26 July 2018

Online Law Students

'The world at their fingertips? The mental wellbeing of online distance-based law students' by  Emma Jones ORCID Icon, Rajvinder Samra and Mathijs Lucassen in (2018) The Law Teacher comments
  n recent years there has been an increased interest in student mental wellbeing within higher education. In terms of legal education, much of this has been focused upon the United States (US) and Australia, with a lack of United Kingdom (UK)-based empirical data available. Although there is now extensive provision of online distance learning options available to UK (and other) law students, there is a notable lack of research into the possible challenges which are specific to this form of tertiary offering. This paper seeks to contribute to the development of research in this area by reporting upon, and analysing, preliminary data gathered from an empirical study of the mental wellbeing of online distance learning law students.
The authors state
The focus of this paper is on a mixed methods study carried out at The Open University Law School involving students in the final stage of their LLB degree. The data obtained, via an online survey, provides a snapshot of the respondents’ mental wellbeing and indicates that a majority have had a positive law school experience and fall within the “normal range” in terms of their mental wellbeing. However, the findings also suggest that a sizeable minority are experiencing issues in terms of their mental wellbeing and are likely to need professional help. The quantitative results are contextualised and expanded upon with qualitative responses provided by students; with comparators to previous studies on law student wellbeing; and by a consideration of the role and influence of online distance learning. 
The development of online distance education in law
The overall global demand for online distance education – also sometimes termed as open, flexible or e-learning – has “grown exponentially” in recent years.  This encompasses a vast range of formats, from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), offered as a form of informal or badged learning by universities to members of the public, to bespoke tailor-made modules for corporate organisations. Within higher education in the UK the picture is a little more complex, as the number of formal fee-paying distance learners has declined (arguably due to an overall decrease in part-time students in the country).  However, there are still a range of institutions (such as The Open University) that focus on providing online distance learning courses. This commonly involves students studying in their home environment, at times of their choosing, using largely online materials and resources, with tutor and other administrative and pastoral support provided by telephone, email or other online means. At selected time points, face-to-face tutorials (or other similar learning events) may also be offered, but the focus is predominantly online in format. 
In addition, although increasingly less common, there are courses which are predominantly conducted offline (for example, through the provision of hard copy materials) but which retain a distance learning format. There are also many traditional universities which have added an online component to their usual face-to-face offerings, generating different forms of blended learning. This means that many students will encounter some form of distance or online learning during their studies. 
In relation to law specifically, the idea of distance learning is not a new one. For example, during the Second World War, the Law Society (with the assistance of other bodies) ran a legal studies correspondence course for men serving in the forces, and some prisoner-of-war camps allowed their detainees to take the professional examinations for entry into the legal profession.  However the development of distance learning provision has been somewhat uneven globally, for example, Bennett in 2014 was still referring to a “refusal to accept broader use of distance learning” in the US whilst arguing that this would (and should) change. In the UK overall, the increasing use of innovative teaching techniques within law, such as the “flipped classroom” and technology-based simulations  have also encouraged the development of a wide range of blended programmes. 
With a sizeable number of law students now engaged in some form of online or distance learning, there is an increasing need for research into the various facets of their student experience, including the most effective pedagogies, teaching techniques and materials to apply. Whilst there is a sizeable body of work on distance and online learning as generic forms of education, there remains relatively little written specifically in relation to legal education. One area where this is particularly notable is in relation to law student mental wellbeing. Despite a sizeable body of work on this topic generated in both the US and, more recently, Australia, this has largely focused on (or at least assumed) the presence of a traditional, face-to-face law school setting. This article adds to the field of law student mental wellbeing and seeks to explore the experiences of online distance learning law students. It does so by drawing upon empirical data and providing comparisons with prior work on the mental wellbeing of law students studying in a more traditional university environment.  Although it would require further investigation to establish whether the experiences of online distance learners are replicated within blended learning environments, the findings are likely to be of interest to educators seeking to incorporate or develop distance or online elements within legal education. 
