Paul L. Caron

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Rodriguez: On-Ground/Hybrid Approaches Are Doomed To Fail; Law Schools Should Go Entirely Online In Fall 2020

Karen Sloan (, Online or In Person? Law Schools Diverge in Fall Semester Plans:

At least five law schools have unveiled plans for fully online classes in the fall, even though the majority of schools are hoping to offer a mix of in-person and online coursework amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following up on my previous post, How To Teach A Hybrid Law School Class:  Dan Rodriguez (Northwestern), Nonsense and Sensibility: Hybrid Is Not the Answer:

Debbie Merritt is one of our most thoughtful, rigorous legal educators, and someone who always puts students first in her thinking about legal education and its (dis)contents.  Here is what she had to say on Facebook about this predicament from the vantage point of her own law school:

I listened today to a presentation on how our university will hold on-campus classes this fall. The on-campus venture is beginning to sound like the Ptolemaic model of the universe, with eccentricities and epicycles continuously added to address all the problems. First we decide to hold classes in super-sized rooms so that students can sit 6 feet apart. Then we require everyone to wear masks. Then we reduce the number of people in the building each day by having some classes alternate between in-person and online. Then we tell everyone to leave the building asap after class--no socializing in the hallways or other public spaces. I think it's time to realize that on-campus classes will not be the center of our universe this fall. We need to embrace a model in which online classes are at the center, with careful prep by professors over the next two months. Let students use their in-person time to be with friends and family, meet in study groups (1Ls), hold part-time jobs or externships (UL), and carry on their lives. What do they really gain from sitting masked in a classroom, separated from other students, and listening to a professor whose voice is muffled by a mask?

And also this in a follow-up comment:

Students, of course, are asking for tuition discounts given the compromised nature of this on-campus education. Universities, naturally, are rejecting that. Ironically, I think we would be in a better position tuition-wise if we said, "We are moving most of our fall classes online and the dean has directed faculty to spend the rest of the summer preparing first-rate online classes rather than conducting research. You can be confident that all of your tuition money is going towards maintaining a first-class legal education. We are also adding additional resources to externships and career services because we know those experiences and prospects are vital to students.

This is an honest reflection on a difficult issue, and I endorse it entirely. Prof. Merritt speaks simultaneously to the dilemma (and, potentially, the disaster) of reopening live and also the understandable angst of students who wonder "why exactly are we expected to pay 100% tuition for this experience?"

MacGyverWhat Prof. Merritt captures well, and what I and others have tried hard to capture as we have discussed this issue privately and publicly is this:  We can and should put on a full-court-press to develop and refine our remote/online teaching abilities so as to commit to giving our students an excellent educational experience -- excellent in curricular content, excellent in experiential/skill-building opportunities, and excellent in the community-building that technology can assist us with, if we are diligent and strategic, energetic and empathetic. ...

[W]ith the utmost respect for law school leaders who are working hard and a fully well-intentioned way to create schemes and structures to ensure that their students — and especially their first-year students — are going to get a good in-person experience in the new academic year, this is a fool's errand, one that does not truly account for the dismal experience that students will have in a setting that would give even the great MacGyver pause.  And it sells short our students' ability to comprehend and to adapt to a semester in which their faculty can develop through online methods a rigorous and creative educational and community-building experience.

Again, my prediction is that the hybrid approaches are going to be a bust in any event, given circumstances beyond our control. So why not use July to create valuable templates and strategies for a great, if highly imperfect, educational scheme?  So many of us have ideas about how best to do that, as clearly one size doesn't fit all.  But we need know from our law schools is a commitment to try.

Suzanna Sherry (Vanderbilt):

The problem with Dan & Debbie's approach is that what we are trying to teach in law school, especially in the 1L year (primarily reading, analysis, and critical thinking skills), cannot be taught well on line. In other words, *all* on-line instruction is sub-standard when it comes to law schools, no matter how much time and effort the professor puts into it.

