May 23, 2018

Meeting the challenge of online degrees for the professions

 

Tina the Avatar from Drexel University’s nursing program. Tina not only responds to questions asked by students but can also be physically examined and will respond according to how she is being treated.

Chatlani, S. (2018) Navigating online professional degrees – potential and caution, Education Dive, March 21

In previous posts, I have pointed out the challenges of getting online qualifications recognised by professional associations, for instance:

The Chatlani article though shows how some institutions have worked with professional associations to obtain recognition.

Which institutions have received recognition from professional associations?

Chatlani looks at several institutions who have succeeded in getting their online professional degrees recognised. These include:

  • Syracuse University College of Law
  • Western Governors University College of Health Professions
  • Faulkner University’s Masters of Science in Counseling
  • The Santa Barbara & Ventura Colleges of Law

To these institutions I would add a couple of Canadian examples:

Some of these programs are not fully online, but are hybrid, with a good deal of online learning however.

How to get online professional degrees recognized

First, it ain’t easy. It’s no good just trying to convert your on-campus content into an online version. You have to do much more to satisfy professional associations – and quite rightly, in most cases.

The biggest challenge is providing a satisfactory online context for experiential learning: enabling students to apply what they have learned in an online environment that is ‘real’ enough to transfer to an actual workplace. Typical examples would be:

  • use of video, computer simulations, and augmented or virtual reality to teach procedures and/or motor (hands-on) skills
  • use of remote labs/equipment that students can manipulate online
  • ‘virtual’ offices, companies or workplace situations that mirror real companies and their work
  • online development of inter-personal skills through one-on-one online monitoring
  • use of synchronous as well as asynchronous delivery: Syracuse designed their law program so that 50% of each online course will be in real time with students and professors interacting just as they would in a residential program, with intense Socratic dialogue in real time
  • on-campus evaluation of specific skills, such as counselling, even if they are taught online.

In addition to providing appropriate experiential learning, there are general quality issues to be addressed:

  • secure validation of student identity and online assessment;
  • investment in ‘best practice’ online course design, which will involve using learning design and learning technology specialists;
  • opportunity for substantive interaction between faculty and students; 
  • close monitoring of student activities;
  • extensive training of faculty in online teaching.

This is rather a daunting list, even if not all of these requirements apply to all professional training.

Will it be enough?

One has to look to motive here for moving online. One motive is a scarcity of professionals (or more likely, a coming scarcity). This is one major reason for Queen’s University’s Bachelor in Mining Engineering. A shortage of professionals pushes up the costs of professionals and  a shortage of professionals may mean that there are unacceptable delays in court cases (as in Canada), for instance. Offering programs partly or wholly online enables those working or with families to study more flexibly and in the end results in a larger pool of professionals.

Another motive is cost: the cost of traditional, on-campus professional degrees is often so high that many who could benefit from such programs are just unable to afford it. The hope is that online programs can bring down the cost without losing quality.

Chatlani interviewed Christopher Chapman​, CEO of AccessLex Institute, a legal education advocacy group, who argued the hybrid degree option is necessary to make becoming a lawyer more accessible and possibly less expensive:

Truly experimentation in legal education is critical to the long-term future of the field and lawyers. This could allow for the development of better pedagogy and allow for scaling where schools may be able to eventually lower their price point.

However, often professional education does not necessarily scale easily as it may require fairly small class sizes if quality is to be maintained. This is not to say there are no economies of scale: once a simulation or a virtual reality environment is created, it can be used many times with many students, but this often means not only a heavy up-front investment, but also a sophisticated business model that allows for return on investment over several or even many years.

It is worth noting that none of the example institutions above are what might be called elite institutions, who have dominated education for professionals in law, medicine and engineering for many years, and whose alumni are often the ones who set accreditation requirements for the professional associations.

And this is the problem. It benefits existing professionals to limit the number of new professionals by making existing labour scarce. If the people who are responsible for accrediting educational programs for professional recognition benefit by keeping the market restricted and themselves come from elite institutions with no experience of online learning, then online professional programs become a huge risk for the departments planning to offer them and for the students who sign up for them.

The best approach is to ensure the support of the relevant professional associations before investing heavily in such programs. The worst case scenario is to spend lots of money on developing such programs only for students to find that they still cannot get a well paid professional job with their qualification.

Online education and the professional associations: the case of law

Image: Reality Sandwich, 2015

Lederman, D. (2018) The uncertain landscape for online legal education Inside Higher Education, January 24

The situation in the USA

This is a useful report about the current situation in the USA regarding the accreditation or otherwise of online courses in law. Does the American Bar Association (ABA) recognise qualifications where some or all the courses were taken online?

