20 Questions with an Online Legal Educator

Professor Candace Elliott Person is the Director of the Health Law LLM Program at Concord University School of Law. Professor Person has practiced in the health care field as a clinical practitioner, administrator, and educator for over 30 years. She holds a Masters in Public Health, with a minor in Education from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, and a Juris Doctorate from the Thomas M. Cooley Law School. She has developed a wide variety of judicial education and attorney education programs.

1. How do you define Education?

As I see it, education is conveying both theoretical and practical knowledge to others with the intent to advance their learning and their skills. I believe education needs to be a combination of both theoretical and practical, so that people can take theory and put it into practice. And also that definition includes the idea of using objectives to know where you're going -- if you don't know how you're going, you may not get there - and methodologies in which to meet those objectives. So education involves a whole variety of strategies in order to meet the goal of conveying knowledge to other people.

2. Give some background about the Health LLM program at Concord.

The school itself began in the fall of 1998 with a J.D. program, and we've graduated our first student in November of this year. Concord added the LLM program in the Fall of 2001 because so many of our J.D. students have health care backgrounds and were looking to specialize. We're currently in our 5th term, and we work on a trimester system. Students usually take classes year round. We haven't had our first graduates yet, because many of our students are working full time. The average load is 4 to 6 credits per term, which is roughly one or two classes. The LLM has a requirement of 28 credits to complete the degree.

3. Is the curriculum on par with what is being offered in fixed-facility institutions?

We try very hard to make sure that our curriculum reflects the latest developments in Health Law, which is a rapidly changing field. One of the benefits of online teaching is that you can use a lot of very recent sources right from the Internet, and you can set up interviews with some of the experts in the field by phone. I used to teach in classrooms for many years, and I would bring in speakers, but it would be difficult to arrange schedules and bring someone in from far away. The beauty of the online environment is that you can bring in the experts very quickly. Also, because our terms are 4 months, we can modify the curriculum very rapidly. We currently offer 12 courses in Health Law, and plan to offer 5 more in the near future.

4. Are the teachers geographically spread about the country?

Yes, our professors are from New Mexico, Delaware, Pennsylvania, D.C., Virginia, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Kansas, Texas. Some of our professors are the authors of the textbooks we use. I believe very strongly that we need to have the experts in the field do the teaching at Concord. They're the ones who have done the extensive reading and writing.

5. Is there room for two-way student-teacher discussions and questions in an online setting?

Yes, they are able to communicate via text-based chat - it works surprisingly well. In fact, in my Cyberlaw class, we were able to prepare, post and debate an online jurisdiction motion all via chat and audio. There were questions and responses, just as there would be in any courtroom. And while this exercise went going on, I made a backup copy which was filed in the archives for anyone who was not able to get to class.

6. How are exams structured?

We do things a bit differently than fixed institutions. For example, in a brick and mortar school, you might only have one exam at the end of the course. In distance education, you have to provide a lot of feedback to students, or they just don't know how they're doing. So we've established multiple measurements along the way. These measurements are practically oriented and include essays, papers and exercises. We see the development of papers throughout the term, so we know the students are the ones writing them. When multiple choice style quizzes are administered, we allot a certain amount of time to complete the test, and then lock everyone out of our system at the end of the allotment. Our system is set up to monitor and log everything a student does once they've signed on with a digital certificate.

7. Are milestones or "multiple measurements" more important for online learning?

I'd say yes, but I think they're very important in any kind of learning environment. No matter where a course is given, students need to receive ongoing feedback throughout the term via milestone activities, whether in the classroom or online. Online it's particularly important because students are out their alone on a computer - they need to be part of a community, and we try very hard to create a community.

8. From a teacher's perspective, how does online teaching differ from in-person teaching?

I've been teaching online since 1996, and I think teaching online is a very different experience than teaching in a traditional classroom. First, you need to have a bit of technological skill and interest to be able to learn the technology we use to teach. We have a good technology training program for our professors. Our platform is very extensive in terms of how the classes are put together and the database that it's built on. The format we use is a combination of broadcasting audio to the Internet, using Real Producer, and text-based chat. We could use video broadcasting, but not all of our students can receive it, as video uses a lot of bandwidth. So we have to look at the lowest common denominator, in terms of what our students can receive on their computers. But as broadband capabilities expand, using video is definitely an option.

