Net universities starting to produce graduates

Posted: Monday, June 04, 2001

ANCHORAGE -- At 54, John Hutchins of Anchorage is finally going to law school. He has wanted to do that forever.

But would he turn his life upside down and take out large loans this close to retirement? Not likely.

As it turns out, he doesn't have to.

Hutchins is able to study law at minimal cost and without abandoning his wife, pets and current job as a nurse anesthetist at Alaska Regional Hospital. He can do this even though there's no law school in Anchorage. He is enrolled in the Concord University School of Law, the country's first completely online law school. His professors are scattered around the country and teach at Harvard and George Washington University, among others.

He gets mentally ready for each class the way runners do for a race. His books are open, his outlines are at hand. He's wired when class begins and tired when it's over.

"I always get a headache after because it's so intense."

Earning a law degree in cyberspace wasn't possible three years ago. Concord is just one of many schools, universities and companies racing to open or expand online degree programs over the past half decade.

Students already can get a bachelor's degree in nursing, a master's in environmental safety and health management, and MBAs by the truckload. But online universities are so new that people are just starting to graduate from them.

Concord is owned by Kaplan, a subsidiary of The Washington Post.

A group of western governors helped some private corporations form an online university, Western Governors University, aimed at mid-life career people. The university gives credit for any academic knowledge that a person can prove has been gained from life experiences, private study or course work.

Gov. Tony Knowles is on the WGU board. Terry Hamm of Anchorage, a state employee, may become the first person to earn an associate's degree there.

Hamm, who dropped out of college as a teen-ager, has completed her course work for an associate's degree.

She's going to continue and earn a bachelor's in business at WGU. Her life is too complicated, with a job and volunteer work, to pursue higher education on any schedule but her own, she said.

The electronic education revolution is ripping along. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently announced it's going to make most of the materials for its courses -- lecture notes, outlines, reading lists and such -- available on a Web site to advance online course development.

The question is: Can a person get a degree of equal value at a virtual university?

Yes, says Sue Reilly, accreditation director for the Distance Education and Training Council in Washington, D.C., which evaluates long-distance university offerings.

But students have to choose carefully, Reilly said. "Everybody's kind of jumped on the bandwagon and started offering online programs. Some are very good, and some are not so good."

Some universities spend as much as $1 million to develop one online course, said Michael Lambert, executive director of the Distance Education Council.

And sometimes online degrees don't carry the same weight with potential employers or professional associations, even if they're from accredited programs. Concord law graduates, for instance, can take the bar exam in only a handful of states.

Despite the limitations, Concord has grown in three years to 600 students and its faculty has increased from six to 50.

Concord law students need to complete classes on a schedule but can do most of the work at any time of day or night. Launched in 1998, the Concord law school has critics and limitations but already enjoys a good reputation. "Concord has one of the best programs out there, and it is setting the pace for quality," Lambert said.

Hutchins stumbled across it while helping his son John find a traditional law school. His son attends the University of Minnesota School of Law.

"We're doing the same courses at the same time," Hutchins said. "We spend hours discussing cases."

Concord students participate in one hour of live class each week. They also get videotaped lectures, reading assignments, timed tests online and, toughest of all, hourlong essay writing assignments on surprise topics. The essays are supposed to be written like legal briefs.

Students can go to chat rooms to join study groups, and professors offer lots of written criticisms.

But it's the live lessons that engage Hutchins.

Tuesdays at 5 p.m., he is among seven to 10 students -- including a boutique supply manufacturer in New Mexico, a dentist in Pennsylvania and a real estate broker in Nevada -- signed on with a professor.

Hutchins uses a basic laptop with a cable modem that makes the Internet run faster. The students can hear the professor's voice but can't see him. They communicate with him live by e-mail, discussing cases and asking questions. The students' conversations appear as text on Hutchins' screen.

In a recent property law class, professor Steven Bracci presented three cases -- two on covenant violations in property disputes and a third on a water-sharing agreement that went awry.

Hutchins spent a day and a half preparing. He outlined each case. He listed key legal issues. He made notes on the probable outcomes.

By class time, he was set up at the dining table with coffee, computer, books and notes. Hutchins wore corduroy pants, a grayish sweater and loafers. An Icelandic dog lay on the outside deck nearby.

Seven students signed in.

Immediately, the professor asked students to describe the differences in legal terms that might apply to a homeowner who wanted to rent her house out but couldn't because of subdivision covenants. Then he asked what arguments could be made to get the restriction lifted.

Hutchins talked to himself: "It's unreasonable, arbitrary, violates public policy."

He quickly typed it in. He had a minute or so to do it before the class moved on.

Another student is there ahead of him and said "unreasonable."

"That's what a person would have to argue," Bracci said. "John, you added arbitrary. Very good." Halfway through the hour, they had moved on to the water case. They diagrammed on scratch paper what happened as each neighbor sold to someone else.

Hutchins rubbed his face with his hands and leafed through notes as he puzzled out the issues.

The hour ended, but they weren't done with case No. 3, so they just kept going. By the end of the lesson, Hutchins had run his hands through his hair so much it was standing on end.

Finally, the professor said, "Good work, everybody. That'll do it."

The students had sorted through about four weeks of material in an hour-plus. They had more one-on-one contact with their professor than many students in traditional classes get. "I wish it was more," Hutchins said.

Hutchins will need four years to finish. His son, on the other hand, can earn his law degree in three years as a full-time, on-campus student. And Hutchins' son will be eligible to take the bar exam anywhere. Hutchins can take it only in California and a couple of other states, not including Alaska, because the American Bar Association doesn't recognize law degrees earned through long-distance programs. But he's paying considerably less than his son -- up to $5,000 a year vs. $30,000.

Hutchins would probably have to practice law elsewhere before he can be licensed as a lawyer in Alaska, which is his goal.

But if Concord didn't exist, there's no way he could realize his dream. "I certainly wouldn't quit my job and move out of state to do it."

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