Myth or Reality

Close up of worn down law reports

During the past decade, online education has moved from being an innovative, and at times questioned, form of education to a well-accepted and respected delivery method for higher education. According to a recent study completed by the Babson Survey Research Group more than 6.3 million college students enrolled in an online course in 2016, a 5.6% increase from 2015. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 30% of college students took at least one distance education course in 2016.

To support this trend, organizations such as Quality Matters, the Online Learning Consortium and the United States Distance Learning Association have helped establish standards for quality in online education. The 2017 CHLOE report shared that the majority of chief academic officers state their institutions have adopted quality standards for course design, program design, online faculty development and student outcomes. Thus, it is not surprising that most regional accreditors have approved institutions with graduate programs that are wholly or largely online.

One education group that has resisted online education is law schools. Until recently, the American Bar Association, an agency responsible for accrediting law schools, had adhered to Standard 306 which does not approve law schools to offer 100% online JD programs, does not allow distance education to be utilized as part of the first year of a J.D. program, and limits the total number of online courses in a J.D. program to 15 credits. The ABA House of Delegates voted August 6, 2018 to accept a proposed revision expanding the distance learning offerings allowed to approximately 1/3 of a JD program, and 10 credits of the first year curriculum. Three schools have already been granted variances for experimental distance delivery programs offering up to 50% distance learning, and another four schools are offering J.D. programs without variances that contain substantial distance learning components.

It is important to note that the criteria for eligibility to take the Bar examinations is set by each state, not the ABA. Graduates of ABA accredited law schools are approved to sit for the bar exam in any state, while graduates of a law school accredited by or registered with the California Committee of Bar Examiners can apply to sit for the California Bar, and may be able to sit for other bars, based on a variety of local rules. See, for example:

Despite lengthy standards and exacting enforcement, it does not appear the ABA experiments have established that distance learning programs fail students in any meaningful way, so exactly why the ABA remains resistant to online education is unclear. It does appear that the world of legal education places a high value on tradition and maintains a general reluctance to change. So the question remains, is it possible to offer a quality fully online J.D. degree?

Perhaps the critical questions is … what would a quality online legal education look like? Does quality mean a certain number of full-time law professors? Or a certain number of practicing law professors? Does the number of law books in the law library equate to quality? Or the number of law books, legal journals and databases accessible online? Perhaps quality legal education requires small class sizes, but is “small” identified as 50 students? Or 15 students? Or, perhaps it is best measured by outcomes, of the kind careful program and assessment design can reliably measure?

In reality, law school is designed to prepare students to be lawyers, which requires graduates to pass the bar exam. A logical claim would be that quality can be assessed by the percentage of graduates that pass the bar exam, or other standardized state exams such as California’s First Year Law Student Exam (FYLSE). If that is the metric that ultimately reflects quality, then the answer is clear. Based on FYLSE and California Bar Exam pass rates, online schools such as St. Francis School of Law do offer a quality legal education, and graduates are well prepared for the legal profession. No mythical unicorns…but a way to leverage technology and learning science to offer a quality online legal education.

Dr. Jill Langen, the President of St. Francis School of Law, has over 25 years experience in higher education. She is responsible for providing leadership, strategic direction and administrative oversight for the School.