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Debating Online Paralegal Studies

A proliferation of web-based programs fuels discussion on the direction of paralegal education.

By John Caldwell

(Originally appeared in print as "Debating the Future")

January/February 2002 Table of Contents


The last few years have offered plenty of discourse about the purpose and effectiveness of distance education for paralegal studies. Many educators and professionals have expressed trepidation over the growing number of online courses and programs rooting themselves in the nation’s educational landscape. As traditional classroom-based paralegal studies programs mature, online courses are cropping up everywhere, and the debate about the legitimacy of distance education in the paralegal industry is becoming increasingly heated. What place it will hold and how widespread it will be is still far from being universally agreed upon.

Some paralegal educators argue technology is the key to successful distance learning. As technology advances so does the effectiveness of online education. And indeed, if online technology could functionally deliver the same information available in the classroom, there need only be a willingness on the part of the teachers and students to make it work successfully — that self-discipline and dedication are far more significant than how the material is presented.

But there are still many who rebuke that argument by saying distance learning will never provide the interpersonal experience absolutely necessary for someone heading into a career in the legal field.

“In the area of continuing education, it’s going to be effective for people already working in the field,” said Bruce Hamm, director of professional legal education programs at Syracuse University in New York. “To take somebody out of high school and try to give them an education online is not going to do it.”

A majority of educators seem to share Hamm’s view that the campus experience is a necessary component in any student’s career. There is no substitute, they say, for the communication skills garnered from direct interaction with other students; that distance learning must remain an adjunct to traditional education.

“I’m not knocking online education but it has its place,” said Kathryn Myers, coordinator of paralegal studies at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana. She agreed distance learning is most appropriate for people who have already learned proper communication skills in the classroom environment. But those who see a future for all-online programs almost always disagree.

“I think you’re going to see that argument fall by the wayside,” said Bob Diotalevi, director of legal studies at Mountain State University in West Virginia. He said he believes as students learn technology at younger ages, those who are self-motivated can enter all-online programs right out of high school and do well, despite the lack of certain social components. He also claimed that necessary interpersonal skills can be learned when getting a job, refuting the idea that the budding young legal assistant must learn those skills beforehand.

“Many paralegal programs don’t require a client interaction class,” Diotalevi said. “People have been graduating from paralegal programs for decades. Why worry about this now?”

What Is Out There?

Despite questions about sufficient social interplay, distance education is offering the paralegal student a widening array of choices. The spectrum ranges from those schools that are merely integrating online course work into classroom instruction to those who offer entire degree programs exclusively in cyberspace. And in light of debate surrounding a perceived increase in the number of substandard programs flooding the burgeoning online market, would-be paralegals and seasoned professionals alike are being cautioned to research their options thoroughly.

Currently, there are several schools offering complete paralegal studies programs online. Continually leading the way in comprehensive distance learning is the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) in Maryland. Among its numerous certificate and degree programs offered exclusively online, students can earn a bachelor’s degree in legal studies or a certificate in paralegal studies at a pace with which each student is comfortable. UMUC’s online students use cutting-edge technology with a combination of e-mail, chatrooms, synchronous and asynchronous discussion groups, complimented by textbooks and fieldwork. Final exams, however, are proctored.

Another forerunner in distance learning is the Washington Online Learning Institute; a completely online school. Their certificate in paralegal studies offers a comprehensive overview of the legal profession in a 10-month program comprised of 11 subjects taught in four-week increments.

“The curriculum includes all the basic structure a paralegal should have,” said Michael Koplen, director of the Washington Online Learning Institute. He praised the immediacy of the online medium in which students can get their grades right after they take a test.

“We think it’s better than the traditional method,” he said. “They [the students] can take the test over and over; they can review materials over and over.”

He was quick to dispel any notion that the online student might be denied the hands-on experience he or she needs. His students are required to draft documents and complete textbook readings the same as in the classroom and live discussion groups force interaction with other students who are taking the course.

Koplen admitted distance education is good for certain types of students, a sentiment common among educators, including those touting online programs. Those students who never really participate in classroom instruction will participate even less online, he said.

“Most of our students are working a full-time job,” said Michael Storrs, president of Canyon College based in Idaho. “I would encourage the 18-year-old to go on campus; they need that for a year or two.”

Canyon offers a six-course online certificate program in paralegal studies aimed at the working professional and taught by an attorney. Each course takes about six-to-nine weeks to complete and covers several areas of the law, unlike most classroom courses, which usually cover only one area. Voice chat, video-voice chat, text chat and message boards are used in conjunction with textbooks and written assignments. When ready, students request an online test and receive their grade immediately.

At Canyon, online instructors have to routinely prompt their students to do their work because, Storrs said, in the asynchronous environment in which they are learning, students must be motivated to complete the work in a reasonable time frame. It’s up to the instructor to push them extra hard.

