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Law360 (May 25, 2021, 4:56 PM EDT) —
A new study of law school faculty across the United States found that the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how these educators see their responsibilities and continues to shape legal education’s future.
Primary Research Group Inc., an entity that focuses on higher education and other institutional research, said in a statement Monday that its recent report showed that most law school faculty are interested in returning to the classroom, though a significant minority still have reservations about what that will look like.
The study also highlighted how much more those law school instructors relied on information technology services than before the pandemic, as well as how positively they see online learning.
The report drew from survey responses of 109 faculty members across 55 law schools. They answered questions relating to their use of information technology staffers, transition to virtual instruction and other changes during the pandemic. Researchers, including lead author and Primary Research Group president James Moses then used this data, collected between March 25 and April 20, to evaluate how educators from various law schools dealt with the pandemic, Moses told Law360 Pulse on Monday.
Moses added that the 55 legal education institutions surveyed ranged in size from 150 to 3,000 students. The report’s participant list features a mix of private and public law schools at universities like Duke, Columbia, Liberty, Florida International, Rutgers and UC Davis. Moses said these findings informed his belief that law schools must “adjust to a new reality,” in which universities should leverage their investments in virtual learning to grow after the pandemic.
“Sometimes, colleges don’t think the way that businesses do, but they have made an enormous investment in online capabilities,” Moses said. “With that investment comes new ways to serve the public and enhance their own prestige, by having this large body of online-capable faculty. So, that retired faculty member who doesn’t want to have to come into the office can give seminars or courses in a way that they couldn’t have previously. There are capabilities there to be unlocked and used.”
Here, Law360 Pulse presents several key findings from the study.
Law school faculty relied on schools’ IT services like never before.
Moses asked educators how often they interacted with information technology services departments in the year since March 2020. The responses yielded a mean answer of 12.07 times, which represented a more than 135% increase from before the pandemic. This rise was sharper for faculty older than 65 years, whose IT assistance requests surpassed last year’s by more than 177%.
Moses said these and related figures suggested that law schools “were less familiar” with virtual education technologies than other professional schools and departments that Primary Research Group has surveyed. They now seem to be embracing such options more, he added.
“The way I see most of them are thinking about it now is that they’re trying to figure out ways to do continuing legal education with [these technologies], to try to hit markets that haven’t hit before or maybe international legal education, or seminars, or maybe even webinars for attorneys on emerging subjects, this kind of thing,” he said. “This kind of thing, they’ve always kind of picked up money that way. I don’t know how much they’re going to use it to streamline a three-year legal degree education, that’s not clear to me yet.”
Legal educators generally view online education less favorably than in-person teaching.
Given a five-point scale between “Much better” and “Much worse,” 38.53% of law school faculty saw online classes as similar in quality to in-person ones. By comparison, 35.78% and 2.75% believed virtual options were “Worse” and “Much worse,” respectively. Conversely, 2.75% said they were “Much better,” while 8.26% chose “Better” and 11.93% did not respond.
The degree of distaste varied depending on schools’ prestige. Among the top 20 law schools — which Moses said were determined from U.S. News and World Report’s rankings — 40% of instructors saw online classes as “Worse.” Meanwhile, 27.59% of faculty at schools ranked outside the top 80 gave the same answer.
These figures echoed other data points that suggested top-tier law school faculty embraced digital options more hesitantly than their peers at lower-ranked institutions. Moses thought these findings may reflect the more prestigious schools’ lack of incentive to attract more students with fluid class options.
“Historically, these kinds of [distance learning] programs have been used to kind of chase the student, in a way, go to where the students are,” he said. “I guess maybe the top law schools don’t really feel the need to really do that.”
Female faculty members are more likely to back future online teaching options.
As many universities prepare for more in-person classes this fall, the report noted a major difference in how women and men teaching at law schools view the continued relevance of online education. Female respondents on average said they wished to teach 40.42% of their classes online, compared to 23.93% for men.
Moses surmised that this number reflected an aggregate tendency for women to be “more cautious” than men.
“This is just an educated guess, but it may be that there’s going to be lingering, greater reluctance among women to kind of fully embrace, to totally accept that the COVID risk is really, really low,” he said.
–Editing by Kelly Duncan.
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