Online learning was a less-than-ideal experience for students during pandemic, study finds


Zoom didn’t win. The classroom did. (But it wasn’t a blowout …)

That’s the short takeaway on a comprehensive study recently done by AccessLex Institute and Gallup on student views regarding their online learning experience, which was made necessary by the pandemic.

More than 1,700 students were surveyed and less than half agreed strongly (13%) or somewhat (29%) that their online J.D. experience during the pandemic met their learning needs.

The study, “Law School in a Pandemic: Student Perspectives on Distance Learning and Lessons for the Future,” wanted to get a clearer picture on student reaction to the sudden shift to online learning.

Most students did not blame schools for what they considered a less-than-ideal leaning experience. About six in 10 students agree strongly or somewhat that their school successfully responded to pandemic-challenges and acted in their best interests.

First-year (1L) students were more likely than upper-division students to rate the quality of their J.D. program as “excellent” or “good” — 64% vs. 43%, respectively, the study found. That was likely because they didn’t realize what they were missing. They didn’t have classroom experience as a comparison.  

And such students may make them the best analog for future online law students, the study theorized, since many would likely be opting into the online experience from the beginning.

“The COVID-19 pandemic provided higher education an unexpected natural experiment that we can learn from as we continue to examine new ways to integrate online learning into historically in-person programs,” said Stephanie Marken, executive director for education research at Gallup. “Although many law students were frustrated by their online experiences, the research identifies successes that can inform a post-pandemic evolution for law schools nationally.

The study wanted to get a better sense of online learning because so few law schools offered it before the pandemic, and for some time, it’s been hoped it could help create a more affordable and accessible J.D. option moving forward.

As Aaron Taylor, executive director, AccessLex Institute Center for Legal Education Excellence, noted in the foreword:

“As semblances of the old ‘normal’ creep back into our lives, and as we continue to seek ways to address the old problems of deficient access to legal education, my hope is that we build on both the successes and the failures of these trying times and position legal education for a more inclusive future.”

One of the bigger drawbacks with online learning appeared to be lack of personal connection. For instance, the study found: “Less than one-third of students attending classes mostly or completely online (31%) say they felt a sense of community with their law school peers, compared with almost half of those attending classes mostly or completely in person (48%).” 

This is something that affected most students in some way: The AccessLex-Gallup study found that, during the 2020 academic year
(Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters), about 90% of law students nationwide took at least half of their courses online, with at least three-quarters of students in each term saying they took their courses “mostly” or “completely” online.

It should be no shock that students would rate the experience somewhat poorly, given how they were forced to undertake it, and schools had little time to plan, the study said.

“However, students’ views on specific aspects of the experience point to significant successes. The pivot to online learning was, by most accounts, smooth from an administrative and technological standpoint, and most students acknowledge their law schools had successfully responded,” the study said.  

Interestingly, students from lower tier schools, like 1L students, had a more positive reaction to online.

“These schools tend to have more diverse student populations, and may therefore have been more innovative or better prepared to adapt to meet the needs of different types of students under challenging circumstances,” the study said.

Here’s a link to it.