9. Because of the online format, do students have to be more or less prepared for class than in a fixed facility school?

Because of the different classroom format, I think students are forced to be more prepared for online class. This is actually a benefit, because during the actual class we're able to do more high-level learning since they've already done the preparation of basic information, and they have an opportunity to apply the knowledge to real life experience.

10. Do you feel confident that the training you're providing students will enable them to compete and excel in the field of Health Law?

I really do - not only do they get to read and hear the newest things going on in the field, but we also have them signed up for weekly newsletters, such as those from the American Health Lawyers' Association, and other kinds of Internet resources that give them day-to-day information.

We also give students a combination of theory and practice, and we have them doing a lot of exercises. I feel that we are educating leaders at Concord, so we have to train them to feel comfortable with bringing about change that is expected of leaders. For example in Bioethics, students separate into teams and negotiate a surrogacy contract, and they also debate and negotiate a legislative bill. In our Health Care Organization Financing class, I enlisted a panel of people to hear their testimony and structured the exercise as if they were presenting it to a congressional committee. Students had to identify an area of healthcare that needed to be changed or addressed in some way, and then they proposed specific changes that would help that situation. The panel was made up of a U.S. Attorney from Philadelphia, a Health Policy Analyst from the Michigan Legislature, and other legal professionals.

11. What are the general demographics of the students enrolled in the Health Law LLM at Concord?

The age range is between 35 to 60, with the average age of 41, which is also probably the average for our J.D. students as well. This is a group of people who are established in their life. They're well-established in their job and have families and can't easily pick up and go to a campus to get their education. Online education provides not only convenience but also access that they probably wouldn't have otherwise. Altering one's life in order to attend a traditional school is easier for younger people, which is why we don't see as many young people in our program.

The students are from all over the United States and Europe. And their backgrounds are equally diverse: we have people in the military, people in JAG, a flight surgeon, nurse attorneys, health administrators, general counsel from large corporations and hospitals, attorneys from large and small firms.

12. How important is what the student brings to the online educational experience?

What the student brings is very important. The students who come to us seem to have a goal, and they know what they want to do. Of course, some students still want to figure out what they want, and that's fine, too. But they are a little more focused than some I might see in a classroom. They have to be self-starters to some extent to be even able to make themselves sit down at their computer and do what they need to do. They have to be organized. Students who come to us who do not have organizational skills will either develop them quickly, or discover that the program is not be a good fit for them.

Learning styles make a difference, too. Students with certain kinds of learning styles work better online than others. There are some who really need to have the structure and support of a classroom, where they're sitting in a seat and they have students around them who they can talk to, and they can see the professor. And there are others who really don't need these kinds of things at all - they can study very well by seeing their professor on a videotape, by hearing the professor over the Internet, by talking with the professor on the phone, by exchanging emails, and so on.

13. Why would a student elect to attend Concord over a fixed facility school?

Well, initially the things we hear the most are Access and Convenience. The students will tell you that it's very difficult to leave one's job and forgo the income to be able to go back to a university. Our program allows the flexibility to attend class from wherever you are - a hotel room, a friend's house, work, a cafe.

And from the standpoint of academics, our program is very comparable to Health Law LLM programs across the country.

14. What are the challenges of designing an online course?

Designing an online course is different than designing one for a fixed institution school. With a bricks and mortar class, you can put your lectures together from week to week, and sometimes you can go in and wing it because you know the material so well. In my opinion, it doesn't have to be as structured as what we have to do online. When we put together an online course, we have to divide it into "chunkets" or modules. And we have to predetermine the objectives, what we want the student to accomplish from a given module. You have to look at every single detail to figure out what the student will need to know, what supporting information and infrastructure we will need to give them.

Also, we receive a lot of questions related to the accreditation of our school. So, we structure our courses in a way that would meet criteria for online accreditation. We are accredited by the Distance Education Training Council (DETC) which is a part of the U.S. Department of Education. And we're also recognized as a Distance School by the California Bar. California is currently putting together criteria for accreditation of online law schools, but accreditation for online law schools does not exist yet. So, we're out on the cutting edge in this respect.

