What schools are doing to survive a pandemic world

Let’s be frank about law school in the COVID-19 era: It sucks.

If your school is going online, you’ll be stuck at home or in some cramped apartment, hoping the Wi-Fi doesn’t drop. If your campus opens, it’ll open with an asterisk. You’ll have to wear a mask and stay 6 feet away from everybody.

Large classes will likely be canceled. Events will be few and far between, On-campus interviews won’t be as plentiful as in the past. 

And if you cough . . . well, there may be a coronavirus test with your name on it.

Yes, it was pretty amazing that law schools were able to pivot quickly to online education in the spring. But many students expect something closer to a traditional law school experience this fall, and it’s unclear if they will get it.

“Overall, I feel bad for students, particularly incoming students, because no matter what approach is adopted, unless a law school makes the decision to throw open the doors and return to normal, they’re not going to be able to enjoy the full law school experience,” said Andrew J. McClurg, a professor at The University of Memphis - Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law and author of “1L of a Ride,” a book about how to succeed in law school.

But that doesn’t mean students are in for a poor experience this fall. Most schools spent the summer perfecting their curricula, and some got creative.

Students will also play a key role in whether the year is a success or not, attitude-wise. When it comes to raising the bar on expectations, don’t. COVID-19 has shown no signs of abating. 

“Law students are tougher than some people give them credit for, and most law professors are dedicated teachers, so I suspect we’ll all find a way to make it work,” McClurg said.

The law school experience will vary depending on how your school is approaching the pandemic. Some schools plan to go completely online, including Harvard Law School; University of California, Berkeley, School of Law; University of California, Irvine School of Law; and Vermont Law School.

Many others are taking a hybrid approach, with large classes online and smaller courses and experiential classes on campus.

Here, we take a look at the state of online education, whether online education should come with a tuition discount, what to expect of on-campus classes this fall and what your school can do to make the pandemic law school experience as good as it can be. 

How law schools pivoted to online education

If your school is 100% online this fall or using a hybrid model, the good news is that schools should be better at it now than they were in the spring semester, when it was quite the rush job to make the switch.

Some schools converted to online classes in as little as a week, which was a remarkable achievement given that some had not offered online learning before.

Take University of Virginia School of Law, which had never held a single online class. Soon after the pandemic hit, the Charlottesville school transitioned nearly 140 courses online in one week.

And for many law school professors, the change didn’t prove to be daunting.

Jessica Erickson, a professor and associate dean for faculty development at University of Richmond School of Law, had never taught online before. And Zoom? She hadn’t used that either.

“We never had a pressing need to try,” she said.

Of course, with COVID-19, the school suddenly had that need. And like University of Virginia, it managed to transition in a week.

Erickson started out cautiously. In her first class, she told the students it was a test class and explained the technology. She was worried because she teaches a business law course on securities regulations, which is particularly demanding.

“It’s not a class you take for fun,” she said. “You take it because you want to be good at business law.”

Erickson worked from home, in a small room about the size of a closet. She calls it her “cloffice.” It was quite a difference from the law campus atmosphere.

But she found the online format to be quite engaging. “It’s not a bad way of teaching at all,” Erickson said.

Many students made a successful adjustment to online learning as well. This is a generation, after all, that grew up with all sorts of gizmos. Going online — even for novices — was not entirely fraught.  

Katharine Janes, president of the University of Virginia’s Student Bar Association, took a couple online classes in high school, but they were not that advanced, she said. The law school ones were miles apart in sophistication.  

“It went better than I expected,” she said. “I’m amazed at how much we got done.” 

A number of her classes were held via Zoom. She remembers only a few glitches One time, the professor vanished. The students patiently waited for his return, she said. 

“We just chilled,” she said.

Students would forget to mute or unmute at times, she said. Still, that was all minor, she said. “I had a healthy dose of skepticism about online learning,” she said. “But I was impressed by how in-depth our exchanges were.” 

