The coronavirus outbreak heralds a watershed moment in law school education. After years of subdued demand for online learning, the LL.M. degree is finally going viral.
Campus lock downs to contain the deadly virus are accelerating a switch to digital delivery of teaching that administrators hope will leave a lasting legacy on the industry. Across the world, hundreds of law schools have been forced at short notice to shift their teaching online to shield student and staff welfare.
The trend comes after several leading US institutions launched Online LL.M. programs that can be taken at home. The impetus was a drop in demand for full-time LL.M.s, with the previously strong US economy putting working lawyers off quitting their job and forgoing a salary to become a student again for 12 months.
Now, digital delivery is being dramatically ramped up by an unexpected catalyst: the novel coronavirus. Some law schools are predicting a resulting upsurge in demand for Online LL.M. courses as furloughed workers and those made redundant amid an economic crisis join the pool of prospective students.
“Our top priority is keeping our community safe. But I think there will be a resurgence in online delivery methods,” says associate dean Katherine Barnes from Arizona Law. “A large number of LL.M. students are overseas and getting them on campus may not be possible.”
The US has temporarily suspended immigration, while travel is restricted around the world and embassies are shut, bogging down visa processing.
But some full-time students have demanded tuition fee discounts or deferrals, arguing that online education cannot replicate the campus experience. Deans have not granted their wishes, citing the high costs of teaching facilities and faculty.
Professor Robert Lee at Birmingham Law School in the UK, says law schools were ill-prepared to handle the switch. “Although the efforts have been admirable, the outcomes have been variable and illustrate how little use universities have been making of the online tools at their disposal,” he says.
On the horizon: More Online LL.M.s
Professor Lee expects growing pressure for law schools to launch more Online LL.M.s if, as expected, numbers of overseas students fall dramatically. “Until a vaccine becomes widely available, even if the outbreak has abated by the autumn, candidates may prefer to defer rather than risk being caught in a second wave of coronavirus in the 2020-2021 academic year,” he says.
However, he says distance learning is not a “quick fix”, noting that Birmingham’s Online LL.M. in Environmental Law has been three years in the making. “I have real doubts as to whether programs of any great quality could be generated in time for the next academic intake.”
The pandemic has forced faculty to embrace online learning like never before. Pre-corona, resistance among teaching staff was a major barrier to greater adoption.
“The sudden switch to remote teaching has required faculty to take the plunge and learn how to use technology at an accelerated pace,” says John Riccardi, assistant dean for graduate programs at Boston University School of Law. “The more comfortable faculty become with distance learning tools, the more willing they may be to support online initiatives.”
Will Online LL.M.s replace traditional programs?
Administrators believe online education is expanding the pool of prospective law students, instead of simply shuffling them around. Online platforms enable schools to reach lawyers who are not able to fit a residential program into their busy working lives, and those who do not live near top schools.
“Rather than cannibalize the campus program, an online option can help expand the student base,” says Riccardi.
Cost is a major factor for prospective students to consider. Even with discounted tuition rates, residential programs would still be orders of magnitude more expensive than their online equivalents. Technology, however, tears down financial hurdles, including living and travel costs that can be dear in major cities.
The opportunity cost of not working is also removed with remote study. “The convenience of asynchronous delivery, whereby students can tune into class on their own schedule, is a major appeal of online programs,” says Riccardi.
Prof Lee at Birmingham adds that online and campus LL.M.s serve distinct markets. “I feel sure that even online students would accept that face-to-face provision would be preferable to remote learning, but they make a cost/benefit equation,” he adds.
Law schools insist that demand for campus-based LL.M. programs will not fade away completely, especially not from overseas students. In many US states, distance learning does not meet the eligibility requirements for sitting the bar exam — a passport to practitioner status in major legal centers, such as New York or California.
Coming to campus also gives international students the option to stay and work in the country for 24 months under the Optional Practical Training scheme — a stepping stone to permanent work authorization, which is not available to remote students.
There are also questions over whether online education can replicate the networking opportunities afforded to students on campus who study cheek by jowl with other highfliers.
“That’s an experience that you can’t get online — yet,” says Barnes at Arizona Law. “While students do network online, it’s harder and it has to be more purposeful. Many overseas students also want to improve their English and be immersed in a foreign language 24/7.”
She believes the coronavirus outbreak could force schools to innovate and find ways to make remote study more like the real thing. “With a critical mass of people who are studying online, we’re learning how to recreate the community that the in-campus space provides,” says Barnes. “I do think online learning will catch up over time.”