Wellbeing and law schools 
The concept of wellbeing has increasingly become a part of popular vocabulary, albeit often applied in a somewhat nebulous and ill-defined manner, with even the spelling provoking some contention (with variations including wellbeing, well-being or well being – and wellness as an alternative). This debate over its meaning can be traced back to arguments over the Aristotelian notion of eudaimonia, which is commonly translated as wellbeing (or flourishing), and whether this stems from the parts of the soul dealing with reason or emotion.  Since then the history of the concept has been closely aligned to the human race’s search for happiness, from the aspirations of the Enlightenment to the pursuit of freedoms of classic liberal thought.  Today, there are a variety of approaches taken to “wellbeing”, including framing it in economic terms, in relation to income and pricing, or measuring it in objective terms through the identification of specific attainments (for example, educational and social).  However, this paper focuses on subjective mental wellbeing, in other words, focusing on a “mental-state” account of wellbeing which explores an individual’s psychological state.  A helpful contemporary definition (and the one provided to participants within the current study) of optimal mental wellbeing is provided by the World Health Organization, which refers to it as being:
… a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. 
Within the legal literature, there is no one definition of the term “subjective wellbeing” and it has been used in a number of different contexts, to refer to issues with physical health, psychological/mental health,  spiritual health  and social connectedness  (a spread of usage probably indicative of the close links between all of these factors or constructs). Despite the lack of a single definition, there are some key commonalities between empirical work on law student wellbeing that has been conducted in both the US and Australia to date. In terms of methodology, the standardised self-report measure titled the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scales 21 (“DASS-21”), which is a shortened version of the full 42 item scales, is frequently used as a clinical assessment to ascertain a range of psychological symptoms. In terms of empirical findings, these have consistently indicated that law students are suffering from elevated levels of stress, anxiety and depression, which are higher than those found within the general population. For example, Sheldon and Krieger’s seminal longitudinal study, conducted at two law schools in the US, followed a single student cohort through three years of their (postgraduate) legal study at a single law school (Study 1), and also explored the effect of law school on a first year cohort at another law school by comparing scores at the beginning and the end of the first year (Study 2). In relation to Study 1, the authors found that the students appeared “quite happy and healthy” at the beginning of their (postgraduate) law degree. However, they then experienced “declining happiness and well-being” during their first year at law school, such that this included “large reductions in positive affect, life satisfaction, and overall SWB [subjective wellbeing], and large increases in negative affect, depression, and physical symptoms [of ill-health]”. At the same time, the first year cohort experienced decreases in the relative importance of their intrinsic values (for example, prosocial values such as helping others and personal growth) compared to their extrinsic values (such as achieving status or impressing others). Students also reported decreases relating to their sense of self-determination (the capacity to autonomously pursue goals or interests). The declines in subjective wellbeing and the lowered importance of intrinsic values remained constant at this reduced level throughout years 2 and 3 of law school for the students who completed the follow-up questionnaires. In Study 2, the first year law student survey was replicated at a different law school and results demonstrated similar declines in mental wellbeing and decreased feelings of self-determination. Overall, the results suggest a link between changes in student values and motivation and their declining mental wellbeing. This, in turn, supports the hypothesis of self-determination theory, which posits that individuals struggle to grow when they feel they are unable to act autonomously. The importance of self-determination was further emphasised in another three-year study published in 2007 of two law school cohorts, where the two law schools in question had differing educational philosophies, with one being viewed by the researchers as markedly more encouraging of student autonomy than the other. Based on the findings, it was concluded that:
… to maximize the learning and emotional adjustment of its graduates, law schools need to focus on enhancing their students’ feelings of autonomy. Why? Because such feelings can have trickledown effects, predicting changes in students’ basic need satisfaction and consequent psychological well-being, effects that may also carry forward into the [student’s] legal career. 