Daniel Rodriguez (Northwestern):

Prof. Sherry is a seasoned, renowned law teacher and I cannot and will not say she is wrong in her analysis. But I am bewildered by her dogmatic insistence that online is inferior, an analysis bolstered by a caricature of what online teaching is and is capable of and some erroneous depictions of Zoom.

Deborah Merritt (Ohio State):

This fall, it is hard to believe that the in-person experience will be anywhere as good as it could be online. That is why I have urged professors to start learning and prepping for that experience now. I have taken workshops with 50-100 others and have seen presenters who were very adept at scanning the audience to gauge understanding, putting attendees into breakout rooms, and using other techniques to accomplish much of what we see as good teaching in the first year. Not as good as pre-pandemic classroom teaching but almost certainly better than what we can accomplish through in-person classrooms this fall.

Coronavirus, Legal Ed News, Legal Education | Permalink


"Ultimately, we sell two things: saleable skills and credentials."

Saleable skills? Most students, for example, never see an actual contract in their contracts course because the standard pedagogy in law school is "Meh, let employers teach them how to practice law." Also because most law school professors have, at best, two years of legal practice and don't know how to write a contract themselves.
One can repeat this in all corners of the legal academy. Saleable skills my *ss.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Jul 12, 2020 12:40:06 PM

"As to pricing: Econ 101 tells us that the equilibrium price point for online education will be at least as high as marginal cost. In my experience, good online instruction costs more than traditional on-campus teaching."

"Ultimately, we sell two things: saleable skills and credentials. If we can deliver those at least as well online as we do in person, the market will support comparable tuition rates."

Not. At. All. This is what you provide from your vantage point as a tenured professor. You no longer have the ability to see what is important to students, which is a full community experience, and, in essence, a new life.

Posted by: JM | Jul 8, 2020 7:29:48 AM

Three years ago, I was a committed skeptic regarding “distance learning.” Having now built and twice taught an online 4-unit Partnership Tax offering, I have changed my mind. I am persuaded that well-conceived and well-executed online teaching can be superior – by a significant margin – to traditional on-campus teaching. I believe that graduates of my online Partnership Tax offerings are significantly better prepared for practice and have a substantially greater command of the material.

I agree with Dan Rodriguez that critics of online education often fail to distinguish between good and bad online teaching. Yes, bad online teaching is possible and, indeed, unfortunately common. But really good online teaching is also possible. As more teachers learn the possibilities of the technology, the average quality of online instruction will go up.

As to pricing: Econ 101 tells us that the equilibrium price point for online education will be at least as high as marginal cost. In my experience, good online instruction costs more than traditional on-campus teaching. Significant investment is required to build a good online course. Similes about online holiday trips are silly. Ultimately, we sell two things: saleable skills and credentials. If we can deliver those at least as well online as we do in person, the market will support comparable tuition rates.

Posted by: Theodore Seto | Jul 5, 2020 4:50:14 PM

"and listening to a professor whose voice is muffled by a mask?"

In most instances, I don't think that the professor's voice is going to be muffled by a mask. I believe that professors will either be at least six feet away from the nearest student, or behind plexiglass, or both, thus obviating the need to wear a mask. Nice attempt at emotional argument and misdirection, though, Deborah.

Posted by: Rob T. | Jul 4, 2020 7:53:47 AM

The better choice would be to go 100% online until election day, and then in-person for the rest of the Fall semester.

Posted by: Anon | Jul 3, 2020 10:23:45 AM

Pay full price, get half service . . .

Posted by: Mike Livingston | Jul 3, 2020 3:11:32 AM

People pay the outrageously high price for law school for the full experience. Meeting life-long friends, spouses, etc. Living in a new place and escaping where you came from (figuratively and literally). There is an escape fantasy involved in law school that props up its tuition far above its value to students.

Charging full tuition for online law school would be like Carnival charging full rates for an online cruise to the Bahamas. You can broadcast the musician's rendition of "Sweet Caroline" and tell people it is the same voice, or take video of the sea off the balcony, but for many the experience just falls short.

Posted by: JM | Jul 2, 2020 10:08:51 AM