Law schools were able to make the transition for one simple reason, said Gregory Duhl, faculty director of blended learning at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

“They were in survival mode,” he said.

Located in St. Paul, Minn., Mitchell Hamline is a pioneer in online learning. It was the first school to get American Bar Association permission to create a hybrid J.D. program that was mostly online. So when the pandemic struck, a couple of dozen schools reached out to Duhl for advice about online courses, he said.

Technology wasn’t the issue, Duhl said. That’s readily available. The challenge is creating an online education program that’s most effective and realizes its fullest potential.

Duhl said he expects schools that continue online in the fall to have more robust offerings. And most schools — even those that reopen — will have online offerings. Some may offer hybrid formats, meaning students will have the option of taking classes in person or online.

It was in June that Harvard Law School announced its classes would be all online in the fall. And in a recent letter to students, Dean John Manning said this fall’s online experience would be better.

“Last spring, we had to adapt quickly to new formats and unexpected locations for learning and teaching,” he wrote. “This coming semester, though, asks something different of us — to use technology to design even more creative, exciting, and excellent experiences in support of learning, building community, and engaging in the service that helps those most in need and that is fundamental to the work lawyers do. This is our work now, as we take this next important step together.”

Is online education worth the same tuition as brick and mortar?

As great as Manning makes online sound, there are still a lot of students who think it, well, sucks, particularly when compared to an on-campus experience. 

One Harvard law student has even sued over the inferior experience.

Abraham Barkhordar, a second-year, filed a class action lawsuit seeking the university to pay upward of $5 million in tuition reimbursement to students for the spring semester and for future terms. The school charges $65,875 a year in tuition.

“The online learning option Harvard offered following the termination of its in-person services is subpar in practically every aspect: lack of facilities, lack of materials, lack of efficient classroom participation, and lack of access to faculty,” the lawsuit states.

According to the complaint, Barkhordar’s online courses in the spring were less rigorous than in-person classes, and he had less interaction with his professors, whose expectations of students were lower.

“The remote learning option is in no way equivalent to the in-person education that Plaintiff and other Class Members were promised in exchange for their commitment to attend Harvard and the tuition and fees many of them paid during the Spring 2020 Term,” the lawsuit reads.

Harvard is not the only law school that has faced backlash.

The law firm of Hagens Berman has filed a number of class action suits against law schools, including Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. The firm is representing Willa DeMasi, who recently completed her first year, part of it online.

Emory has offered refunds, but the suit argues they are not large enough.

“While some colleges and universities have promised appropriate and/or proportional refunds, Defendant has only offered wholly inadequate de minimis refunds and has not acted fairly, equitably, and as required by the law,” the suit says.

The suit notes that DeMasi selected to attend Emory because of the on-campus experience it offered.

“Plaintiff enrolled at Defendant’s to obtain not only the many benefits of Emory University as a whole but also the small-school, small class size environment promoted by Defendant.”

The most glaring downside to online education is the loss of community engagement outside of class. Students missed simple, daily interactions with fellow students and professors.

Yara Rashad, a third-year student at Notre Dame Law School, told The Indiana Lawyer magazine that she missed being with her classmates and professors, and even chats with servers at her favorite coffee shop.

A third-year Howard University School of Law student, Adonne Washington, penned an article for the website Technical.ly, in which she noted the challenges of online learning.

“Law happens to be quite difficult to learn in general, but then when you move the courses online to a method of learning that the professors and students are equally confused by, you end up with a disconnect,” she wrote.

Students also offered opinions about online learning on Reddit, where they post anonymously.

“Switching online sounded great on paper when I thought that I’d have all the options I’d normally have, go anywhere I felt like going, without any requirement to show up to class in person,” one student wrote. “That’s not the reality, and I’m not happy.”

 

Editor's note: this is the first of a two part series. The next story in this series will focus on what campus will look like this fall and how schools are looking out for students. Check back next week and look for 'What schools are doing to survive a pandemic world II'

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