These findings are of particular interest when considering online distance law students, as distance education is designed to foster and create autonomous individuals, with learners choosing when, how and where they study. In fact, this form of autonomy is arguably essential for a student to succeed as a distance learner.Therefore, Sheldon and Krieger’s results could be used to support the idea that online or distance learning (or any flexible method) of law study may potentially help support student wellbeing, in contrast to the idea of a controlling and restrictive law school that may decrease satisfaction, career motivation and student mental wellbeing. 
The first large-scale Australian study by Kelk and others, conducted across 13 universities and including nearly 2000 members of the legal profession, concluded “that law students and members of the legal profession exhibit higher levels of psychological distress and depression than do community members of a similar age and sex”. For example, the questionnaire administered by these researchers identified that 35.4% of the law students surveyed reported suffering high or very high levels of psychological distress in the last 30 days, compared to 13% of 18- to 34-year-olds overall in Australia. These findings of compromised mental wellbeing in law students have subsequently been broadly supported by more recent studies in Australia too.  
The reasons for these lower levels of mental wellbeing are thought to be multifactorial. Factors commonly emphasised within both the US and Australian studies include: the lack of autonomy experienced (which has already been discussed);  academic pressures and the workload involved in studying law; the impact of studying law on thinking styles, attitudes and values;  a focus on extrinsic motivations coupled with a decline in intrinsic motivation, values and goals;  There is less consensus around whether or not law students suffer from lower levels of wellbeing and higher levels of psychological distress than other university students in different disciplines. The majority of earlier studies have concluded that there is something specific to the law school experience which generates particular mental health concerns. For example, in the Australian context, Skead and Rogers have conducted a quantitative empirical study on the levels of self-reported anxiety and depression experienced by both law and psychology students (94 students from each discipline). They conclude that the results “reinforce the well-documented fact that law students experience higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression than university students in other disciplines, particularly psychology”, a finding they attribute (in relation to anxiety) to the greater demands placed on students by the study of law.  However, work by Larcombe and others (comparing law and psychology students) has questioned this conclusion (although acknowledging that there is an issue here in terms of mental wellbeing to be tackled in both disciplines).  
In the UK, the issue of law student wellbeing has only recently been acknowledged and hence there is relatively little published work on this topic. A recent report for the Institute for Public Policy Research identified that as a population “Students experience lower wellbeing than young adults as a whole, and experience lower wellbeing than was the case in previous years” with nearly five times as many students reported as disclosing a mental health condition in 2015/16 compared to 2006/07. Specifically, 2% of first-year students reported this in 2015/16, up from 0.4% in 2006/07.  Law students have been included in some wider university surveys on wellbeing, for example, Macaskill undertook a study of 1197 undergraduate students at a post-1992 English university, studying a range of courses (10 including law). She found an overall instance of “psychiatric caseness” (in other words, meeting the criteria for a psychiatric disorder to be diagnosed) amongst these students was 17.3%, which was comparable with 17.6% in the UK population overall, with the figure peaking midway through the second year at 23.1%.  
In terms of the wellbeing of distance learning law students, the authors were only able to identify a handful of published empirical studies undertaken on online distance students in general. They were unable to identify any empirical studies focusing specifically on online distance LLB students. s Overall, the ways in which students interact with, and respond to, their online environment has been missed or overlooked in the specific literature on wellbeing. There appears to be an assumption that online distance learning is an exact equivalent for face-to-face or traditional teaching methods – but there is an absence of any evidence to support this notion. However, what is striking in the literature in relation to online distance learning is the acknowledgement of the way in which the affective domain (i.e. emotions, feelings and moods) impacts on various aspects of online experiences, including learning.  Not only do students bring their own emotions to the online environment, but they also have to try and interpret and understand those of others (for example, tutors and peers) without the use of non-verbal cues, and deal with the emotions generated by this, which could potentially include distrust, isolation and loneliness. This is an interesting contrast to the way that online distance learning is commonly portrayed by its proponents – praising its flexibility, easy access and inclusivity, thus suggesting that there is much to explore in relation to online distance law student wellbeing.