The answer is: maybe but in most cases so far, no.

In late 2013, the American Bar Association gave a private nonprofit law school in Minnesota permission to create a part-time Juris Doctor program that blended online courses heavily with face-to-face instruction. The Minnesota law school, now called Mitchell Hamline School of Law, just turned out its first two graduates this month.

A handful of law schools, including those at Seton Hall UniversityLoyola University Chicago and Touro University, have recently introduced part-time programs that allow students to take up to 15 credits online (out of a minimum of 83 credits), the maximum now allowed by the American Bar Association.

However, several other law schools have had their petitions for “variances”(as the ABA calls them) to allow some online learning rejected, including some quite prestigious law schools, including those at Syracuse University and Rutgers.

As the article states:

The mixed results about the fates of law schools seeking to expand their online footprints left some legal education observers uncertain about the prospects for online and other innovations in legal education. The ABA is expected to consider as soon as next month some loosening of its rules on online learning, but exactly how remains unclear.

What about Canada?

In Canada, the provinces have delegated accreditation to provincial Legal Societies, such as the Law Society of Ontario/Upper Canada (similar to other professions in Canada, such as engineering.)

To qualify for admission to the Lawyer Licensing Process, an applicant must typically have acquired credentials through one of the following options:

  • Graduates of an Accredited Law School (Common Law);
  • Graduates of International or Non-Accredited Canadian Law Schools who must apply to the National Committee on Accreditation (“NCA”) to have their legal education credentials evaluated before they can enter the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Lawyer Licensing Process;
  • Lawyers qualified in other provinces who meet the inter-provincial mobility standards.

Most of those applying for licensing in Canada will come as a result of graduating through an accredited Canadian law school. The Legal Society of Upper Canada provides a list of 20 accredited law schools. These are almost entirely within the provincial public university system, covering all provinces except Newfoundland and the territories.

I could find no statement on the Legal Society of Ontario site about courses taken at these schools through online learning. If anyone can provide me with such information, I would be grateful. However, in most Canadian public universities, online students take the same exams as classroom-based students, and as a result degree transcripts rarely indicate the mode of study.

So are there online courses in law programs in Canada?

According to the recent national survey of online and distance learning in Canadian post-secondary education (2017), just under 20% of responding institutions (or at least 10) offered some credit courses online in law. This was more than in forestry, dentistry or medicine, but somewhat surprisingly, less than in engineering, a profession that so far has refused to accept any ‘distance’ qualifications. eCampusOntario lists at least 13 online courses in law from accredited law schools in Ontario.

A couple of Canadian universities offered a whole online program in law, but not necessarily a full degree. For instance Ryerson University offers the Law Practice Program.  The program, approved conditionally by the Law Society of Upper Canada, adopts a hybrid approach, with a four month practical training period consisting of 14 weeks online and three separate weeks on campus. During these seventeen weeks, candidates work on simulated files developed by practising lawyers. This training is then followed by a four month work placement, where participants work on actual files. However, you already need a degree in law before taking this program.

Similarly once you have a degree, as part of the licensing process in Ontario, during an Articling placement, the candidate is expected to study the online Professional Responsibility and Practice Course (PRP). Therefore it appears that the largest law accreditation agency in Canada is not opposed in principle to online courses. If there is a reluctance to move to online courses or programs in law in Canada, it is more likely to come from the law schools themselves.

So my belief – and it is no more than this – is that currently there are some courses available online in law in Canadian universities, and some hybrid programs with a substantial online component, but no fully online degree yet accredited by a Canadian law society. 

However, I would really like to hear from those of you working in law: what if any are the requirements or limitations in studying law online in Canada?

One business case for OER examined

A video on electricity from the OpenLearn platform

Law, P. and Perryman, L.-A. (2017) How OpenLearn supports a business model for OER Distance Education, Vol. 38, No. 1

The journal: ‘Distance Education’

Distance Education is one of the oldest and most established journals in the field. It is the journal of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia (ODLAA) and over the years it has published some of the best research in distance education. However, it is not an open access journal, so I am providing my own personal review of one of the articles in this, generally excellent, edition. I should point out though that I am a member of the editorial board so do have an interest in supporting this journal.

Editorial

Som Naidu, the editor, does an excellent job of introducing the articles in the journal under the heading of ‘Openness and flexibility are the norm, but what are the challenges?’ He correctly points out that

While distance education is largely responsible for the articulation and spearheading of openness and flexibility as desirable value principles, these educational goals are fast becoming universally attractive across all sectors and modes of education.

