Debating the Future
A proliferation of online
programs fuels discussion on the direction of paralegal education.
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 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 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
“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
What Is Out
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
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,
“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
“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
“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
“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.
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
“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 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
“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
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
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,”
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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.