The law school of Washington University in St. Louis announced that it would begin to offer an online master’s degree (LL.M) in partnership with education technology company 2-tor. Inside Higher Ed reports that Kent Syverud, the dean of Washington’s law school, and Melissa Waters, a Washington University professor who will direct the online LL.M program, believe online education technology has progressed to a point where the quality of the curriculum does not vary between the virtual and physical classroom.
"I believe that we’re trying to create extremely high-quality course work online that is consistent with the quality we give for in-person programs, including the J.D.," Syverud told Inside Higher Ed. Syverud will be teaching a course within the new program when it launches in January.
The program is intended for lawyers practicing overseas to build on the law school’s internationally recognized postgraduate law degree program, according to the Washington University Law’s announcement. "We don’t know where the students are going to come from exactly," Syverud said in a New York Times article. "But we believe there is demand abroad for an online program with the same quality that we deliver in St. Louis, accessible to people who can’t uproot their lives to come to the United States."
According to its announcement, Washington University intends to keep the classes on a small scale of no more than 15 students at the start of the program in January, and instruct four groups a year at more than 100 students. New York University Law School’s online Executive LL.M in Tax program enrolls more than 100 students, according to the New York Times article, a program available online since 2008. This, as both Inside Higher Ed and the New York Times point out, is in contrast to the expanding online programs like computer-engineering, which attract thousands of students per semester.
Inside Higher Ed reports that the small, synchronous online classes are a hallmark of 2tor, an education technology startup founded in 2008. 2tor has collaborated with University of Southern California, Georgetown University, and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill to produce online degree programs prior to Washington University Law’s online LL.M.
Washington Law is not the first law school to offer an online master’s degree in U.S. law. Florida Coastal College of Law has offered an LLM since 2010, and the New York University Law School, the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, and the University of Alabama School of Law have offered fully online degrees in specific areas of U.S. law for years as well, according to Inside Higher Ed. But Washington University, at No. 23 in U.S. News & World Report’s "Best Laws Schools" 2013 report, ranks higher than previous programs.
The course is not designed to prepare students for the bar exam, according to Syverud, as the American Bar Association rules prohibits approved law schools from counting more than 12 credits of distance education toward a Juris Doctor degree. However, since each state regulates its own bar exam, those with an online master’s degree from a bar association-approved law school could be eligible to take the bar exam in California, as the New York Times confirmed with Gayle Murphy, senior executive of the California committee of bar examiners. Syverud told Inside Higher Ed that he predicts the best schools will begin the shift in law education, which may lead to ABA-approved online programs. "I think if we can deliver legal instruction online to people at a level of quality that mimics what we’re able to do in the classroom … [then] it’s going to be a change agent over the coming years, even if people don’t want it to be."
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