The rapid move to blended and more flexible learning and the slow but increasing use of open educational resources (OER) in campus-based based institutions indeed is challenging the uniqueness of distance education in terms of openness and flexibility. It is easy to argue that distance education is now no more than just another delivery option. Nevertheless, there are still important differences, and Som Naidu draws out some interesting comparisons between the experience of on-campus and distance learning that are still valid.

A business model for OER?

In this latest issue of Distance Education, Patrina Law and Leigh-Anne Perryman have written a very interesting paper about the business case for OER based on three surveys of users (in 2013, 2014, and 2015) of the UK Open University’s OpenLearn project. First some information about OpenLearn:

  • OpenLearn is an open content platform. Initially it used samples of course content from the OU’s undergraduate and postgraduate ‘modules’ (courses) but now hosts specially commissioned audio, video and other interactive materials and short online courses including free certificates and badges;
  • OpenLearn now offers the equivalent of 850 free courses representing 5% of the undergraduate and graduate degree content;
  • 6 million people visit each year with a total of 46 million unique visitors since it was established in 2006; 
  • 13% of users go on to enquire about the OU’s formal degree programs (equivalent of about 1,000 student enrolments per year).

Law and Perryman provide an excellent review of the business cases for OER put forward by others such as the OECD and Creative Commons, then use the survey data from OpenLearn users to test these arguments. Here’s what they found:

  • provision of OER is complementary rather than competitive with the OU’s formal degree programming
  • over half the users are UK-based
  • about 20% reported a disability
  • median age was 36-45
  • about 20% indicated that English was not their first language
  • 70% had some form of post-secondary qualification
  • 16% were part-time or full-time students
  • about two-thirds of the users were ‘tasting’ or ‘testing’ content before making a decision about whether to take a formal program (at either the OU or another institution)
  • almost half (45%) used OpenLearn to find out more about the UK OU (22% had never heard of it before and altogether over half knew nothing or little previously about the OU)
  • the average cost of conversion to OER was between £1500-£2000 per course
  • 13% of OpenLearn users clicked through to make a formal enquiry resulting in about 1,000 new student registrations.

Comment

Very importantly, Law and Perryman link the growing use of OpenLearn to the sudden increase in tuition fees in the UK (£9,000 a year in general, and £5,000 per year for an OU full time degree). Students are not willing to risk this cost without being sure they stand a chance of success and have an interest in the subject. OpenLearn allows them to test this.

This is an important point. The UK government policy of very high tuition fees does appear to be negatively impacting access for many potential students, or at least making them think very carefully before committing to such a large investment. The OU in particular has lost student enrolments as its fees have gone up. There is a danger in my mind that OER can be politically used as a diversion from ‘true’ open education for credit that is available to everyone, irrespective of their means. The best form of open education remains a well-funded state system.

This leads to my one serious criticism of the article. Apart from the cost of conversion, no proper analysis of the true cost of OpenLearn is given so the title is misleading. It does not describe a business model, with full input costs and output benefits stated in monetary terms, but a business case which provides uncosted but positive arguments based on other than cost factors. 

This is a really important distinction because the business model depends heavily on adequate funding for the formal, degree programs which provide the base for the OpenLearn materials. Without that funding, and other costs, OpenLearn will quickly become unsustainable. It is not a parasite in the negative sense of the word but it can’t exist without the funding for the core function of the OU. Without a sense of the full cost of OpenLearn it remains difficult to judge whether the obvious benefits are worth the drain on the OU’s other resources, as the money has to come from somewhere.

Otherwise this is a very good article that should read carefully by anyone concerned with policy regarding the use of OER.

An example of online experiential learning: Ryerson University’s Law Practice Program

Lawyers 2

Alexandris, G., Buontrogianni, M, and Djafarova, N. (2015) Ground-breaking program for Ontario Law School Graduates – Virtual Law Firms, Berlin: OEB Conference

Online, experiential learning

Experiential learning is a very popular concept in education these days, but it is not always well understood, and in particular some see experiential learning and online learning as contradictory. It’s important then to have examples of successful online experiential programs.

Ryerson University in Toronto has one such program. Although hybrid rather than fully online, the online component is both substantial and essential.

Why Ryerson?

One of the many challenges in legal training is moving new law school graduates into the real world of law practice. Although most graduates become articled to a particular law firm, they are often ill-prepared for the actual work, which is much more skills- and context-based than the more theory- and content-based approach in law school.

The Law Society of Upper Canada, which regulates the profession in Ontario, recently introduced changes to its licensing process, requiring a new ‘transition to practice’ training that focuses on skills development. Although Ryerson does not have its own law school, it does have a strong reputation for innovative approaches to skills development in higher education, and as a result in 2013 the Law Society of Upper Canada chose Ryerson to develop the transition to practice program, now called the Law Practice Program (LPP).

