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Tenured Faculty Key to Vermont Law Online Master's Program

A small law school in Vermont is extending its reach across the country with the introduction of two new online master degrees in environmental law. Vermont Law School, with 601 full-time students, is launching the online Master of Environmental Law and Policy (MELP) and the online Master of Laws (LLM) in Environmental Law. The format is designed to draw students from among working professionals--both attorneys and others--who need flexibility in order to complete their degrees.

MELP is intended for non-attorneys, according to Associate Professor Rebecca Purdom, who is directing the distance learning program. Vermont Law has been teaching MELP for about 30 years, she noted, and it tends to draw "all kinds of interesting people, journalists who want to learn how to cover environment issues, people with finance degrees, and bankers who are doing lending in this area."

The LLM is specifically for people who already have the law degree but want to continue to specialize, she said.

The school has partnered in a revenue-sharing agreement with Embanet Compass Knowledge Group for marketing, recruiting, and retention services, as well as course design assistance, learning management system hosting, and technical support. The LMS used will be a flavor of Moodle.

The school has run pilot courses online, but these are the first full programs to be offered. According to Marc Mihaly, director of the Environmental Law Center, the format will enable the institution to reach people who want to gain expertise and resources in environmental law and policy but who can't move to South Royalton, where the school is located, to take classes or participate in degree programs. "By providing a platform for students to explore environmental law and policy with our world-class faculty at their own pace and within their own constraints, we will extend Vermont Law School's unique brand of excellent environmental legal training and commitment to public wellbeing to a vast array of communities and to the world," Mihaly said.

Purdom said she expects the new program to serve as a model for other non-profit law schools. "Other institutions are watching us, looking to our example as the way to offer responsible, effective, and valued legal education in the 21st century."

That includes, she insisted, making sure the online forms of the courses closely mirror the programs offered on campus. "We're using our core faculty. The names on the masthead now are the names that are teaching the first four courses [in the online programs]. It's very intentional. In the first year we're staffing all but one class with core, tenured, or long-long-term contract faculty. This is absolutely part of the mission. That's really important." As the program grows, she said, so will the local faculty.

The programs, which take about a year on campus to complete, will take 18 months to finish online. Cohorts of about 15 students for each master's degree will begin in mid-May 2011. Purdom said the expectation is that two cohorts for each program will be enrolled for the fall, about 60 students total. "By this time in two years, we'll look at 230 students, assuming some attrition," she added.

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