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Competency-based legal education

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Mar 29, 2016

A few weeks ago, I discussed why law schools need to respond to the changing marketplace for legal services and legal education. In thinking about how best to prepare for that changing world, law schools need to consider how competency-based educational models can be employed to advance educational objectives for students seeking to enter the market for legal services. As Michael Horn and I explain in our new white paper, “Disrupting law school,” regulatory protections that have sheltered law schools from competition will continue to subside. In this new environment, law schools need to reimagine themselves as educators for students interested in learning about the legal services sector, not simply those seeking a JD.

One way to do this is to think about legal education from a blank slate. Rather than trying to retrofit our current pedagogy to address 21st-century needs, we need to think about it from its inception—if one were to start a school today to educate those who want a career in the legal services field, what would that school look like?

Upstart competency-based education programs have done just that in other parts of higher education. They provide at least three new considerations for traditional law schools as they begin to think about and prepare for the future.

1. Time is no longer the measure of accomplishment
Online, competency-based learning reverses the traditional relationship in education between time and student learning. In the traditional educational model, time is fixed while each student’s learning is variable. With online, competency-based learning, the relationship between time and learning is reversed—time becomes the variable and each student’s learning becomes essentially fixed. Students process at their own pace, moving from topic to topic upon mastery of each. Those who need more time to master a concept before moving on to the next take the time they need, while others move ahead to the next set of materials and learning objectives.

2. Centrality of competencies, learning outcomes, and assessments
Online, competency-based programs shift the teaching pedagogy toward student-centered learning. In an online, competency-based program, faculty and instructional designers start by identifying the competencies students must master to achieve the desired learning outcomes and then work through each to understand how a student would demonstrate mastery of those objectives. Through constant feedback, students know how they are doing and what they need to do next and teachers can determine when students have mastered competencies and are ready to move forward. The assessments, in other words, are both forward looking (assessments that help determine what a student studies next) and backward looking (assessments that indicate whether a student has mastered the material).

3. Modularization of course material provides more flexibility and different business models
Online, competency-based learning is also changing key elements of the traditional higher education business model. Online technologies make it possible to modularize the learning process—that is, to break usual semester-long courses into shorter learning units or modules, which can be studied in sequence or separately. When material is packaged in online modules, it is easier to use for multiple educational purposes and multiple audiences in different combinations.

Stackable modules allow students to create individualized curricula based on their own learning goals and objectives. For students who attend law school knowing the area of law in which they want to practice—a segment of the student body currently underserved as a result of limited course offerings in any one topic at any one law school—modules open up opportunities to stack credentials from multiple sources. The long tail of the Internet opens up these opportunities; there may be sufficient student demand if online courses can aggregate demand and serve students from around the country or even the world.

Modules also eliminate duplication and optimize teaching resources. This flexible architecture can create an entirely new business model for law-related education. When learning is broken down into competencies, rather than semester-long courses, modules of learning can be packaged into different scalable programs for very different audiences—for example, paralegals, legal technicians, law students, lawyers (CLE), judges, administrative agencies, non-JDs working in law-related fields, foreign students, high school/college moot court teams, undergraduate students, journalists, clients, life-long learners, and so forth. The possibilities abound.

This exercise can take us in a lot of different directions. Every direction, though, will ask us to change and move beyond the status quo. Change is hard, but also necessary. I hope our white paper provides sufficient impetus for law schools to get started.

Michele R. Pistone

Michele is a professor of law at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. She founded LegalEDweb.com, an online repository of law-related educational videos and teaching material.