The challenge

Ryerson had to develop an experience-based program, drawing initially 220 participants during each of its first two years, spread across the whole province of Ontario and beyond, but also capable of expansion if necessary. The program required developing realistic cases and practices, and a teaching approach that of necessity directly involved ‘real’ law firms and busy, practising lawyers and judges as mentors. At the same time, the training must not interfere with the actual practice of law while participants were engaged in training.

The overall program strategy

Ryerson turned to two of its centres, the Chang School of Continuing Education’s Centre for Digital Education, and the Interpersonal Skills Teaching Centre, which offers simulated learning and teaching of interpersonal communications skills.

Externally Ryerson partnered with the Ontario Bar Association. This enabled Ryerson to annually engage over 250 lawyers across the province as mentors and contributors to the program, and 220 law firms and organizations for work placements. This also allowed the program to integrate technology and legal resources already used in the law profession.

The program adopts a hybrid approach, with a four month practical training period consisting of 14 weeks online and three separate weeks on campus. During these seventeen weeks, candidates work on simulated files developed by practising lawyers. This training is then followed by a four month work placement, where participants work on actual files.

Curriculum

The practical training component consists of developing skills and competency in the following areas:

  • professionalism and ethics
  • analytical skills
  • research
  • oral and written communication
  • client management
  • practice management.

using seven practice areas of law:

  • administrative law
  • business law
  • civil litigation
  • criminal law
  • family law
  • real estate law
  • wills and estates law.

Program design

This is where the program becomes unique and innovative. There are several components of the design.

a. Virtual ‘firms’

Virtual firms are created with four participants, and an external lawyer as a mentor. Each firm also has multiple clients, actors specially trained to play a specific role. There are weekly firm meetings, often in virtual, but real-time, format.

b. Specially designed learning resources

Participants have access to more than 90 pieces of simulated legal correspondence, several specialized legal applications and databases, 40 custom-made videos, and 20 learning modules.

LPP presentation 2

A number of multiple choice assessments and interactive learning objects have been designed to facilitate comprehension and understanding of legal issues and the development of skills.

There are also in-person and virtual presentations by experts in key competency and substantive legal areas, and participants also have to meet virtually and in-person with clients, other lawyers and judges.

c. Communication

A wide variety of tools are used for communication between participants, mentors and clients, including:

  • a standard learning management system
  • online communications tools used within the legal profession (Clio, Webex)

d. Assessment

Participants are assessed through their interaction with lawyers and judges during the program, including live legal presentations and argument.

Conclusion

The main success of the program, now in its second year, has been the ability of the participants ‘to hit the ground running’ when they join a law firm/legal employer. Employers’ responses to the program have been generally highly favourable (see here), although no formal evaluation of the program has yet been conducted. The strong involvement of lawyers and judges as well as law firms has ensured that the training is both relevant and practical, while the firms benefit from better prepared future employees.

The creation of virtual cases, processes and procedures, the use of simulations and virtual meetings and virtual firms, and work placements under supervision, have combined to provide a strong, experience-based approach to learning which both participants and mentors have found highly motivating.

Lastly the ability for participants and mentors to work primarily online has provided the flexibility necessary for busy, working professionals.

There are of course many other online experiential learning programs, such as the virtual reality-based program on custom border services for Canada Border Service Agents at Loyalist College, Ontario. I would welcome other contributions or examples for future blog posts.

LPP case 2

Disclaimer

Since 1st January 2016 I am a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University, but I have not been engaged in any way with the design, development or delivery of this program. I am though indebted to Gina Alexandris, the program director for the LPP, for her help and advice in preparing this post.

Call for papers: law and virtual worlds

The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research has a call for papers for a special issue on law and virtual worlds:

This special issue will focus on legal questions generated by the creation, regulation and participation in virtual worlds. We are looking for papers that explore beyond the basics of ‘the magic circle’ (asserting that virtual worlds are immune from external laws and norms) and consider emerging legal issues that may encourage or inhibit the uptake of virtual worlds. In particular, we are interested in papers that adopt a multi-jurisdictional focus and which propose new ways that the legal issues may be approached by developers and regulators. Innovative and creative papers are encouraged.

The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research is an online, open access academic journal that engages a wide spectrum of scholarship and welcomes contributions from the many disciplines and approaches that intersect virtual worlds research.

this “Law and Virtual Worlds” issue will be edited by

  • Melissa de Zwart, Adelaide Law School, Australia
  • Greg Lastowka, Rutgers School of Law-Camden, USA
  • Dan Hunter, New York Law School. USA

You can access this call directly through their website.