August 14, 2018

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?

U.S. university/college financing ‘stabilizing’

Image: © Moody, 2015

Image: © Moody, 2015

Unauthored (2015) Stability and Modest Growth Expected for U.S. Colleges, Inside Higher Ed, December 3

Lederman, D. (2015) ‘Stabilizing’ Financial Picture, Inside Higher Education, July 8

These two reports are for the record (i.e. to help me find the data when I need it for other articles). Nevertheless, they are still interesting.

These are reports of analyses by Moody on the financial status of universities and colleges in the USA. Lederman’s article is about a report released on the financial status of universities and colleges in 2014, and the more recent article is a projection over the next year to 18 months into 2016.

These reports are important, because for the first time since the great U.S. recession in 2008, there is actually overall growth in revenues, especially from state funding, even though tuition revenue is actually declining slightly overall. Nevertheless, the proportion of funding from the state is still considerably less than in 2004, and the situation is not even, with the less prestigious local/state universities still more likely to be in financial trouble than the larger, more prestigious land-grant and private universities.

‘Stabilization’ does not mean that the pressure to reduce the costs of higher education will ease, especially with regard to tuition fees, but it may mean that we will see less media hype about MOOCs and other technology innovations disrupting higher education. Getting costs under control while revenues stabilize will still remain essential, and the more local, less-selective institutions are particularly vulnerable, which is likely to lead to even less equity in the system: to those that have shall it be given.

DE in Community Colleges in the USA: 2010 in review

Lokken, F. (2011) Trends in eLearning: Tracking the Impact of eLearning at Community Colleges: 2010 Distance Education Survey Results Washington DC: Instructional Technology Council.

This carefully conducted survey by the Instructional Technology Council of community colleges in the USA is the latest in a series of similar surveys going back to 2005. However, the sample is small (about 11% of all colleges, although representative by categories of college).

I provide a summary below of the main points, but the full report contains much more information and is well worth reading.

Growth in DE enrollments of 9% in 2009-2010

Campuses reported a nine percent increase in distance education enrollments—which is higher than the seven percent increase in overall student enrollment at all higher education institutions, and the eight percent increase at community colleges, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This is lower though than the 21% growth rate reported by Sloan-C. This is because the surveys covered different samples (Sloan covered the full range of HE institutions, not just two year colleges, and a slightly different time period.)

Blackboard products decrease as a percentage

In 2010 51% of colleges reported using a Blackboard LMS (including WebCT and Angel) down from 56% in 2009. Moodle has been stable for four years at around 10% of the colleges, and Desire2Learn has been slowing increasing each year as a percentage, but still remains below 10% of this market.

Online class enrollments capped

81% said that they capped online class enrollments, typically at 30 students or less per class.

Servers mainly outsourced

Just under 40% of colleges maintained their own server for the LMS. 13% were shared, either with other colleges or at a state level, and the rest were outsourced from third party suppliers.

Main problem: lack of adequate support staff

Finding adequate support staff continues to be a challenge to community college administrators—especially those support staff who are experienced in instructional design.

Mainly in-house development

71% of colleges develop their own content, 21% use publishers’ content and the rest license materials from a content provider. Although not explicit about OERs’ this suggests that few colleges are actually using them to any extent so far. However, a dedicated question on the use of open educational resources ought to be included in the next survey.

A move to more blended/hybrid courses

65% of colleges surveyed offer fully online courses, compared with 75% the previous year, and 21% blended/hybrid courses (defined as at least 30% online), compared with 15% the previous year.

Faculty receive 8 hours or more of training for online teaching

Just under two-thirds of colleges have mandatory training for faculty who teach online. The proportion of full-time faculty teaching online (roughly two thirds) is the same as the proportion teaching on campus.

Students split 50:50 between ‘traditional’ and ‘mature – but the older ones do best

The ITC Survey confirmed that older students are just as likely to take online classes as their younger counterparts. Older “nontraditional” students are interested in the access and flexibility online courses provide. Although this age group might not be as comfortable with technology as younger students, they are more motivated to succeed and have higher GPA and completion rates than those who just graduated from high school. (p.19)

Demand for online learning greater than supply

Over two-thirds of colleges reported demand exceeded supply. Still plenty of room for growth then in online learning.

