ABA expands online learning. Will schools take advantage?

If you live in Alaska, good luck going to law school. Alaska has no American Bar Association-accredited law school. If you live in Rapid City, S.D., good luck going to law school as well. The University of South Dakota School of Law is about 400 miles away.

But prospective students who don’t live near law schools might now see a glimmer of hope with the ABA’s decision to increase the number of online learning hours to one-third of the credit hours needed to earn a J.D. — about 30 hours in most cases.

The increase — from 15 hours — could also offer more flexibility to traditional students, such as those taking externships away from campus. Or it could help students who just want to learn law in a different format.

“Maybe online learning has arrived,” said Andrew Strauss, dean of the University of Dayton School of Law. “I think you’ll be seeing more schools heading in this direction.”

His already is — in a big way. It got an ABA variance to offer a hybrid online J.D. program, one that allows students to take most of their classes online. They’re only required to come to campus for a one-week period each semester.

The Ohio school is one of four that the ABA has allowed such programs. Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minn., was the first. The University of Syracuse College of Law in upstate New York and Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles will soon launch similar hybrid offerings.

“For one, it hugely changes the access equation,” Strauss said. “If you live 50 miles from a law school, it’s really hard to go. Plus people have complicated schedules. They may have other demands, such as children. This vastly extends access.”

Online courses promote active learning, Strauss said. Even if the lessons are recorded they allow for interaction, he noted. Students have to answer questions posed by professors. The give-and-take still happens — just online.

Strauss can’t see why more schools won’t begin experimenting with online learning, given the extension in hours. The ABA is also allowing first-year students to take as many as 10 hours of online learning. Previously, they were not allowed to take any.

Strauss hails that decision too. “That never made sense,” he said of the prohibition. “If it’s a good way of learning, why shouldn’t it be available to 1Ls,” he said.

Ken Randall, CEO and president of iLaw, a BARBRI company, and a former chair of the ABA’s Technology Committee, foresees more schools looking to adopt online learning options, which his firm provides. It partners with law schools to create, market, deliver, monitor, and operate online programs and courses. 

“I think that most law schools — but not all — would permit students to take the maximum allowed,” he said.

For one, students are comfortable with this kind of learning. They may have taken online courses as an undergrad. They are familiar with the technology.

Secondly, online learning is hardly a newcomer to the teaching profession any longer. More students get their MBAs online than students going the traditional classroom route, he said.

This jump to 30 credits could particularly help make part-time J.D. programs more inviting, he said. “This becomes another vehicle to give students flexibility.”

The University of Denver Sturm College of Law has started a new part-time J.D. program geared to working professionals that is being taught both online and in weekend classes.

About 35 students have enrolled, including those living as far away as Utah, Texas and South Carolina. They fly in for the weekend classes. Johnathan Clark, who lives in Salt Lake City, is one of the members of the new class.

“I always liked the idea of earning a J.D. but didn’t think that as a working executive that was possible. When I heard about the format, I was excited because it allows me to continue to progress through my career, while at the same time go to law school,” Clark said. “I was accepted to a few other programs, but Denver Law, by far in my opinion, was structured best to fit my schedule.”

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