Lessons for Online Legal Education

June 5th, 2016 / By

An increasing number of law schools are creating online courses, certificate offerings, and degree programs. As newcomers to online education, we should look to existing programs for inspiration. One of those is Harvard Business School’s successful CORe program, an online certificate course in business basics. I wrote about CORe’s suitability for law students several weeks ago. Here, I examine three lessons that the program offers to law schools interested in online education.

1. Evaluate Your Expertise From New Perspectives

When educators design online courses, they often work within their traditional boxes. We tend to replicate conventional courses online, delivering the same content to familiar audiences. This may reduce costs or increase options for those audiences, but it is unlikely to expand the pool of students benefiting from our expertise. And, given the expense of creating, maintaining, and updating high-quality online courses, it may prove more expensive than campus classes for schools.

Harvard Business School (HBS) broke out of this box in designing their CORe program. Rather than focusing on business majors, MBA students, and executive education participants–all traditional audiences for business schools–HBS apparently asked “Who else could benefit from our expertise?”

One answer was: undergraduates and recent college graduates who did not major in business. HBS determined that these students could benefit from some “business school” knowledge, whether they planned to attend graduate school, create their own businesses, work for nonprofits, or take jobs with for-profit employers.

HBS then asked an equally important question: “Exactly what business knowledge do these students want (or need) to acquire?” The answer was, a mix of knowledge gleaned from three different areas of the business school curriculum (data analytics, economics for managers, and financial accounting). Traditional courses in each of these areas would not suit this new audience; that would have moved them in the direction of becoming business majors, which was not their desire. A thoughtful sampling of these knowledge areas, however, created a compact certificate program suited for the new audience.

In retrospect, this may seem obvious. But for educators, the notion is fairly radical. We tend to think of creating majors, minors, and degree programs. Creating a useful course for students majoring in something else falls outside our typical worldview. Yet this approach is just what online education demands: categorizing our expertise by subject rather than course or degree program; exploring new audiences, again looking outside of traditional concentrations; and finding a match between the two.

2. Understand the Power of Numbers

Online courses require more time and money than most educators anticipate. I have personal experience with this: I created two very short video modules for a casebook I coauthor. Each module is less than 10 minutes long (less than one-fifth of a typical classroom session!), but I can’t begin to describe how long it took to create these modules.

Why was their creation so time intensive? The quality of online instruction has increased steeply over the last decade. It’s not sufficient to stick a camera in a classroom and capture a professor interacting with a campus class. Instead, online viewers want well scripted professors who don’t stumble for words. They want crisp, engaging graphics to complement the professor’s explanation. They also want interactive features like the “self assessment” quizzes at the end of my two modules. And, if at all possible, they want videos of third parties discussing or demonstrating the subject–something my modules didn’t even try to provide.

Creating each of my modest modules required me to write a script, tightly edit that script, and work with a producer on a “story board” that matched words to graphics. I created some PowerPoint slides to suggest appropriate graphics, but a graphic designer redid my work–with several rounds of review by me to assure that content hadn’t been lost or changed. When the day of the “shoot” arrived, it included a film crew, teleprompter, and several takes–all for two modules that totaled no more than 15 minutes combined!

Multiply all of that by the minutes required for a semester-long course and you’ll see months of commitment by a professor–as well as plenty of dollar signs for the school producing the video. Given these costs, online courses require a large audience to be cost-effective. Schools that seek to support other parts of their curriculum through these ventures require even larger enrollments.

Harvard’s CORe program enrolls as many as 700 students in a cohort, and the school operates several cohorts simultaneously. Even a conservative estimate (5 cohorts per year, with an average of 450 students in each cohort) puts enrollment at 2,250 students per year. The potential enrollment is much higher than that. To justify the costs of online education, law schools need to think big.

In my view, traditional JD students don’t offer a sufficiently large audience to meet online enrollment targets. The job market places an upper limit on the number of students who will seek JD degrees; there’s no evidence (to my knowledge) that substantially more students will seek those degrees if they’re offered online.

Full-time, one-year LLM programs may also fail to generate sufficient online audiences. Those programs have not stimulated substantial demand among domestic students, and the pool of foreign students has already been aggressively tapped. Online programs, meanwhile, suffer from substantially more attrition than campus classes. That fact may make students wary of investing in an online program that requires a full year of study, even if spread over two or three years.

The most promising audiences for online legal education, I think, are (1) undergraduates and recent college graduates who would benefit from a small amount of law-related education (a similar audience to the one tapped by Harvard’s CORe program); and (2) foreign lawyers and businesspeople who would benefit from knowing about a particular area of U.S. law. Students in the latter category might be allowed to accumulate credits towards an online LLM degree, but I think courses will attract the largest numbers if they are individually valuable and can be taken without enrolling in a full degree program.

3. Innovate with Feedback and Interaction

How can an online course deliver feedback to students? Who grades the students’ performance? How does the course promote interaction among students and with the professor? These are thorny problems for online educators.

HBS uses an interesting mix of methods to address these problems in its online CORe program. The professors do not interact directly with the students, but the classes include many interactive components (such as questions a student must answer before proceeding to the next part of the lesson). Harvard also requires students to interact with one another as part of the course, and it includes the level and quality of interaction as part of the student’s final grade. (I was unable to determine how Harvard measures that component, other than that the professors themselves are not involved. I can imagine at least three options: a teaching assistant who monitors and assesses participation, ratings by other students, or an algorithm that tracks online interaction.)

The quizzes and final exam for CORe are multiple choice, so they can be machine graded. That format limits some of the skills that can be tested, but it does allow for regular feedback: Students take quizzes throughout the course, rather than a single exam at the end.

CORe’s formula for feedback, assessment, and interaction is not the only feasible one; it may not even be the best one. I outline it here to illustrate that we need to think creatively when designing online courses. Interaction with other students may assist online learning. Multiple-choice tests have limits, but they also have some benefits. If we keep working at the problem, we may find other ways to enhance feedback and engagement online.

We can also think about new ways to combine online education with classroom instruction. For generations, leading professors have written textbooks for adoption at other schools. What if those professors created online learning modules for adoption at those schools, together with teaching manuals that outlined topics, problems, and simulations for classroom discussion? Law professors might provide content for a wide range of law-related courses by creating online components and associated teaching materials. Undergraduate professors, professors in foreign countries, or other instructors would implement those materials with their students. The latter professors would take responsibility for classroom learning and assessment, just as they do with traditional textbooks.

This format would allow law schools to profit from their expertise without having to provide costly individualized feedback and assessment. Students, meanwhile, would benefit from both first-rate educational materials and in-person local interaction with teachers and peers.


We haven’t begun to tap the potential of online education, although we need to be more creative in envisioning that potential. Today’s citizens and workers have a healthy appetite for more knowledge about legal principles, as well as for the critical thinking skills taught in law school. Can we find the right learning vehicles to address those demands? If so, we might serve students, society, and our own bottom lines.


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