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Best Practices for Distance Learning in Legal Education

Posted by William Byrnes on January 10, 2014

The American Association of Law Schools (AALS) President reported at the Sunday morning Section Officers’ breakfast on January 4, attended by Associate Dean William Byrnes of Thomas Jefferson School of Law, that this year’s conference had the second highest registration in AALS history.

During the AALS annual conference in New York City, LexisNexis sponsored the breakfast held at the Hilton Midtown for the Workgroup on Distance Education for Legal Education. The sit down breakfast, filled at room capacity of stakeholders from among law schools, is the third annual breakfast during AALS and seventh meeting of the workgroup.

The Lexis sponsored breakfast provided Professor Rebecca Purdom (pictured left), renown environmental law academic and leader of Vermont Law School’s Environmental online program, the opportunity to lead a stakeholder discussion on the Workgroup’s Report of Best Practices before the second edition publication in March. Professor Purdom also presented the agenda of the March 2014 three-day Workgroup meeting sponsored by Washington University School of Law (St. Louis). Professor Purdom stated, “The Workgroup evolved from a 2011 project presented at the Harvard Law School – New York Law School initiative of conferences ‘The Future of Legal Education 2.0’. Over the past two years, law schools’ interest has substantially grown in the workgroup’s best practices and case examples output as the schools leap forward into providing online courses and programs for their JD and LLM students.”

William Byrnes, as chair of the Report subgroup (Best Practices for Distance Learning in Legal Education:  A “Blue Paper” Summary of Delivery Models, Regulatory Issues, and Recommended Practices), has been coordinating input from academics from a representation of backgrounds, law school rankings, and regions, discussing and organizing contributions from workgroup members. Replying to the question: “What were some of highlights of the AALS conference this year?” Professor Byrnes answered, “The most significant “wake up” call of the AALS conference was the presentation about the ABA variance granted William Mitchell College of Law for a flexible hybrid, distance delivered JD degree. The newly announced hybrid short residence – online JD degree combines intensive, one week on-campus seminars once a semester with online course work during the semester.  This variance is a game changer regarding thinking about delivery of U.S. legal education and I expect distance hybrid programs to be wildly popular.”

The American Bar Association general restrictions for earning distance education credits (Standard 306) are being relaxed as well.  Under current ABA accreditation standards, a JD student may not earn any distance education during the first year of law school, and after the first year the student is restricted to no more than four distance education credit hours in any one semester, and a maximum 12 credits total may apply to the juris doctorate degree.  The new accreditation standard (Standard 311) will remove the maximum distance education credits per semester restriction, and increase the allowance  to 15 credits toward the degree.  However, in light of the newly announced variance, it is expected that several schools will also seek to expand the curriculum and practice-oriented opportunities afforded by distance education, especially schools in low population density regions.

William Byrnes said “As the pioneer of distance learning delivered law degrees by ABA institutions, I am glad to see other law schools finally understanding the strengths offered by technology. At Thomas Jefferson, my understanding of distance education pedagogy has deepened, and is frequently called upon by other schools, promoting Thomas Jefferson an academic leader among the ABA schools.”  

“How will this impact students?”  William Byrnes continued “For students, it opens the possibility, by example, of combining 15 hours of distance credits for electives with externship credits and independent study credits to complete a full academic year while perhaps undertaking a practical externship in a foreign country.  The student could begin the overseas, practical experience in January of the second year and return December the third year, allowing a full  12 months immersion, and not be penalized with a late graduation.  The last semester at the home school is a good idea to allow the student to engage in the necessary local state bar procedure courses and other bar preparation common for impending graduate, as well as reintegrate with  student organizations and friends.  Of course, technology like video/web conference applications such as Skype, Google Chat, and Polycom allow students off campus to remain engaged with home school students organizations and the like.  Still, technology doesn’t replicate throwing frisbee on Pacific Beach with friends or replace the unexpected meeting at the Starbucks down the street from the law school.”

“Quality of education was a concern on many minds which I think will in turn increase interest in the workgroup’s best practices project and report. I also expect several more variances and online programs to be applied for in 2014”. Professor Byrnes concluded “The March 2014 distance education workgroup meeting has opened a third day to address requests from law schools to provide practical online course examples of tools and techniques.”

The first edition of the workgroup’s best practices report may be downloaded from the Harvard website.  The vastly expanded, and refined, second edition of Best Practices for Distance Learning in Legal Education:  A “Blue Paper” Summary of Delivery Models, Regulatory Issues, and Recommended Practices will be published at the March 6 – 8, 2014 workshop.  Contact William Byrnes for more details (https://profwilliambyrnes.com/about-2/).

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