(US) law is an ass

The Federal government has passed a law (the Higher Education Act Program Integrity Issues) that requires a college to ascertain that it is accredited in another state if it offers courses to any student in that other state. If the college is not accredited in a particular state, students in that state will not be eligible for Federal financial aid. Since there are 52 states, getting accreditation is a bureaucratic nightmare for out-of-state institutions, and students could enroll from anywhere, this places a huge bureaucratic disincentive against offering online programs to students out of state. Just another example of the terrible way the US goes about accrediting institutions, and how it affects financial aid.

It’s not just me that thinks this. See:

Lederman, D. (2011) Fixing accreditation, from the inside Inside Higher Education, May 13

Although quite specific to the USA this is a valuable study and provides a very good picture of what is happening with online distance education in two year community colleges in the USA.

What Presidents think of technology investment for teaching and learning


Green, K., Jaschik, S., and Lederman, D. (2011) Presidential Perspectives Inside Higher Education, March 4

Not much, it appears.

Inside Higher Ed sought the frank and confidential assessments of campus presidents about the issues that confront their institutions and the strategies they’re using in response…..A total of 956 campus and system presidents, chancellors, and CEOs, about 33 percent of those invited to participate, completed the questionnaire, making the 2011 Presidential Perspectives survey one of the largest surveys of American college and university presidents in recent decades.

Understandably, Presidents’ main concerns these days are about finances and government cuts. However, the questionnaire asked presidents to “rate the effectiveness of [their] institution’s investment” in an array of technology resources and services. The most effective investment across the different kinds of institution was consistently in library services (well done, librarians). Presidents in 55% of public universities thought investment was very effective in online distance education (very similar to presidents in for-profit institutions, surprisingly), and a slightly smaller proportion in on-campus use of technology.

However, only just over half felt that investment in technology in any area was very effective. The report comments that:

many presidents may be “ambivalent captives” to the personnel and financial resources their campuses invest in IT: although their institutions clearly have to continue to invest in information technology to support recruitment, instruction, and administrative operations, a significant proportion of presidents across all sectors and segments wish their institutions received a better return on the continued and significant investments they make in IT resources and services.

As Clayton Wright commented to me in an e-mail about this report:

‘Obviously, their biggest concern was about budgets/the economy. But, I found it interesting that there didn’t seem to be any mention of changing the teaching model and only about a third indicated a desire to expand their online offerings…… But if you have a major hit to your finances, wouldn’t you consider how you could deliver your service more effectively and efficiently?’

One reason I suspect that Presidents feel they are not getting as good a return on investment in technology, especially in the teaching and learning area, is that the goals for technology in teaching are so conservative: supporting the classroom model. Thus the intended ‘gains’ are not only relatively insignificant but also hard to measure. Presidents will not get a better return on investment until institutions start setting more ambitious goals for the use of technology in teaching and learning, which will involve the redesign of teaching, setting new and better learning outcomes that enable the exploitation of technology, and new methods of assessment. Until then, Presidents will remain ambivalent captives to technology.

For a good discussion of the report by the lead author see:

Green, K. (2011) Presidents Confront Technology, Inside Higher Education, March 4

Understanding higher education accreditation in the USA

Lederman, D. (2011) Mend it, Don’t End It, Inside Higher Education, February 4

This is a useful article for those both inside and outside the USA who are baffled by the whole institutional accreditation issue in the USA. It reports on thoughtful discussions at the U.S. Federal government’s Education Department’s two-day forum on higher education accreditation.

See also:

U.S. Network for Education Information. (2011). Accreditation and quality assurance. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Re.Vica’s ‘Accreditation in the US‘ and ‘Accreditation of Higher Education Institutions in the USA’ (pdf)

Barriers to inter-state accreditation of online courses in the USA

Has the credit hour become a relic?

What’s a Credit Worth?

Zemsky, R. (2009) Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education Chapel Hill NC: Rutgers University Press

A different standard for accrediting online programs?