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Jackie Halpern liked the idea of taking an online course at New York Law School. She had an interest in the subject matter, knew the professor and would be able to avoid a commute in hellish Manhattan traffic. “I could sit in my sweats in front of my computer,” she said. A May 2006 graduate now working as a commercial litigator in solo practice, Halpern took two online courses in mental disability law while at the law school. The reading assignments were rigorous, she said, but the online format was a refreshing change from most law school courses. “The only thing easier about it was that I didn’t have to travel in the rain,” she said. Although the day may never come when first-year law students learn the finer points of negligence theory while sitting in a virtual torts class, online law courses for upperclassmen, like the one Halpern took, are gaining popularity. Since an accreditation rule change implemented three years ago, the American Bar Association (ABA) has allowed students to take 12 of the 90 credit courses required for a juris doctor degree via “distance learning.” Before that time, students could take online courses, but they did not count toward the 90-credit requirement for graduation. The ABA does not accredit schools that offer only online courses, and it permits accredited schools to offer only second- and third-year courses online. In light of the rule change, some schools are expanding their distance course offerings as a way to add variety to their curricula and, in some cases, to extend their “classrooms” to students at other schools. Course recipe Cornell University Law School’s Peter Martin was one of the first law professors to teach an online course and was instrumental in fashioning the ABA’s rule change. Co-founder of Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, which has provided online law courses since 1996, Martin said that the method is not suitable for every course but is ideal for very specific areas of law that nevertheless are national in focus. “That’s the recipe,” he said. Cornell’s program, which has included courses in copyright and Social Security law, not only enables its own students to learn remotely; it also is offered to as many as nine “participating” law schools across the country, whose students earn credit for taking the course from Cornell, which is located in Ithaca, N.Y.Halpern said that several schools participated in her class, with a number of the students living in Europe.Students who have taken Martin’s classes have come from Rutgers School of Law in Camden and Newark, N.J.; Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad Law Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn.; and elsewhere. Interest is growing among what Martin called “under-resourced schools,” those that may lack the means to provide a specialized course to the smattering of students who express an interest. Distance learning largely began in the late 1990s, usually as “synchronistic” classes, meaning that a professor presented a lecture that was video-conferenced live to students at off-site locations. But the varying semester schedules at the participating schools and the different time zones presented challenges in coordinating the courses. ‘Asynchronistic’ learning Today, online technology is a bigger component of distance learning, in which students typically complete “modules,” meeting a set of objectives with weekly deadlines before they move on to the next group of assignments. These courses usually are “asynchronistic,” meaning that most of the interaction is not in real time. Webcasting, live chats, e-mail and discussion boards generally are part of the courses as well. Reaching out to law students in more remote locations is the biggest benefit to distance learning, said Ellen Podgor, associate dean of faculty development and distance education at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Fla. “I’m am not an advocate of distance learning for all courses,” she said. “If you’re talking about teaching contracts, I have a problem with that.” A former prosecutor and defense attorney, Podgor joined Stetson last year from Georgia State University College of Law, where she taught a distance course on international criminal law. The course was transmitted to students at the University of Alabama School of Law, the University of Louisville Louis D. Brandeis School of Law and other schools. She plans to teach a similar online course at Stetson. In addition, she said, Stetson recently received ABA approval to offer an LL.M. program in elder law taught online. Podgor estimates that her preparation time is more than double for an online course compared with conventional courses. She rejects the notion that the courses lack interaction and the human component of the classroom experience, even for online classes taught asynchronistically. “You lose a little bit of interaction because it’s not immediate,” she said, but “there’s a higher level of feedback.” A lot of writing As an adjunct professor teaching European law and policy online at University of Denver Sturm College of Law, Don Smith said he answers about 1,000 e-mail messages from students and reads as many as 40,000 words of student essays each term. “It’s a lot of writing,” he said. Smith’s course, presented in an asynchronistic format, includes Web-access videos of interviews he has conducted with several high-ranking European leaders. Smith holds an undergraduate degree in journalism. After viewing the interviews, his students must submit essays online. They also participate in live Web chats about the material, in addition to other writing requirements during the semester, Smith said. To facilitate interaction, Smith posts his resume online for students to view, and he provides a personal statement about himself. Students, meanwhile, are required to provide information about themselves. Smith sends each one a personal e-mail at the beginning of the course to help get a dialogue going, he said. Regular feedback The course that Smith teaches has evolved, he said. Initially, he gave one test at the end of the course, the typical format for law school courses. He later determined that he needed to get feedback throughout the semester. “I rethought it and decided that one of the things I could achieve was some guidance on writing,” he said, adding, “Some students are very good; other students seem to struggle with the most basic concepts.” University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis has taken the online instruction idea and adapted it to its three-year externship program, which coincides with the three-year law school program, and which all students must complete to graduate. Rolling out software this fall called Mentor 2.0, the school requires upperclassmen to “bill” their externship hours using the program, which mirrors law firm time-keeping software. Students also use the software to provide comments about their externship experiences, which may include observing appellate arguments or negotiations. Faculty members in charge of the externship program can log on to the files to evaluate student progress and provide feedback. “It give students experiential preparation for what they’ll do as a lawyer,” said Lisa Brabbit, assistant dean for external relations and programs at University of St. Thomas School of Law.

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