15. Do you feel that the Internet has had a profound effect on education?

Yes, absolutely, both in terms of content and technology. From a content standpoint, the resources that are now available are tremendous. And from the standpoint of the technological means that one has to convey information across the Internet.

16. How do you respond to skeptics of online education?

I've talked to a lot of skeptics. Unless you've done some online education and worked with it, it is easy to be skeptical. I always invite people to try it out and see if the experience answers some of their questions. I think the statistics and anecdotal feedback speak for themselves. Our students tell us they're getting a better education online than they did in their previous university. Many have said they have had more interaction with online professors than they ever had in their regular university. That makes sense, because we use a lot of email and text chat during class. In a fixed institution, you have to purposefully make yourself available to the professor, whereas teacher-student communication is an integral part of our program. Students may not feel comfortable raising their hand in front of 100 people, but they feel very comfortable engaging a teacher in a dialogue online. This teacher-student interaction provides a great opportunity to learn.

The main thing I hear from law faculty is that they are very concerned about that first year of law school. That is, the students should be able to establish a strong connection with the professor during the first year. But I've taught first year law courses online, and we've really got a lot of engagement from students. So having taught in a regular law school and online, I think we had a lot more positive interaction online.

17. Legal education often involves difficult and rigorous lessons in advocacy. Can the rigors of how to be a trial lawyer be taught online?

Yes, I think you can convey these types of lessons online. We have an advocacy course which was put together by a trial advocacy professor. For instance, we show students several different video examples of an opening statement, and point out various strategies that can be employed. The students then videotape themselves, send the tapes to the professor for critique, repeat the tape /critique exercise once more, and then move on to another aspect of trial advocacy, such as admission of evidence.

So, yes you can teach advocacy, but you have to do it in pieces. And it forces you as a professor to articulate all of the parts of that learning in a way that is educationally sound, because you know what you're getting after in each part of that learning process.

18. In 5 to 10 years, how do you envision the E-Learning landscape?

Well, from a technological standpoint, I think we're all moving in a direction toward mobility, convenience, and flexibility. In terms of education, the Journal of Higher Education reported that in 1990 about 3% of U.S. college and university courses had any online component. Now, about 96% of the U.S. colleges across the country offer some kind of online education. So the trend is there. Another prediction that some people are making is that by 2010 half of the degrees from colleges and universities will be online-type degrees. This prediction may be hopeful, but I think we're moving in that direction.

Also, I think there will be a lot more access to education by people who could not receive the education in the past. Certainly Concord is filling that need.

Law schools have been a bit slower to respond to the online environment than undergraduate programs. I think we're seeing a lot more progress in this regard, but it will take law schools a little longer than the other universities. Law is a traditional profession, and there are a lot of people who still are not convinced that this is the way to go. The ABA has put together some new rules allowing law schools across the country to offer limited credits in online courses - and that's a big step for the ABA.

19. What are your thoughts on self education?

I think people are constantly self-educating all the time. People do it to a lesser or greater extent depending on their interests and what they like to do. I think there's a tremendous amount of information on the Internet that is available. Of course, you have to be careful that you evaluate that information to determine if it's from a credible source. But people can gain a tremendous amount of knowledge by self-educating. I think that it's certainly an option that people didn't have before the Web became available. Obviously, there were people who would go to libraries and read all the books there, but the Internet has just enhanced this a hundred-fold.

20. As technology continues on its evolutionary course, how will online education be effected?

Well, as access to broadband connections increases, the capability of providing different kinds of learning strategies is greatly enhanced. For example, we might be able to use a lot more streaming video, or more interactive video, and this may pull more prospective students into online learning who need to see a teacher's face. So it could have a big impact. Also, there's a second generation Internet that's being used by some universities as an experiment, and there may be a lot of possibilities there that we would not have seen with the regular Internet.

Distance education is here to stay, and the possibilities are endless as to what you can do. Obviously, it takes a lot more time to deal with the technology necessary to teach online, but there's a lot more satisfaction with this process as well. Universities are going to need to be sure that they have the support for the faculty to do online education. I think that the outcome with the students is positive. Down the road we are going to have a menu of ways to provide education. There will be some people who don't take to the online environment, and the fixed facilities are certainly still going to be there.