Law teachers gather to discuss online teaching and degree changes

27 June 2012

The growth of online legal teaching will be high on the agenda when legal academics from across Australia and the Pacific get together this weekend for their annual conference.

The Australasian Law Teachers Association (ALTA) conference will be hosted by the Sydney Law School, focusing on the globalisation of legal services and its impact on Australian legal education.

The advantages and limits of teaching online will feature prominently in this discussion, says Sydney Law School Dean Professor Gillian Triggs. While a departure from the Socratic (face-to-face) teaching method, she says it presents advantages previously unavailable to students.

The University of Sydney's comparative constitutional law course, taught with Penn State University, is a case in point. The course, taught this semester, saw reciprocal lectures delivered online by legal teachers at the University of Sydney and Penn State.

"Our students gained a social and cultural perspective," says Professor Triggs. "They learned the US Supreme Court places its judgements in a political, social and economic context in comparison with our High Court, and their Bill of Rights is the prism through which all law is viewed."

Within Australia, the internet makes law degrees more accessible to rural groups, indigenous people and those in lower socio-economic groups, says Professor Triggs. "We're a large country with 34 law schools. For some remote universities, the only way students can be viably taught is through online resources. They are a relatively inexpensive way to engage with the wider Australian community."

ALTA conference attendees will discuss the growth in online teaching and how to best balance it with on-campus time, says Professor Triggs. "Even while completing an online degree you still have to spend some time on campus, albeit in small, intensive blocks."

Changes to degree structures due to take effect in 2014 will also come under discussion. Australia's Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) has proposed changes to degree structures that won't fit well with Australian law school degrees, which currently have a competitive edge over their European and North American equivalents, says Professor Triggs.

She says TEQSA's proposed mandatory two-year master's degree would kill master's law programs, typically set at one year in Australia. An increased duration would make our master's programs uncompetitive with the one-year degrees offered in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Professor Triggs also opposes the proposed mandatory introduction of honours degrees to all faculties. Honours programs of an additional year are not typically offered by law schools.

"The regulations impose a general system that doesn't translate to legal education. We need to work with Canberra to find a more flexible approach."

Professor Triggs says she will take any consensus ALTA comes to on the issue of regulating degrees to politicians and officials in Canberra later this year.

The conference's keynote address will be provided by MP Kevin Rudd. High Court judge Justice Virginia Bell is among high profile judges and academics on the conference's speaking program.

This is the first time the ALTA conference has been hosted by the Sydney Law School.

Follow University of Sydney Media on Twitter

Media enquiries: Katie Szittner, 02 9351 2261, 0478 316 809,