Distance learning is one of the fastest-growing components of higher education. Almost 3.5 million students were enrolled in at least one distance learning course in the fall of 2006 and online enrollments are increasing every year. The convenience of taking classes at any time from any location appeals to today’s adult learner, especially those who work, have families or live in rural areas.
Today a growing number of paralegal and legal secretarial programs have a distance learning component (no law schools currently grant credit for distance learning studies). However, not all distance learning programs are of equal quality. Moreover, the increasing popularity of distance learning programs have led to “diploma mills” or “accreditation mills” that offer bogus degrees and certificates. Choosing a distance learning program requires careful research and evaluation. Below are several important factors to consider in choosing a distance learning program.
- Accreditation. Accreditation is a means of ensuring the quality and effectiveness of higher education institutions and programs in the United States. Eight regional accrediting agencies accredit most of the colleges and universities in the United States. A host of national and professional accrediting organizations also exist, including the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), an organization that identifies and accredits distance learning programs. These twelve questions outlined by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation are helpful in examining a distance learning program's claims of acccreditation.
In evaluating distance learning paralegal programs, determine if the school is accredited by one of the regional accrediting bodies and by the American Bar Association (ABA). ABA-approval signifies that the school has met certain standards in terms of academics, facilities and instruction. Graduating from an ABA-approved school may give you an advantage in the legal job market.
- Reputation. The reputation of the distance learning program you attend may hinder or enhance your post-graduate employment prospects. In evaluating the reputation of a distance learning program, you should not solely rely on the school’s website or marketing materials. Other ways to investigate the reputation of a distance learning program include:
- Visiting the school.
- Talking to alumni (contact the career services department for alumni names and contact information).
- Researching the distance learning program’s record with the Better Business Bureau.
- Talking to paralegals, attorneys and legal employers about the reputation of the school you are considering.
- Researching the school in print publications, news articles and on the Internet.
- Academic Offerings. When evaluating distance learning programs, it is also important to consider the program’s academic offerings. A quality distance learning program offers a comprehensive curriculum with a variety of options, electives and advanced coursework. Talk to professors or an academic dean regarding the content and delivery of courses. The American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) recommends that paralegal instructional content include courses in legal research and writing, litigation, ethics, contracts, business organizations and torts. In addition, courses should develop students' critical thinking, communication, computational, computer and organizational skills, and competency to handle ethical issues, according to the AAfPE.
Legal programs should also offer an experiential learning component such as an internship, practicum, pro bono work or clinical experience. These are great resume-building opportunities and allow you to learn practical skills and gain real-world experience.
- Instructional Technologies. Distance learning courses can be delivered in a variety of ways through a growing array of technological tools including audio tapes, CD or DVD ROM’s, e-mail, telephone conferences and web-based delivery systems. Questions to ask include whether the program employs a mix of instructional technology? Is hands-on training and support provided? Can students preview courses online and try out the technologies before enrolling?
- Teaching Staff. The faculty is the backbone of any distance learning program. Are the courses taught by professors or are the courses pre-taped correspondence instruction? If the courses are taught by instructors, what is the background and qualifications of the teaching staff? Are classes taught by paralegals, attorneys or a mix of both?
- Career Services. Another important consideration in any distance learning program is the extent and quality of its career services program. Research indicates that the greater the resources offered by the career services department, the greater the program’s job placement success. You might inquire as to what percentage of graduates find related employment following graduation and whether the career center offers personalized career counseling, job placement assistance, job search seminars, online job boards or resume assistance.