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The American Bar Association panel that accredits law schools has proposed loosening its restrictions on online education.

Currently, the rules of the Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar say that no more than 15 of an ABA-accredited law school's required credits can be completed in distance learning courses, defined as those in which at least a third of the course work is done online. Most law school programs include between 83 and 90 credits over all. The ABA has in recent years granted (and rejected) several law schools' requests for variances from the restriction on online courses.

Under the proposal initially approved by the ABA council last week, students could earn up to a third of their credits (between 28 and 30) in distance courses. The ABA proposal would also allow first-year law students to take up to 10 credits online; law schools are now barred from offering distance education to first-year students.

The proposal and other possible changes to the ABA's accreditation standards will be discussed at a public hearing in April, possibly finalized by the ABA council in May and then ratified by the full ABA House of Delegates in August.

At its meeting last week, the ABA council also approved Syracuse University College of Law's request that it be granted an exception to the ABA limit on online courses -- an earlier request had been denied.