St. Mary’s to break new ground with fully online J.D. program

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St. Mary’s University School of Law will become the first law school accredited by the American Bar Association to offer a J.D. program completely online. The program will kickoff in Fall of 2022, with a limit of 25 students, the school announced recently.

None of the schools currently offering such programs are ABA accredited. The ABA approved St. Mary’s program in May.

“As the only law school serving San Antonio and the southernmost school serving South Texas, St. Mary’s Law has a tradition of excellence in legal education stretching back to its founding in 1927,” said Dean Patricia Roberts in a statement. “This new fully online J.D. program — the one and only of its kind — exemplifies how St. Mary’s Law continues to lead with tradition and innovation.”

The program represents a milestone in legal education. Currently, the ABA limits the number of online credit hours to about 30 — one-third of the total needed to complete a J.D. A handful of schools have variances that allow for hybrid J.D. programs that extend that number, but all of them require at least some on-campus time.

ABA limits were modified during the pandemic as most schools went virtual. The method got mixed reviews from students surveyed afterward by AccessLex Institute and Gallup. Fewer than half of those surveyed agreed strongly (13%) or somewhat (29%) that their online J.D. experience during the pandemic met their learning needs.
First-year students gave the online method higher marks than second- and third-years, who had previous classroom experience. Sixty-four percent of first-years rated their experience as good or excellent.

“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.”

Might the St. Mary’s program be it?

Greg Duhl, professor and senior academic technology officer at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, was the school’s former director of blended learning who helped lead the school’s effort to launch the first half online/half in-person J.D. program at an ABA-approved law school. His thoughts?

“The ABA's approval of St. Mary's variance request demonstrates the ABA's continued willingness to encourage law schools to experiment with online education,” he said. “St. Mary's program is a natural evolution from the increase in hybrid/blended J.D. programs and online, synchronous teaching during the pandemic. I look forward to learning more about the program and hearing about the experiences of the first cohort of students.”

The program will take about four years to complete. Tuition will be on par with the school’s part-time, on-campus J.D. program. Online J.D. students will have access to the full suite of student services. It will require limited campus time, such as orientation and in-person professional development activities once every other semester.

According to the school, the teaching method will be a mix of asynchronous and synchronous learning. Asynchronous is where students learn via recorded lectures. Synchronous learning is in real-time, in which students can engage with professors and students.

“We will generally only have semi-synchronous courses, i.e., some portion will be asynchronous and the rest will be synchronous via Zoom,” said Colin Marks, associate dean for Strategic Partnerships and Innovative Programs for the school.

The online policy does permit fully asynchronous classes, but professors will not teach fully asynchronous unless there is a compelling reason to do so, he said.

“When students do have the opportunity to take a fully asynchronous class, however, they’ll have weekly written assignments to keep them engaged and thinking about course material, such as discussion posts, which are graded and for which the instructor will give feedback. Students will be able to see what modality the course is before registration but they do not get to pick to take a semi-synchronous course fully asynchronously or vice versa.”

Some online education experts have concerns regarding asynchronous learning, feeling it can be less engaging if not done properly. However, it offers greater flexibility as students can access the lectures when they want to. They can also watch the lectures repeatedly. But it does not offer give-and-take opportunities in real time.

“A key benefit of live class sessions is that students get to practice the very skills they need to succeed as lawyers — including listening to others, responding to what others say, following a line of argumentation as it organically unfolds, and analyzing issues in real time,” said Nina Kohn, director of online education at Syracuse University College of Law, which offers a hybrid J.D. program.

In Syracuse’s program, at least half of each online course is synchronous, she noted.

Online education is seen as a way to offer nontraditional students the chance to get their law degrees. People caring for children or other family members can do so, as can those who don’t live near a law school.

“I regularly have students tell me that attending law school was a life dream, but one that really was not possible for them before our program, because given their personal circumstances, they couldn’t take regular, live classes in a non-online format,” Kohn said.

One of the goals of the St. Mary’s program is to support increasing access to the profession for those typically underrepresented, Roberts said. St. Mary’s Law is among the most diverse law schools in the nation with 57.6% of students identifying a minority background, according to the law school’s 2020 ABA disclosures.

“It will provide the increased affordability of being able to obtain a legal education without a move to San Antonio,” the dean said. “While this will never replace our in-person program, it will expand opportunities for those in South Texas and beyond who need to stay closer to home while pursuing an excellent legal education.”

While this concept is new for ABA-accredited law schools, it’s hardly a novel approach in legal education. Concord Law School, which is part of Purdue University Global, was founded in 1998 as the nation’s first online law school. It’s accredited by the State Bar of California, meaning graduates can sit for the California bar.

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