Photo by Jean-Philippe Ksiazek (AFP/Getty Images)
Photo by Jean-Philippe Ksiazek (AFP/Getty Images)

Perspective: Nothing Exciting Yet about the (Mostly) Online J.D. from Syracuse

Editor’s Note: The author of this article is a professor at University of Tennessee College of Law and wrote the book, Glass Half Full: The Decline and Rebirth of the Legal Profession.

By Ben Barton, Professor of Law, University of Tennessee College of Law

Syracuse University College of Law recently announced their intention to create the nation’s second ABA-accredited (mostly) online J.D. program.

The program is pending approval by both New York State and the American Bar Association and details are few, but it appears that the students in this program will come to campus for a week once or twice a year, with the most of their instruction handled online. According to Syracuse, the online portion will be designed by the online learning company 2U and based upon their “Bidirectional Learning Tool” or the “BLT.”

Sadly, the “BLT” is not as delicious as it sounds.

It is a proprietary learning tool where the students watch some pre-recorded content and some live content and theoretically have an opportunity to respond to a professor’s questions. The BLT was designed to simulate the Socratic Method for Washington University St. Louis’s online Master of Legal Studies.

Everyone knows that hidebound law schools have been too slow to respond to changes in the market and technology. Except for clinical programs, the law school experience has remained basically the same over the last sixty years. There has been no shortage of ideas for improvement, but little actual movement. So maybe the program at Syracuse and a similar one at Mitchell Hamline Law School are good news? Is any change good change?

Keep the champagne corked for now. First and foremost, both programs cost the same as attending in person. And yet they will be radically cheaper for the law school to operate, especially once the first round of technical bugs are worked out.

Law school’s most glaring weakness is its cost. Law school tuition has outpaced inflation since the 1980s, and has continued its staggering rise even since the market for lawyers and law school attendance have cratered since 2008. According to the non-profit advocacy Law School Transparency, there are fourteen different law schools where the total cost of attendance tops out at over $300,000! Syracuse’s tuition for 2016-17 is $46,460 and Mitchell Hamline’s is $40,570. It will likely be cheaper for students to live at home and work during law school, but until online law schools start passing on their savings to the students I will remain skeptical.

Second, the online program sounds like law school light, consisting mostly of canned videos with some limited interactivity. Given that online schools must be asynchronous time-wise to maximize student benefits, live interactions with faculty or other students has to be minimal. Many students find law school classes boring live, and I can’t imagine simply recording them will help. And of course some studies have shown that online students learn less and are more likely to quit.

So why is Syracuse making this move? As currently described, it looks largely driven by falling enrollment and a need for increased revenues. Law school is badly in need of a reboot. Unfortunately, the online options we’ve seen so far appear to be more of the same.

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