The coronavirus pandemic has changed teaching methods in law schools as online learning, once reserved for a small but growing portion of students globally, has become the norm.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, flagship LL.M. degrees were delivered mostly on campus aside from a small number of specialist online degrees delivered part-time. But the pandemic has changed attitudes towards remote teaching in law schools. It is here to stay.
“The pandemic forced law schools to rapidly rethink the way we teach and deliver our programs. This was a big challenge for both staff and students, but it showed us that creative thinking and the use of technology opens up new opportunities for teaching,” says Paul James Cardwell, Vice Dean for Education for the Dickson Poon School of Law, at King’s College London.
Many LL.M. programs are now incorporating at least some online elements, even in full-time courses. Others are launching part-time LL.M. programs delivered fully online for students who do not want to leave the hot job market. Others still are delivering a hybrid mixture of online and in-person education.
In Cardwell’s view, law schools will see remote teaching as a more regular feature in LL.M. courses. “As everyone across the world experienced a shift online in both professional and personal lives, I think there is a recognition that online learning can be effective,” he says. “Plus, online learning allows you to get over some of the physical challenges of the learning environment, such as having to travel for classes.”
Can online really replace an in-person LL.M. experience?
Nevertheless, there is also the view that an online environment cannot fully replace the person-to-person experience. At King’s, the school has been offering different modes of studies including blended options for LL.M. programs since even before the pandemic. “Our successful, fully online LL.M. helped the School of Law support the need to move on-campus teaching online and have a flexible approach when the pandemic hit,” says Cardwell.
Even as the impact of the pandemic is reduced and restrictions are eased in many parts of the world, other law schools are also forecasting online learning to become business as usual. “USC has always had online programs for our law students that utilized remote learning to deliver impactful, credible legal education. So for us, it’s business as usual,” says Anitha Cadambi, Associate Director of Graduate Curriculum and Instruction at University of Southern California (USC) Gould School of Law.
She highlights the unique advantages to virtual studies. “Online modality offers students the ability to learn in a way that suits their life and learning style best. Students can self-pace and direct their learning as needed online, giving them flexibility while ensuring they are able to complete their degree.”
Through Zoom and other video conferencing platforms, law schools can also bring in experts from around the world to inform the LL.M. student experience. In addition, the platform enables all students – including those that might be more intimidated in a larger classroom environment – to speak up or use chat functionality to participate. “Students learn to problem-solve and collaborate, as learning is more self-directed,” Cadambi adds.
The perception of online learning is shifting
For the teaching institutions, online learning has helped law schools take their brand across borders. “The perception of online degrees has changed. Where international students may not have regarded an online degree highly, they are now more understanding of its value and ability to offer quality instruction,” Cadambi says.
For individual LL.M. students, the flexibility to complete a course remotely, often at a time or pace that suits them, is important if they’re undertaking a degree alongside work. LL.M. programs have traditionally been delivered full-time, with students giving up their salary to return to school. With online learning, students can keep their jobs and learn part-time.
But it’s not easy. “All types of study rely on self-discipline, and we know that learning remotely can feel isolating at times. We support students using online forums and regular check-ins to help them feel part of the wider student community,” says Cardwell at King’s College London.
There are some drawbacks to online learning. “While online learning works best for some students, it can be hard to build community,” USC’s Cadambi admits. “Our students have been adept at finding their own ways to organize study groups and meetups. Zoom fatigue and pacing of the coursework can make online learning challenging for some students as well.”
She points out that moving classes online during the pandemic was more emergency teaching, not remote teaching. “Having dedicated online programs and coursework requires a law school’s resources to build classes that are intentionally online, with professors well-versed in remote learning and interactive multimedia lesson plans that deliver online-specific instructional materials,” she says.
Looking ahead, some law school professors believe the future is bright for online learning. “We might see a growth in online programs alongside in-person courses if people have had a positive experience of online learning and are keen to deepen their knowledge of law in both general and specific areas,” says Cardwell.