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In an unusual move among highly ranked traditional law schools, the Washington University Law School today unveiled a fully online master’s degree program in U.S. law. The program will be designed and taught by Washington Law faculty using a platform developed by 2tor, a Maryland-based online education provider. It will begin enrolling students in January 2013.

The St. Louis-based law school says the new online program is meant primarily for practicing lawyers in foreign countries as a way for them to get credentialed as experts in American law without having to quit their jobs and move to the United States to take classes. The program does not offer a path to a J.D., and is not designed to prepare students to take the bar exam -- although the American Bar Association (ABA), the sector’s most powerful regulatory body, has “acquiesced” to Washington Law's new online program, and about a dozen states will permit its graduates to sit for the bar exam, according to school officials.

Nevertheless, Washington Law’s foray into fully online degrees of any kind is the latest of a series of online pushes in legal education, which has lagged well behind most of higher education when it comes to Web-based graduate programs. Washington Law is not the first to offer an online master’s degree (LL.M.) in U.S. law; the Florida Coastal College of Law has offered one since 2010; the New York University Law School, the Loyola University Chicago School of Law and the University of Alabama School of Law offer fully online degrees in specific areas of U.S. law. Along with these pioneers, Washington Law's decision to create a fully online program, made all the more notable for its vaunted reputation among traditional law schools, might be seen as a bellwether for evolving views on online teaching and learning within a notoriously staid segment of higher education. (This and the previous two paragraphs have been updated since publication.)

The Washington law professors leading the new online program, both of whom considered themselves skeptics only a year ago, say they are convinced now that online education technology has progressed to a point where the quality is independent of whether the seminar discussions happen in a physical classroom or in a virtual one.  

“I believe that we’re trying to create extremely high-quality coursework online that is consistent with the quality we give for in-person programs, including the J.D.,” says Kent Syverud, the dean of Washington's  law school, who will be teaching a course within the new online program.

In contrast to the principles of “scalability” on which many online programs are built, the courses in Washington’s online master’s program will be just as cozy as the classroom versions, officials say. There will be no more than 15 students per class, and those students will tune in for “live” discussions, via webcam, at scheduled times. A tech-support staffer from 2tor will monitor each live class session from the company’s offices in Landover, Md., troubleshooting any technical glitches on the fly in hope of making the virtual interactions flow as naturally as they would in the classroom.

Washington faculty will design and teach the courses, and the law school will have full oversight of the curriculum; the courses will run on 2tor's online learning platform, and the company will be in charge of marketing the program and providing technical support. University officials expect the students who enroll to be practicing lawyers who work for companies that do business in the United States, rather than first-time law students.

The small, synchronous online classes have become a hallmark of 2tor, whose business model is based on running highly specific, production-intensive online programs for a small stable of high-profile clients. (The company’s three other partners are Georgetown University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Southern California, each of which has devoted office space, decorated with the university’s colors, in the company’s Maryland home.)

That approach jibes with the Socratic method that prevails in legal education and depends on intimate interaction between professors and students, says Melissa Waters, a professor who will direct the online LL.M. program.

“I think a lot of our skepticism early on was grounded in fear that we would lose the joy of teaching and the close relationships that you’re able to build with students in the classroom,” says Waters, who was on a faculty committee that approached the original task of sizing up the possibility of an online LL.M. with a dim view of how compatible such a program might be with Washington law’s standards.

“We had this fear that, if we move online, are we going to lose the best of what we do -- both the joy of it and the value of it,” she says. But after seeing how faithfully the online forums are able to capture the energy of a live discussion, Waters was persuaded.

 Syverud, the law dean, describes a similar change of heart.

“I think if we can deliver legal instruction online to people at a level of quality that mimics what we’re able to do in the classroom … [then] it’s going to be a change agent over the coming years, even if people don’t want it to be,” he says. “And the best schools are going to face that, and are going to make what they do better in all their degree programs and instruction, and everybody else is going to be left behind.”

Washington's online law master’s (LL.M.) degree might be a first step down the road toward ABA-approved fully online programs, but it remains uncertain whether it will also be the last step.

While many higher-education accrediting bodies no longer view online education as suspect in itself, the bar association has remained leery of allowing too much distance education into law school curriculums.

The association’s current governing document for approving law schools disqualifies any program that allows students to take more than 12 credit hours via distance education. There is a proposal to increase that threshold to 15 hours per semester as part of a comprehensive review of those standards, but some observers think it unrealistic that the body would approve a fully online J.D. program in the foreseeable future.

The bar association “will never accredit an exclusively online J.D. program, in my opinion,” says Michael Coyne, associate dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, which has decided not to seek ABA accreditation in favor of petitioning state bar associations to allow its graduates to sit for their exams. (Massachusetts Law, which is not fully online but offers some online programs, is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, a regional accrediting body.)

Coyne takes the association’s “acquiescence” on Washington law’s new LL.M. degree as lip service to the notion of an increasingly “progressive” stance on online learning. If the ABA did change its mind about distance learning, it would outrage the dozens of law schools in its membership that have invested millions in building a physical infrastructure that satisfies the ABA’s standards, Coyne says. “The maintenance of the status quo is what interests the ABA the most,” he says.

But Waters, the director of Washington’s new online program, says she is sympathetic to the bar association’s reluctance to approve full online degree programs. In times of upheaval, a deliberative approach is not necessarily a bad thing, she says.

“The legal profession, and therefore legal education, is very conservative,” says Waters. “I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think law and legal professors should be at the cutting edge of everything.”

As for the prospect of fully online law doctorates, Waters says she does not expect top law schools, including her own, to come around as swiftly as she and her colleagues did on the online master’s degree.

“We do a great job of educating American lawyers,” she says. “And I think we want to make sure that, if we ever decide to go down that road, we have all our ducks in a row.”

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