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Tweed, that sturdy fabric of academia, has outlived many a woolly professor. Ivy takes a very long time to grow. And the wheels of justice, as often noted, grind slowly. For these venerable reasons, an action taken early this month by the American Bar Association — an organization not known for the speed of its decisions — has set the law school community abuzz. It has floated a proposal to allow students at ABA-accredited campuses to earn a handful of credits via Internet. Observers view the move as a good one in the cause of democratic education. But most top-tier law schools do not now offer online classes. And the very idea of such learning methodology remains a notion measured, in theory, against the standard context of professors lecturing to students planted in classroom seats. “This is a first and fairly modest step to expand opportunities in distance learning format,” said Richard Matasar, dean of New York Law School, which is just beginning to add online programs. “We’re at the very front end of a conversation about how people learn. “With the cost of education going up and with narrowing constraints of time, any kind of technology that allows us to teach at one hour with students learning at another hour should be taken seriously,” he added. “It will make [legal] education more affordable to more people.” In its bow to technological modernity, the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar would allow a maximum of 12 “distance education” credits, with no more than four credits taken per semester. The council’s decision, not applicable to first-year students, goes to the ABA’s House of Delegates meeting in August for official concurrence — which is seen as likely by Barry Currier, the ABA’s deputy consultant on legal education. “This is a positive development, and I think everybody understands there’s an evolution going on here,” said Currier. “We have a method for schools to report [online class progress] every year. If this works well, there’s a possibility that it could be expanded. “But this certainly doesn’t allow a student to earn a J.D. [entirely] online.” Coincidentally, the nation’s first wholly online legal college — Concord Law School, which opened in 1998 — will graduate its first class of attorneys shortly after the ABA House is expected to give official blessing to such pedagogy, at least in part. “We’ll have 10 graduates. Our first class was a small one,” said Concord Dean Jack R. Goetz, in a telephone interview. “Overall, we now have 1,000 students, drawn from 50 states and 13 countries.” Dean Goetz said there would be two Concord commencements this year. One would be virtual, he said, and one would have “the whole nine yards” — caps and gowns and a speaker in Los Angeles, where the school is physically located. “The law profession is conservative and slow to move, and in some ways I respect that,” said Dean Goetz. “But if one of the things we’re trying to accomplish is to have a more diverse community, then online education is something we’d better look at.” While he is pleased by the ABA’s recognition that online classes might have a place in its accredited curricula, Dean Goetz and others believe the action should have gone further. “There’s nothing in these new rules that removes or reduces the obstacles for working people, or people in communities underserved by fixed-facility law schools,” said Dean Goetz. “The next step for the ABA should be to find ways to measure distance education without counting classroom minutes.” Cornell Law School Professor Peter W. Martin would agree. During the months of discussion entertained by the ABA Council prior to its decision, he filed strong briefs in favor of online learning — and tart comment on standard classroom methods. “Even with the most rigorous application of Socratic teaching, the large upper-class course provides plenty of cover for students who opt for a ‘wait and then cram for the exam’ approach,” wrote Professor Martin, who has pioneered online teaching at Cornell with courses in copyright and Social Security law. “In contrast, online teaching methods enable a teacher to be far more attentive to the progress of individual students.” TRACKING CONTRIBUTIONS Because an online class can track student contributions, wrote Professor Martin, “As a teacher, I experienced an unfamiliar level of confidence that I was detecting student difficulty, or simple procrastination, in time to make a difference.” Professor Martin also presented the ABA with results of a questionnaire taken last year at Cornell, in which a hefty majority of students gave high marks to online classes. “What was great about the [format] was that I was able to go through the [presentation] once but pause many times,” said one of Martin’s students. “I would write what you said, and then stop … Then I would look at the statute or regulations and highlight it and make notes in the margin.” Another Cornell student praised the “necessary evil” of submitting analyses to legal problems posted for interactive response. “Those exercises forced me to keep up with the material and review it again and again until I found the appropriate answers,” the student wrote. A third student said, tersely, “Finally, a law school class where a question is not answered with another question.” Jane Paznik-Bondarin is not a lawyer, but she knows teaching from her 20 years in the classroom at Borough of Manhattan Community College as a professor of English — and now as the college’s director of distance learning. She encourages Internet classes for lawyers for the simple reason that most attorneys spend their careers writing — the coin of the realm in online education. But she offers some cautious notes. “Good distance teaching doesn’t mean throwing your old crap up on the Internet,” said Paznik-Bondarin. “I don’t think [law school] pedagogy has been rethought since Socrates stood up in the Agora. “If you’re a real teacher, if you really get off on how to get people to understand things and make them their own, then there’s something terribly exciting about this new frontier.” For all the convenience and democracy of online learning, said Paznik-Bondarin, it can actually be a tougher way to go. “There’s no such thing as an accent on the Internet. There’s no such thing as [physical] disability,” she said. “What there is is bad writing. Students can be overwhelmed by the writing abilities of others, or else the paucity of their own vocabularies can be so great that other people stop dealing with them.” If she were a law student, said Paznik-Bondarin, her preference would be a combination of standard classroom instruction and online learning. “Especially if you want to be a litigator,” she said. “You need the [classroom] experience of being up on your feet, speaking extemporaneously. Even if you’re not going to be a litigator, you need that experience.” LAW SCHOOL CONSORTIUM Dean Matasar suggested even further combinations for the cyber-future: a consortium of law schools offering online classes. “Why not pool our resources?” asked Matasar. “We can’t hire all the people we need, yet the demand is high. Technology would allow us all to grow. “It’s tricky, though. No one wants to give up secrets.” Could one professor steal ideas or even whole lesson plans from another? In educational circles, said Dean Goetz, this is known as sharing. “It’s not a new story,” he said. “There’s always opportunity for the mischievous,” he said. “Anything’s possible. You could sit down at a lecture at Duke and take it all in, and wind up as a professor at Yale.”

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