by Roger Pao, USC Gould School of Law
I believe the next area of growth and acceptance in online graduate programs will be with legal education. One fascinating but not often discussed aspect of online legal education is the recent growth in the number of 100 percent online Master of Studies in Law (MSL) degrees and post J.D. Master of Laws (LL.M.). There are several reasons why more law schools will, and should, offer online Master’s programs in the near future.
1. Benefit to Students. Applicants to MSL programs come from various fields of employment, including business, education, compliance, engineering, entertainment, health care, social work, law enforcement, human resources, and government. Learning practical legal concepts benefits MSL students’ work and helps to propel their careers forward. For example, students in the health care field learn about privacy issues, those who work in human resources learn about employment discrimination, and others in business settings learn how contracts are formed and negotiated.
These non-J.D. programs are perfect for students who have positions which deal with aspects of the law or are interested in pursuing fields that deal with legal aspects but are not interested in becoming lawyers themselves.
2. Reaching a New Audience. At the same time, the development and launch of online Master’s programs may also allow law schools to reach an audience that they have never been able to reach before. On-ground J.D. and LL.M. programs have essentially been inaccessible to individuals who cannot attend classes in person on specific days and times, whether due to family and work responsibilities, geographical limitations (such as being located a couple or more hours away from the nearest law school), or disability. Online Master’s programs offered by law schools open the door to these individuals to get the legal education that they have long desired but could not have achieved at an earlier time.
3. Diversity in the Classroom. As discussed above, many law schools have chosen to turn their faculty’s areas of expertise into online Master’s programs. This allows and encourages a more geographically diverse group of students to access and benefit from their curriculum. This diversity leads to a rich learning experience and worldwide networking.
For example, USC’s online LL.M. program has enrolled students from 38 countries around the globe and from 22 states in the U.S. Lawyers (LL.M. students) and non-lawyers (MSL students) sit alongside each other in online classes, so their varied cultural, educational, and professional backgrounds allow for an incredibly interesting learning experience.
4. Use of Online Technology in a Global Economy. Whether one works in litigation or transactional fields, the practice of using online technology is increasingly important in law-related fields. Professionals in law-related fields use online tools in a variety of ways, including communication, negotiation, and project, organizational, or time management. Online programs may allow students to enhance their skills and better prepare them for the modern-day global workforce, whether they choose to work at law firms, in compliance departments, or for government agencies.
5. Online Does Not Have to be Just Video and Text. Lastly, the advances in online education in the past few years have been extraordinary. Courses no longer need to consist solely of videos of faculty member lectures with text and auto-graded assessments. With modern online programs, students can work in teams, communicate in real-time, go through simulations, focus on competencies they lack, and learn by doing. Other interactive activities include discussion boards and partner or group projects. The synchronous component of each online course at USC is a weekly, live video-chat session, where students have the chance to interact with classmates and ask questions of their professors in real time.
Innovative law schools are beginning to see the advantages of online Master’s programs. Given the enrollment numbers seen so far, there is clearly a demand by students, who enter or advance in the workforce armed with a practical legal education.
* A prior version of this article previously appeared on the ExtensionEngine blog (http://blog.extensionengine.com); ExtensionEngine creates custom online learning experiences, providing ID, UX, development, program management, and marketing services.
About the Author:
Roger Pao, J.D., is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law, where he teaches Business Organizations online every semester. Pao is an attorney and educator with extensive experience in online education and an interest in dynamic, innovative pedagogies. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, magna cum laude, and Duke University, summa cum laude.
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