When the COVID-19 pandemic began, post-secondary education institutions rapidly shifted to virtual learning environments: They quickly adopted virtual technology platforms and, as the pandemic oscillated in intensity, established functional, effective and integrated bimodal learning platforms (i.e., in-person lectures with an option to participate remotely). University faculties prided themselves on these rapid transitions, which allowed them to continue to deliver high-quality education while protecting students, their families and society.
At the time university administrators speculated that incoming cohorts would be part of a ‘new normal’ or more flexible learning environment moving forward. Bimodal learning permitted those who wished to attend classes in person to do so. Yet it also enabled students to learn remotely when it better suited their needs, live in more affordable housing situations, care for family members, and better attend to other personal responsibilities. For some, commuting time was replaced with studying time. And for others, especially those with physical or mental health conditions, barriers to education were significantly reduced. The anticipated ‘new normal’—or choice of an optimal, individual-centric mix of in-person, bimodal, and online learning—suddenly became desirable.
This new normal was a welcomed change to the delivery of post-secondary education—a shift away from the rigid, antiquated and paternalistic in-person-only program delivery pre-COVID-19. Many hoped that some of these flexibilities, such as bimodal learning and online course options, alongside in-person classes, would continue post-COVID-19, leading to more equitable and effective education. However, it turns out that this desire may have been too optimistic and that not everyone has the same conception of a “new normal.” The elastic bands of “flexible COVID-19 approaches” are snapping back, and some organizations are making unilateral decisions without adequately consulting students or considering their best interests and needs.
For example, the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law recently informed second-year common law students that the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, the national coordinating body of 14 law societies across Canada, still requires at least one full year (or the equivalent of roughly ten courses) of in-person learning. Canadian law schools must meet this requirement to remain accredited, and graduates of Canadian common law programs must meet this requirement to enter law society admission programs (as agreed to by those law societies). The rule itself (ss. 1.2) states that “[t]he course of study consists primarily of in-person instruction and learning and/or [emphasis added] instruction and learning that involves direct interaction between instructor and students.” Yet the Federation’s interpretation of this rule—of requiring at least one year of in-person instruction—appears to impose on law schools and Canadian common law students something well beyond any reasonable interpretation of the National Requirement’s written text, which synchronous, interactive bimodal and online learning would otherwise appear to satisfy. While the Federation’s public interest objectives include fostering specific skills and competencies in legal education and the legal profession, such as interpersonal communication and problem-solving skills, they have not publicly justified how their interpretation of ss. 1.2 is reasonable or necessary to achieve their objectives in a modern technological world.
The Federation’s rigid rule, and their interpretation of that rule, means that many University of Ottawa law students, who have been forced to adapt to online and bimodal learning over the past two years, will have to take every course in person next year. These students will not be able to take any online course offered by the Faculty of Law or any other university, nor will they be able to complete primarily virtual internship, other experiential, or research-based opportunities—even though many employers and institutions are shifting to hybrid environments.
Further, the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law also noted that “online or bimodal course offerings [in 2022-2023] will be extremely limited.” The Faculty has the technology to enable equitable bimodal learning, yet it is choosing, generally, not to use it. Its anticipated plan for post-COVID-19 program delivery is also at odds with various Canadian governments’ recent messaging on COVID-19, (i.e., ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘individual risk assessment’).
The failure of the Federation, its respective law societies and the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law to adequately adapt to a forever-changed world moving forward demonstrates the entrenched rigidity of such organizations (i.e., conservative, paternalistic, ‘old guard’ views, processes, and policies, reluctant to change, and which have also plagued the legal profession in relation to articling and student labour standard issues).
The Federation’s decision to continue to require one year’s worth of in-person classes ultimately places an unfair burden on second-year law students who have already dealt with numerous personal and societal challenges throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Further its policy does not reflect the fact that in-person and online learning environments in bimodal classes have been, for all intents and purposes from many students’ perspectives, generally equivalent. It also fails to acknowledge that many online classes are highly interactive and align with the Federation’s ‘person-interaction’ objectives for law students and the profession more broadly. Instead, large numbers of students will be forced into overcrowded lecture halls this fall, regardless of their individual COVID-19 risk or learning needs.
While many post-secondary students are excited to return to in-person classes and activities, this desire should not be conflated with a preference for antiquated, paternalistic, inequitable, and inflexible or all-or-nothing approaches to university education. Organizations should not prioritize outdated and ineffective policies based on a technological past over the needs, mental health and best interests of students, especially where other (now tested) approaches are available and could meet those organizations’ public interest objectives.
Law schools should require some in-person instruction moving forward; however, we must be careful not to reintroduce or maintain paternalistic and unnecessary barriers in educational institutions, especially regarding already inequitable and barrier-intensive career paths such as the practice of law. The key to effective program delivery post-COVID-19 will be choice and flexibility that accounts for students’ needs, learning styles and personal lives, (i.e., an optimal mix of in-person, bimodal, and online instruction, especially where the quality of instruction is equal). Importantly, institutions, not individual instructors, should bear this flexible program-delivery responsibility through their continued adoption of new technologies and strong technical support for instructors.
What we viewed as normal prior to the COVID-19 pandemic should not dictate what we view as normal moving forward. Our new normal should be grounded in student empowerment and support, based on flexibility and individual choice that respects those individuals’ needs and promotes equality. The Federation, the respective law societies and law school faculties should amend their policies to reflect the needs and best interests of students, especially where they align with the best interests of the public.
Bradley Henderson is a second-year law student at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Common Law.
Suggested citation: Bradley Henderson, The Future of Canadian Legal Education Post-COVID-19 is… In-Person Only?, JURIST – Student Commentary, March 28, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/03/Bradley-Henderson-legal-education-Canada-post-COVID-19/.
This article was prepared for publication by Amanda March, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at email@example.com