As everything has raced towards the virtual, (sorry, Sam Glover!) including getting a degree online, law has unsurprisingly lagged behind. It isn’t easy to get out in front of new technology when you’ve got proud Luddites at the top of the heap of your profession. Seriously, when the highest court in the land employs someone with the ridiculously quaint title of chambers’ aide to walk ivory-colored paper hard copies around the building, (just like our forefathers did!) law schools are not likely to be on the cutting edge of online learning.
Being cynical about the limitations and all-out-fraud possibilities of online learning isn’t unwarranted. There are really insanely enormous attrition rates, which doesn’t make sense in a program like law school where you make staffing and resource decisions several years out. There’s the possibility of so much grifting, as people figure out how to game the system by enrolling shadow students and collecting federal aid. It limits your opportunity to connect with students and faculty, which can pose a problem in a profession that is sometimes perceived as trending towards the aggressive or the asocial or both. But how much of our cynicism, our distaste for something so gauche as online law school, is the same impetus that led the ABA to drag its feet on accrediting part-time students? As we see a shift in demographics at the undergraduate level, we’re sure to see that shift increasing at law schools as well.
Law school ends up throwing some very high barriers in a nontraditional student’s path. (1) It costs money. A lot a lot a lot of money. (2) If you have a family or steady job, you can’t relocate, which means you’re tethered to the few – or only – schools you live near. (3) Said family or steady job likely makes it difficult for you to attend classes during the day. Part time programs tend to be little to no less expensive and still require attendance at fixed times. Are bright not-young not-rich things being left behind by the current model?
Of course they are. No one really doubts that, given the skyrocketing costs of tuition. However, there’s certainly a downside to getting at those students via a possibly sub par and definitely not well-marketable degree. Right now the only state with online law schools is California, and since the ABA doesn’t accredit those types of programs, individuals that graduate from those schools are only eligible to take the California bar, and that’s only after they take the First-Year Law Students’ Exam that California requires for those non-ABA school students. Clearly, in order for an online law education to be viable, reputable universities are going to have a take a chance on that type of program in the hopes that accreditation wouldn’t be far behind.
Thus far, the more well-known and (generally considered) prestigious schools have disdained providing advanced degrees online, leaving masters’ and Ph.D. programs to entities like for-profit Phoenix University. However, that could shift soon. In what is presumed to be the first of its kind, the Georgia Institute of Technology (a top 50 school) will offer a master’s degree in computer science as an entirely online program beginning in January 2014. The entire degree – start to finish – would run you $6,600 instead of $45,000. The whole thing is a public-private model where silicon valley provides the platform and the school provides the content and the instructors. AT&T has donated to it because it is using the program to find and train new hires. And in the tradition of the other massive open online courses offered at places like Stanford, you can take the whole thing for free if you’re not degree-seeking and can forego things like office hours.
There’s plenty of perfectly good reasons to assert this won’t work for law students. For example, law will generally require networking and other people interface skills and there’s a good deal of shared knowledge that comes from, say, study groups. Much as we’d like to think so, however, those aren’t concerns particular to lawyers. There’s no reason to think that a modern computer scientist doesn’t need to work on his or her networking skills or that they wouldn’t benefit from being able to study together. There’s also the problem of the on-campus interviewing model, which creates convenience for employers and law students by piling all the introductory interviews into one hellacious stretch in one specific place. Obviously, there are ways around that model as well, including interviews via Skype, telling online students they need to be physically on campus for a week in the fall, or, as with Georgia Tech above, treating the online program itself as a specific feeder to a certain employer.
I don’t think that consideration of online courses should be taken lightly, and the risks could well outweigh the potential benefits. But if our objection is grounded in the notion that it just isn’t how law is done, then we’re putting tradition before innovation arbitrarily – which is pretty much the quintessential Luddite stance.