Experienced teachers know how to be prudent and vigilant with their communications regarding the school and parents. Counselors and administrators advise staff not to discuss students’ private information with anyone other than the student and the student’s legal guardians, as well as not to discuss students, period, even among friends away from the school building. Similarly, there are digital media blunders—typos, miscommunicated intentions and feelings, emails written in anger—all of the time. Text messaging accelerates these mistakes, and some blunder-preventing apps, such as Shoot the Messenger, work against them Now, with virtual classrooms, the online educator needs to be just as prudent and vigilant with communication, while also fighting the human urge to hastily report student progress.
Many school policies include guidelines that incorporate the rights protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), but many teachers may not be aware of it, specifically since most of its regulations seem like common sense. FERPA is a part of federal law that protects students’ rights to information institutions possess, like grades and student work. It also gives parents the rights to review records upon request and to request that the school change records that are inaccurate or misleading. These policies are straight forward in a cinderblock classroom, but social media has created some gray areas. Since FERPA only applies to information the institution possesses, student blogs or social networking sites “may not be FERPA-protected because it has not been received and therefore is not in the custody of the university, at least until the student submission is copied or possibly just reviewed by the faculty member” (NC State FERPA Guidelines). But what about information submitted to the school’s licensed Learning Management System’s blog? Is that still third party? To avoid some of these complications, the online educator can take several steps that help protect against unintentional violations of FERPA.
First, at the beginning of the course, let the students know that they will be required to submit information, blogs, and discussions to the LMS or public blog. If the course uses a tool outside the LMS, ask students to refrain from posting personal information, and encourage students to use pseudonyms. Second, do not email grades to parents, but make use of the LMS grade report generator, and send grades that way. Likewise, grades and feedback from the instructor should not be made public without the parents’ consent; “interestingly, grades given by other students on ‘peer-graded’ work can be made public under FERPA” (ACE, 2008). Finally, brainstorm alternative solutions for exceptions. Perhaps consider students submitting posts into the dropbox rather than the discussion board.
The other legal communication issue all online teachers must consider is protecting intellectual property. I have already discussed Copyright and Creative Commons license, which answered the two questions, “How can a DLC ensure that citizens within the community have access to an environment where an AUP protects members as well as the community itself, where individuals uphold laws, and a cooperative/collective venture provides robust, safe, and ethical resources and opportunities for learning?” and “What is the best way to establish and maintain a flourishing DLC where citizens understand, observe, and are inclined to willingly support and ultimately benefit from Digital Rights and Responsibilities?” In addition to those answers, teachers should use plagiarism checkers, such as Turn It In. Finally, as I mentioned before, but it is worth reiterating, copyright does not mean a hundred percent of student work and teacher materials are a hundred percent original. Both teachers and students should familiarize themselves with the following chart that delineates how much of what type of source can be used within an educational setting:
Prudence and vigilance will keep virtual teachers safe from making mistakes that lead to legal repercussions. Since the Internet’s strength is spreading information and ideas, teachers need to follow procedures that will keep them from sharing too much. They also teach students codes of conduct when sharing ideas, materials, and research. Yes, these practices will keep teachers and students from violating the law, but more importantly, prudence and vigilance will make teachers and students better digital citizens.