the dean of the University of Dayton School of Law, I participated in a wrap-up panel at an online legal education conference at the University of Denver. 

The premise of the panel was that the year was 2030, and assuming the role of dean of the first fully online American law school, panelists were to answer a series of futuristic questions. What none of us on the panel could have possibly imagined is that five months later, a new virus would dictate that every ABA law school in the country be fully online. 

As ABA accreditation rules traditionally stood, however, at the conclusion of the public health crisis, schools would have had to revert to their pre-Covid-19 residential style of education. 

But, in an extraordinary coincidence, on March 6, less than a week before the mass suspension of in person classes, the ABA issued a previously planned, and largely unnoticed, proposal to eliminate its long-standing prohibition on online J.D. programs.     

If the proposal goes into effect, the nature of American legal education will be one of the many great transformation wrought by the coronavirus crisis. The University of Dayton is one of four ABA-accredited schools currently operating under an ABA variance that allows us to pioneer an online J.D. program. So, I already know what law schools all over the country are in the process of discovering.  Online legal education works, and in some respects is superior to the traditional on the ground model. 

Like most of the four schools operating under variances, our program consists of a mixture of weekly online synchronous and asynchronous classes as well as an occasional short visit (typically once a semester) to campus. 

In the synchronous classes, students in virtual boxes (like those in the opening credits of the 1970’s sitcom “The Brady Bunch”) interact remotely with their professor in real time. Skeptical professors will be surprised to discover that in many ways the interactions will be of higher quality than they are in bricks and mortar classrooms. 

In residential classes, students in the back of the class often can’t clearly see or hear students in the front of the class and vice versa. On video (especially when the default is set to enlarge the speaker’s picture) everyone can plainly see and hear everyone else when they speak.

The unexpected result is that the students and faculty in our online program often experience a greater level of learning and interpersonal connection than they do in our bricks and mortar program. 

If synchronous classes have the potential to improve traditional in-class education, asynchronous classes (defined as pre-produced, with students watching on their own time) change the very nature of that education.

When you think asynchronous, forget the old-fashioned VHS tapes of professors droning on from correspondence school days. Rather, following best practices, our asynchronous classes reinforce concepts with high production value visual representations, and they are deeply interactive. 

Students are constantly asked to write out or video record responses to questions, engage with fellow classmates in discussion trees, or answer multiple-choice questions. The insight behind the famous Socratic method (where professors chose a student to pepper with alternative facts and hypotheticals) is that to learn effectively, law students need to engage actively with legal doctrine.

The fundamental flaw of the Socratic method, however, is that only one student at a time is so engaged. In our asynchronous classes every student is actively engaging all the time. While most professors do not have the ability to produce quality asynchronous classes on the fly this semester, by sampling the online medium, they will come to appreciate conceptually the potential power of the asynchronous dimension. 

Finally, what the coronavirus crisis has made readily apparent about online legal education is that it increases accessibility. Beyond emergency situations, it makes law school available for students who cannot leave rural areas or who have work and family obligations that make school commutes infeasible. Synchronous classes, after all, can be done anywhere, and asynchronous classes can be done anywhere and anytime. 

The ABA proposal to eliminate the restrictions on online J.D. education is currently out for notice and comment, and then the proposal is subject to approval by the ABA Council and House of Delegates. So, rejection of the proposal is still possible.

If the proposal is approved, schools wishing to proceed online will then have to file for a fundamental change, as they do for other significant new programs and be subject to some monitoring. 

The online law school envisioned in our Denver wrap-up panel has, therefore, not yet quite arrived. But, with professionally skeptical law professors all over the country experiencing first-hand the benefits of online legal education, that day may be much closer than anyone had imagined just a short time ago.

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