Online Law School Course Development: 4 Takeaways for Success
In February 2019, I was the featured guest in a webinar titled "Online Law School Courses: What Works?," the second installment in the Wolters Kluwer Leading Edge Webinar Series. This article summarizes some of the key takeaways from that discussion.
As the nation’s first school to offer a fully online juris doctor degree, Purdue Global Law School (formerly Concord Law School) is obviously at the forefront of online law course development. But while Purdue Global Law School was innovative by virtue of opening back in 1998, it has generally needed to keep up with developments in online pedagogy. That’s why in 2016, Purdue Global Law School undertook a major overhaul of its entire required curriculum, to integrate best practices in legal education with the latest in distance learning and adult learning research. Based on this experience (and comparing it with my 12 years at a traditional school), a number of insights have emerged.
1. Online Law School Courses Require More Upfront Planning Than Traditional Classes Do
It is not enough to simply plan a list of topics and reading assignments, “wing it” in front of an audience on a weekly basis, and then write a final exam a few weeks before the course ends. Much if not most of the online course content and assessments need to be programmed into the learning management system (LMS), the platform that houses the course, and this all needs to be completed before the course even launches.
To do this successfully, ideally there should be institutional program outcomes, which inform a given course’s outcomes (there can even be unit-level outcomes), which in turn determine specific content and assessments. This top-down process should be happening in traditional course development anyway, but often is not since it is not a technological necessity.
The flipside is that once an online course is built, it usually takes less effort on the part of the professor on an ongoing basis—at least in terms of the traditional teaching function. But a good online course will likely use a mix of machine-graded and professor-graded assessments, and it will probably have more interim assessments than a traditional course, so the professor’s workload may shift to more asynchronous (on one’s own time) activity.
Online courses may also require more effort from the professor to build and maintain a sense of community among the students, through frequent and robust contribution to online discussion boards or otherwise. Any notion that online professors can go on “autopilot” is simply erroneous.
2. Advancements in Technology Have Made the Delivery of Online Courses Easier
Many professors and administrators at traditional law school lack training or expertise in various technological platforms used in online learning, and the schools themselves often lack the resources to invest heavily in those platforms. Fortunately, technology need not be something that holds schools back, as a variety of affordable platforms are available that are fairly easy to use.
The LMS is the “campus” or infrastructure for hosting online courses. Four major players—Canvas, Blackboard, Brightspace, and Moodle—control about 95% of the LMS market. Each has features and drawbacks the others don’t, but most have the same essential functions. Don’t let paralysis about choosing a platform prevent you from moving forward.
Some may assume that a high-tech recording studio is required to produce professional-quality videos for online courses. However, the audio and webcam quality on most personal computers these days is adequate for a professor to record lectures from the comfort of their own office or home, and free or low-cost screencasting software makes it relatively easy to do so.
Videos should be visually engaging, and PowerPoint (or the Google equivalent, Slides) is generally sufficient for the task—provided professors have at least minimal proficiency with it. One fun tip: Google Docs (Google’s analogue of Microsoft Word) has a voice typing function that can be a boon for creating lots of content without risking carpal tunnel syndrome.
3. Online Law Courses Can Be as Dynamic as Their In-Person Counterparts
Perhaps the most common misconception about online law school courses is that they cannot provide the same level of interactivity that live classes do. However, online courses can and often do include not just asynchronous components (videos, quizzes, writing assignments, etc.) but also synchronous (real-time) classes that can accommodate the same type of Socratic dialogue that one expects in a classic law school classroom.
Some live classroom tools allow for two-way video broadcasting, so the professor and students can see each other, in addition to the professor sharing their screen or a PowerPoint presentation. Students can also typically contribute to the discussion via chatbox as well.
Online courses can also provide many of the experiential opportunities that some might think are the exclusive province of campus-based programs. For example:
In Purdue Global Law School's required Future of Law Practice course, all students write and then orally present on a business plan during scheduled class times.
In my Evidence course, students orally argue a motion in limine in one-on-one sessions scheduled with the professor.
Our ADR course takes advantage of our live classroom platform’s “breakout room” tool to have students engage in mediation exercises.
Purdue Global Law School even has a competitive moot court team that practices entirely online; it has won both brief writing and oral advocacy awards in competitions against brick-and-mortar schools.
While online courses cannot replicate all the dynamics of an in-person classroom, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Some students—particularly, studies show, women or students of color—may be too intimidated to volunteer when physically under the gaze of dozens of their peers. But the online environment may encourage these students to be more active than they otherwise would be. In the national Law School Survey of Student Engagement, Purdue Global Law School students have reported participating in class more frequently than traditional students, including in the critical first year.
4. Online Law School Course Development: Best Practices and Pitfalls
The best online courses strike a balance between asynchronous content, which maximizes flexibility, and synchronous content, which maximizes interactivity. As noted, they include both auto-graded and professor-graded assessments to balance speed and depth of feedback. They keep class sizes reasonable—MOOCs are not the answer, and make meaningful professor feedback impossible. And they provide adequate training for course developers, as well as adequate tech support for students.
Conversely, the worst online courses try to export a traditional course to the online setting. If you simply stick a video camera at the back of your live classroom, you are guaranteed to bore and annoy your online audience.
Online students are sophisticated and have rising expectations. While this doesn’t necessarily mean cramming a course with all possible bells and whistles (artificial intelligence, for example, is sexy but still in its relative nascency), it does mean designing courses with an eye toward the online student as the primary, if not sole, constituency.
Developing good online courses takes planning and effort. However, if it makes us think more carefully about what constitutes good teaching and how to best assess student learning, it may make for better traditional courses as well.