Gaps Between Online and In-Person Law School Learning Are Closing

When the history of the COVID-19 pandemic is written, one can remember that the crisis marked a positive turning point in which online learning in higher education gained more respect. To be sure, at the start of the pandemic, few were happy with emergency distance learning, even as teachers demonstrated “heroic levels of creativity” in the face of a global emergency. But as the waves of the virus rose and fell over time and one variant replaced another, faculty members adapted remote learning best practices into their courses. Many students have subsequently discovered unexpected benefits in online learning, often leaving them wanting more.

Law students’ perception of the gap between online and in-person instruction has narrowed significantly since the pandemic began, according to a recent Gallup-AccessLex report. In 2021, about three-quarters (76%) of law students who took classes mostly or entirely in person rated their programs as “excellent” or “good,” while only about half (51%) of students who took at least half of their courses online reported the same. Face-to-face student perceptions remained mostly stable in 2022, as around three-quarters (78%) again rated their programs as “excellent” or “good”. But their hybrid and online counterparts have made significant gains in 2022; 73% of hybrid students and 72% of those who were mostly or completely online had the same positive opinions about their programs.

Online law school is a relatively new phenomenon. Before the pandemic, fewer than 10 law schools offered hybrid JD programs, according to the report. At the time, American Bar Association-accredited law schools were only allowed to offer one-third of their credits via distance learning. But once COVID-19 turned into a pandemic, the ABA offered temporary permission for then-in-person law schools to offer their programs online — and most followed suit.

In 2021, most students had an unfavorable view of this first experience of transitioning to online learning, according to the report.

“It was not what they signed up for, the sudden loss of face-to-face contact with their teachers and peers was keenly felt, and school administrators and teachers had to adapt to a learning format remotely on the fly,” the report’s authors said. wrote.

But time heals some wounds, especially when faculty members have stepped up to master online teaching best practices. Additionally, students discovered some benefits of blended and online learning, including the flexibility offered by the formats.

In 2021, about half of students (51%) in mostly or fully face-to-face programs agreed that their teachers used teaching methods that engaged them. Smaller percentages of hybrid students (45%) and mostly or completely online students (48%) felt the same way. By 2022, these percentages have risen to 60%, 57%, and 56%, respectively, suggesting that students now perceive a narrower divide between online, blended, and in-person learning.

Despite the gains from online course delivery, students still perceive some differences. For example, even in 2022, a majority (63%) of students reported feeling “emotionally drained” after online classes, compared to just under half (48%) of in-person students who felt the same. . Perhaps for this reason, some faculty members have championed hybrid formats in which they seek to maximize the benefits of each format.

“Every day in the life of a law student requires acts of triage…because there is always too much work,” said Texas A&M law professor Brian Larson. “If you allow students to make your class the one they can put off until tomorrow, they’ll put it off until tomorrow.”

For this reason, Larson uses online learning management system tools, including forums and peer feedback options, even when teaching face-to-face. He structures his courses with intermediate deliverables in doing so.

“If you structure it in a way that they can’t [put off work]they won’t, because they’re damn smart,” he said.

Many students and faculty members also have a new appreciation for the flexibility and access that online and hybrid options provide.

“Three or four years ago there was talk of distance learning as a last resort – something that students would only be willing to do if they lived, for example, in a rural area or had a job that made them absolutely precluded attending regular synchronous law classes,” said Tom Cobb, a law professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, an early pioneer of coeducational legal education. (Cobb students have long had the possibility of spending a few weeks a year on campus and studying remotely.) “After the pandemic, it is becoming more and more normal for students to participate in distance law courses, even if they are not in a situation that requires it.

Indeed, online options make dreams of law degrees more accessible. Russell Osgood, a law professor and dean of the Washington University School of Law, praises the flexibility that hybrid options offer his students, especially for those who are parents, are managing illnesses, or have other family responsibilities.

“Honestly, most [the parents] are moms,” Osgood said. “I would see the kid crawling and I would turn kids into celebrities,” he said of his student parents who attend his classes in person via Zoom. “It’s good, and I don’t think that will ever change.”

Osgood noted that an entirely online legal studies program launched at his institution just before the pandemic had much greater demand than the school had anticipated.

“The pandemic has undoubtedly encouraged people to pursue it,” he said.

Other law school heads have seen similar trends.

“Working students benefit enormously from not having to spend 45 minutes commuting to and from law school every day,” said Matthew Diller, dean of Fordham Law School. “Blending online classes with in-person classes, especially for working students, makes a lot of sense.”

In some cases, the ability to teach online at least part of the time offers benefits not only for student flexibility, but also for delivery of educational content.

“When you want to project a student’s text onto the screen and talk about it with the class, that’s actually easier to do with an online class than in a classroom where students struggle to read on the screen at the front of the room,” Larson said. “And you can’t send them talking about it as easily as you can in a Zoom classroom.”

Yet faculty members and administrators still have some bugs to fix in hybrid teaching.

“We’re all going to have to rewire our classrooms so we can pick up the voices of people asking questions” attending via Zoom, Osgood said. “Ironically, if you don’t have this technology, the only student voice they can hear really well [in the classroom] is the person who is online, as they are speaking into a microphone and their picture is displayed.

Nancy I. Romero