“The challenge is, you can’t hear the students when they’re starting to snore,” explained Katherine Currier, a professor at Elms College in Massachusetts.

Currier reiterated the concern that students need physical interaction with their peers, and with the instructor, as part of their legal education.

“Since we can’t hear each other and see each other online, how do you teach personal skills?” she questioned. “You can’t teach body language [online].”

Currier said she believes all-online programs should set up admissions requirements that screen for people who have already developed a certain computer proficiency.

At Elms College, paralegal students will find online instruction is used as an enhancement, Currier said. Asynchronous discussion boards are used by instructors who post questions for students to discuss via the Internet prior to class meetings. This helps get the discussion ball rolling among students who then carry such issues into the classroom.

What Makes It Better or Worse?

While there is much use of distance learning as enhancement, it’s the growing number of all-online paralegal programs that have some educators and professionals locked in debate about what the future should contain.

“Paralegal studies are particularly well-suited to online programs,” said Andy Lankler, vice president of operations for The Kaplan Colleges with facilities in New York, Florida, Iowa and California.

“It’s one of those industries where Internet literacy is really important,” he explained.

The Kaplan Colleges, with a number of facilities offering both classroom and distance learning, is in the process of converting some nononline paralegal courses to online.

As part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Distance Education Demonstration Project, a pilot program aimed at providing greater access to financial aid for students in online programs, Kaplan hopes to offer complete and qualified programs in legal studies via the Internet by April 2002.

But even Lankler, who would like to see wider application of distance learning, agreed online courses are best for the continuing student.

“Online is never a substitute for growth that takes place in a campus setting,” Lankler said. “This is very self-motivated. Online is suited for the adult learner.”

Regardless of whom they think qualifies, however, Lankler and others find no challenge in making a long list of pros to place alongside their list of cons for distance education. In addition to the aforementioned immediacy in testing and grading, a legal education via the Web can lend itself to a legal assistant career.

“Anyone working in law has to be good at writing and research,” Koplen added. “That’s why online learning for legal [education] is great,” Koplen noted, as students must participate in a significant amount of correspondence with educators who will be closely examining all materials.

The ability of online programs to reach would-be paralegals in remote areas has also been routinely plugged as an important aspect to the further development of distance education. Indeed, it can provide opportunities to students who otherwise couldn’t afford to travel to, and enroll in, their nearest legal studies program.

But with that outreach comes questions about quality control. Many educators are citing the challenges in assuring remote students get the practical experience they will need to work in the legal profession.

“Someone who’s never seen the inside of a law firm or a courtroom cannot get what they need to be a paralegal,” Hamm said. “The paralegal tends to be a very applied program.”

He suggested that, as with many campus-based paralegal programs, exclusively online programs should require some kind of field or “in service” work before handing over a degree. But difficulties exist in confirming that students actually went out into the legal world and interacted with others to complete a particular project, he admitted.

Others are more concerned about the student-teacher relationship. While some argue this relationship can only suffer in an exclusively online setting, numerous teachers who are operating in cyberspace are claiming just the opposite. They are finding they actually spend more time with their online students. E-mail, phone calls and chat sessions create a kind of “all the time” education that translates into immediate attention for students whenever they need it — including evenings and weekends.

“Students who want the relationship with the teacher have it,” Koplen said. “Relationships do develop. We do have that sense of community.”

Diotalevi agreed. For some of his more introverted students, online courses have actually helped to facilitate that relationship.

“I find that many of my students open up on the Net,” he said. “With a Web course, I talk to my students all the time. There’s more participation.”

But this increase in time spent with students often means an increase in time spent teaching overall. As e-education grows, teachers are faced with increasing workloads compounded by the need to learn rapidly changing technology, often without added pay or support.

“Faculty are going to find themselves chained to a computer,” Myers argued. “There are a lot of questions [regarding faculty] that haven’t been answered at a time when paralegal programs are concerned about quality.”

But, while the teachers pay more in time, the monetary costs for online students often are reduced. Some purveyors of online programs are quick to point out how students can save money in peripheral expenses. Gasoline bills, parking fees, student activity fees, dormitory expenses and money spent on meals all go down.

But the financial advantage stops at not having to leave the house, many say, as the cost of tuition and books is usually the same for both online and classroom-based courses.

Technological Indicators

Having access to, and aptitude for, advancing technology is the nucleus in distance education. Both student and teacher must have sufficient equipment and be well versed in Internet technology to work in the online educational medium. Proficiency with the Internet, a Web browser, e-mail and search engines all are required.

Additionally, the online student may face complicated, esoteric technology. With the expansion of distance learning, however, a larger variety of online interfaces are being developed and introduced, and the technology is becoming more user friendly.

“The user interfaces have become so much easier to learn,” said Storrs, adding that as more people learn the technology, the industry inevitably grows. “The tools that are coming out are more efficient and less costly and, I feel, equal to what’s in the classroom.”

