The ANU College of Law is set to release details in the coming days concerning the introduction of an online Juris Doctor (JD) degree, which is slated for a 2016 start. The program, which has materialized after several years in development, was given approval last week by the Academic Board, the peak body responsible for reviewing academic policy at the ANU.

Initially, the JDO will only be available on a part-time basis, a decision which was based on market research alluding to student preferences in this regard. Practically speaking, this means that the minimum length of time required to obtain a JDO at the ANU would be six years. Although the conventional on-campus JD and the online version (dubbed as the “JDO”) are planned to run simultaneously, the curriculum structures and approach to coursework will be quite different. However, the financial cost and relevant entrance requirements will remain consistent across JD streams.

Dr. Skye Saunders, chair of the JDO Group, who is responsible for the development of the JDO’s academic curriculum at the ANU, shared details of the proposed course structure with Woroni. The degree will place a large amount of emphasis on problem-based learning, as “a pedagogical vehicle to better understand natural relations between jurisprudence and the legal profession” and it would not “simply be a content dump of information online,” said Dr. Saunders. Instead of traditional lecture- based material, the JDO will utilize web conferencing, email correspondence, and a variety of other online tools to create a collaborative space for student discussion. The first aspect of this mode of delivery involves small student groups of 4 or 5 interacting with their professors in a web seminar setting, typically at the start of the week. Following this, students are then encouraged to spend time on the online collaborative space with other students to enhance their learning experience, culminating in the submissions of “capstones” at the end of the week. Capstones are used to track weekly progress and make sure that students have appreciated learning outcomes – examples included drafting a model contract or responding to a problem-based question, but could also deal with more complex issues as part of more formative assessment. Dr. Saunders has hailed this as an “innovative approach to education”. The only other faculty currently employing this problem-based approach is the ANU Medical School.

To better suit the dynamic of this web conferencing approach, several of the fundamental compulsory courses will be dramatically restructured from their on-campus counterparts, with the merger of several interlinked classes (torts/civil litigation, criminal law/evidence) and the removal of others (foundations of Australian law, and ethics – both of which will be integrated into existing classes). This makes transferability of degrees between the on-campus and online JDs difficult in the earlier stages, however, students undertaking a JDO are allowed to choose from a variety of on-campus master’s level electives if they are not offered under the online stream.

It is believed that the inception of the JDO was motivated by the flat line in growth of the traditional JD program, with potential students often seeking part-time education whilst working and unable to re-locate as readily as undergraduates. Professor Donald Rothwell, who serves as Deputy Dean for the College of Law, stated that the online program “would remove this natural impediment” that prevents post-graduates from studying at the ANU. Colleges were approached by the University three years ago to see whether such opportunities existed as part of Vice-Chancellor Ian Young’s “ANU BY 2020” strategic plan. Now at its halfway-point, the introduction of an online JD is consistent with many of the “ANU BY 2020” goals for online education and future student growth. Professor Young has said that the University will likely achieve postgraduate growth online as opposed to on campus in the following years.[W1] However, Professor Rothwell stressed that the ANU was “still very committed to the on-campus JD”.

Integrity of the online learning community is a concern for both staff and students alike. In terms of practicality, the emergence of a web-based degree places a large amount of reliance on the online network and proper IT support in mitigating technological failures, which may prove troublesome. Policing of academic honesty is also more difficult – while capstones and oral examinations are the intended methodology of testing, the possibility of invigilated examinations has also been discussed. The ANU has taken steps to liaise with leading members of the legal profession about this new educational approach.

“The [ACT] Law Society has been informed of the ANU’s plans to introduce an on-line JD program and has had a discussion with ANU representatives regarding the program,” said Chief Executive Officer of the ACT Law Society, Diane O’Hara.
“The Society acknowledges that online programs are increasingly an integral part of the tertiary education sector. Both the Society and the ANU remain committed to ensuring that any new course delivers high quality academic outcomes and maintains rigorous academic standards.”

[W1]Link to transcript of Ian Young’s comments can be seen here: http://renew.anu.edu.au/2015/03/16/have-your-say/ . The ANU by 2020 was also specifically mentioned by Don Rothwell