Law schools have been far behind most other academic disciplines in embracing online education. That is why a recent proposal by the American Bar Association (ABA) to increase the number of credits that law schools may offer online has garnered attention. In reality, this proposal doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Current ABA Standard 306 limits law schools to offering no more than 15 credits (out of a typical 86 to 90 total) to be taught online. It also prevents law students from taking any online credits until they have completed their first year.
The proposed revised Standard 306 would allow law schools to offer up to one-third of their credits—about 28 to 30—to be offered online, effectively doubling the current limit. It would also allow up to 10 credits of online courses within the first year. The Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar approved the revision in May, and it may go to the ABA House of Delegates for concurrence as early as August.
The greater recognition by the ABA of the value of online education is a welcome development. But a default rule that caps online learning to one-third law of the total is still an excessive and unnecessary restraint on innovation.
Minimum vs. maximum
Most of the ABA’s programmatic requirements are in the form of minimums: 83 total credits, 15 hours of instruction per credit, six units of experiential learning, and so on. The cap on online learning is one of the few ABA restrictions that sets a ceiling on what a law school can offer.
Here's why it’s time to expand online legal education
The implicit premise of this ceiling is that online learning is inferior to classroom-based learning, or is at least problematic in some way, such that there must be limits placed on its use to ensure adequate quality of instruction. But this is, or at least should be, a pedagogical choice that schools or professors make, just as they have significant flexibility in course content and teaching methods.
Ken Randall, who served as the dean of a highly ranked ABA law school for two decades, made a similar point recently in Inside Higher Ed: “[I]f faculties are free mostly to teach the subjects they want and how they teach them, why can’t they decide on their platform of delivery? Just as they can decide whether a theater-style large lecture hall is or isn’t a good way to connect with face-to-face students, they should be able to decide whether to flip their classrooms toward technology-based learning.”
In assessing whether online learning is inferior, my own experience serves as a sort of natural experiment, since I was a professor and administrator at an ABA school for 12 years before becoming the dean of a fully online law school. We recently revised our entire required curriculum, and in doing so, sought to integrate best practices in legal education with the latest in adult learning and distance-learning research.
Why I believe in online learning
Live web-based seminar platform allows a give-and-take that resembles the Socratic method used in traditional law classes. Because students must regularly contribute to discussion boards between seminars, professors may actually have more opportunities to evaluate the quantity and quality of student participation than in a brick-and-mortar classroom.