Josh Dehaas is a journalist and student at Osgoode Hall Law School.
On March 13, I got the e-mail. York University was shutting down campus. The remaining one-third of my semester at Osgoode Hall Law School would proceed entirely online. Within days, all major universities in Canada had made the same move.
It went surprisingly well. All lectures at Osgoode were already recorded to help accommodate people with disabilities, so our professors had little trouble getting them to the whole class.
With my property classes now on video, I missed less of what the professor was saying – unlike in the classroom, I could stop, rewind and listen until I understood. For constitutional class, which I found easy, I was able to watch the recordings on double speed, buying more time to study.
Exams were written using the same browser-freezing software that we would have used at school, but I was a lot more relaxed doing them alone at home with my laptop.
Best of all, I got to skip my two-hour daily commute. I had always tried to read on the subway, but it was often too noisy and crowded.
Online education gave me more time to sleep, exercise and study. I felt healthier. I learned more. I can now say confidently that I prefer school online.
Before March, there wasn’t a single juris doctor (law) degree available online in Canada. Although many people had pushed for an online option, law societies had pushed back, saying that law schools couldn’t offer the same quality without in-person classes. I’m hoping that positive experiences like mine will convince law societies to finally allow online degrees, and will spur universities to offer more online programs in general.
I expect my law school – and most university programs – to be primarily online this fall anyway. McGill University, the University of Ottawa and the University of Montreal have already said that’s what they’re planning, albeit temporarily.
Online education wasn’t perfect; I missed the friends that I hung out with on campus. But after the first few weeks of the semester, I was too busy reading to spend more than about one hour per week with them anyway. Post-pandemic, I’ll still be able to grab the odd beer with them if I’m completing school online.
The relationships I made on campus would have been harder to build virtually. But there are ways of overcoming this. For example, students who choose an online option could start their degrees with an intensive in-person course held over two weeks in August before the in-person students arrive. This would allow the online students to make in-person connections that they could nurture later on through Facebook and Zoom.
Making online law degrees permanent could have the benefit of increasing access to the profession. Osgoode’s tuition for a juris doctor degree is steep $25,000 a year. If Osgoode welcomed 50 online students on top of the roughly 300 it currently takes in each year, that would create a big new stream of revenue with minimal added cost.
Adding the online students wouldn’t require building any new lecture halls or hiring any new professors; the only major new expenses would be an administrator to oversee the technology and a handful of new teaching assistants to take on the extra marking. There would be no problem finding qualified students: Osgoode had 2,600 applications last year for around 300 spots. The new revenues from these additional students could be used to significantly offset tuition costs, with online students being charged less or tuition being reduced for all students.
An online option would also increase access for people living in rural areas, remote First Nations communities – maybe even overseas – who can’t leave family or other obligations behind. It would also make school more accessible for parents who could watch lectures after their kids go to bed. People with mobility issues could also benefit.
It is likely that there would be pushback from lawyers who want to keep the number of graduates low so that they face less competition and can charge higher prices. That’s what Ryerson University faced when it proposed a law school that’s expected to open this fall. But 50 new graduates per year per law school isn’t going to make a big difference to a profession with 130,000 members nationwide.
Even if it did push down fees a bit, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing: lower fees could mean more access to justice. The lawyers with online JDs could afford to offer their services a bit cheaper anyway – they would be graduating with tens of thousands of dollars less debt.
The argument against more online degrees has always been that some parts of the educational experience can’t be replicated virtually. That’s true. But the online format forced on us all by the pandemic has shown that the increased access that online degrees offer is more than enough to make up for what’s lost.
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