The more advanced and comprehensive online schools are using their own proprietary software to facilitate their courses. UMUC’s WebTycho, a proprietary user interface, is a good example of the kind of platform found at other online institutions.

Though expensive to develop, these systems assure the online school the kind of robust and dynamic performance needed to facilitate a wide variety of courses.

Synchronous and asynchronous discussion groups, voice and text chat, message boards and testing are all handled efficiently by one interface. But in this immature industry, some key components, including adequate bandwidth for streaming video and the integration of the school’s administration into the program, are still lacking.

“You need to figure out a way to structure the courses without overburdening the hardware,” Lankler added. “You need technology that allows you to load your content quickly.”

Smaller institutions, or those with limited course offerings, are often leaving development issues to software manufacturers by purchasing their brand-name programs, which are advancing in capability.

Blackboard, a comprehensive online interface, is a popular platform in the e-education industry. Currently, it provides both synchronous and asynchronous chat with an interactive “white board” feature, which acts somewhat like the blackboard in a traditional classroom.

Students logged on to synchronous chat sessions in the “white board” can see the teacher or other students writing on the screen.

Currier said Elms College tried a free version of Blackboard after seeing a demonstration at the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) conference in 2000.

Soon after, they purchased the full license, convinced it had all the features they needed to enhance their courses. She is anticipating the further development of audio chat and the eventual introduction of video on Blackboard.

“You’re typing into a computer,” Currier said, “it’s just not the same as being in class.”

An Important Stamp of Approval

Even with advances in technology and support, distance education still faces serious opposition in garnering official ratification from the legal industry.

Schools wishing to step into the nebulous world of Web-based teaching are discovering how difficult it is to assure quality and effectiveness to those who would endorse their programs. Key organizations such as AAfPE and the American Bar Association (ABA) Standing Committee on Legal Assistants (SCOLA) have been warming up to online learning for some time, but have not approved any exclusively online programs.

ABA approval is considered by many as an important benchmark, particularly by lawyers recruiting someone right out of school.

Currently, of the 18 credit hours of specialty legal courses required by the ABA for approval of a paralegal program, 10 must be in synchronous format, such as a classroom.

“That’s a bit of a disincentive to having a totally online program,” Hamm said.

This ABA specification not only ensures a certain level of social interaction among students and teachers, but also keeps the overall quality of the nation’s paralegal programs in check. In an attempt to keep up with ever-expanding distance education, however, the ABA is currently reviewing that requirement.

“We’re grappling with distance education,” explained Currier, who, in addition to teaching at Elms, chairs SCOLA and its subcommittee on distance education, “but we don’t know what the changes are going to be.”

The Approval Commission of SCOLA is presently gathering facts and feedback from the industry to present to the ABA, which is going through a draft revision of guidelines.

The near future could see changes to the ABA requirements as much as things could possibly stay the same, Currier said.

“The role of the ABA is to make sure there’s quality education,” Currier said. “We want to figure out what we should do to get to that quality [online].”

Adverse to the e-education industry, the majority of AAfPE members surveyed don’t want to see an increase in the number of online credit hours permitted by the ABA for approval, according to a recent survey. Overwhelmingly, they said it would have a negative impact on quality.

“We are concerned that with paralegals, you need to deal in people skills,” said Myers, who is the recent past president of AAfPE. “It’s very difficult to create people skills when you’re dealing with a computer.”

The only AAfPE-member school offering totally online paralegal program’s, UMUC, counters their lack of ABA approval by pointing to their regional accreditation as enough to ensure high quality. Others are vying for ABA and AAfPE approval, and argue these two groups are not progressive enough.

“I can see the ABA’s point,” Diotalevi said. “They don’t want these ‘fly-by-night’ schools. But it (the approval requirement) is stifling some good institutions that want to give good distance learning.”

Skepticism Meets Optimism

Currier, and her peers within the ABA and SCOLA, are listening to those who claim to offer the necessary elements to make their all-online programs work, but they remain at least as skeptical as they are amicable to the idea that distance education has a future in the paralegal profession.

“I think it is possible to get a quality education online, but you have to work at it,” Currier said. “There’s going to be a huge demand for this, but we’re in such pioneering stages.”

She said while the industry finds its adolescence and subsequent approval, it will be up to the teachers to make it good and ensure its future. Just as in bad on-campus classes, in which instructors simply read lecture notes and textbooks, bad online courses involve instructors who simply spew information. Online instructors must go out of their way to provide the added quality that classroom instructors may find convenient to provide.

“I blame the instructor more than the technology,” said Currier of a perceived inadequacy in many online courses. “It’s very easy to do it badly.”

Others are more concerned about a perceived threat to the personal attention needed by any student in any kind of program.

Myers said she believes the academic side of learning must always be complimented by the psychological and emotional education that can only come from personal interaction with the instructor. In an online teaching medium, the instructor may not be able to address the needs of every student because “each student is an individual,” she explained.



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