Privacy Policies

The Importance of Policies in E-Learning Instruction
Thoughtful policies on topics such as e-mail, electronic discussions, and intellectual property rights can keep an e-learning course running smoothly

Most professionals interested in the use of technology in education understand the importance of an e-learning course site, whether the course is taught totally online or in a hybrid environment where the instructor has some face-to-face contact with students. On a typical course site, an instructor posts announcements, a course syllabus, class notes and presentations, and related learning materials for easy access by students. In addition, some instructors use the course site to facilitate forums and chats, to receive and return student assignments, to administer online quizzes and tests, and to maintain an online gradebook. However, how many instructors have thoroughly considered the importance of posting policy documents on a course Web site? Our experience as teachers and e-learning mentors reveals that this important component of a course site is frequently underdeveloped or even missing entirely. Moreover, we have not found references to the subject of course policies in the e-learning literature.

In any learning environment, students should have a clear understanding of what the instructor expects from them, as well as what they can expect from the instructor. This need is more urgent for e-learning students than for traditional students because e-learning activities—typically technology-based and self-directed—often occur in an environment where students may have difficulty getting timely answers to important questions. Thus, instructors should anticipate their students’ needs for clarity by posting detailed policy documents in a prominent section of the course site. These policies will help instructors as well as students, since they make managing an e-learning course much easier.

In what follows, the informal "you" specifically addresses e-learning instructors who will devise and use course policy statements. By implication, we are speaking also to the technology professionals and librarians who support and interact with e-learning instructors and who can help acquaint them with the ideas we advance. We discuss nine categories of course policies that instructors might consider posting:

  • E-learning Policies in the Course Syllabus
  • Student Privacy Policies
  • E-Mail Policies
  • Discussion Policies
  • Software Standards Policies
  • Assignment Policies
  • Getting Technical Help Policies
  • Student Code of Conduct Policies
  • Intellectual Property Rights Policies

E-learning Policies in the Course Syllabus

Virtually every academic course has a course syllabus that lists the course goals, sets a course schedule, identifies course texts and other required materials, and explains how to contact the instructor outside of scheduled class activities. Typically a course syllabus also sets forth general criteria used to administer the course, such as an attendance policy, and a grading policy that explains how student performance will be evaluated.

In an e-learning course, you should post the course syllabus on the course site and include several additional policy statements. First, because e-learning involves electronic communication, advise students to visit the course site once a day to view new announcements and require them to read e-mail daily to peruse course information disseminated via this medium. Second, inform students that whenever they submit course assignments by e-mail or on CD or disk, they are responsible for assuring that computer files holding these assignments are virus-free; files that fail your institution’s virus checker software will not be opened or accepted. Finally, your course syllabus should contain a statement to the effect that ignorance of course policies set forth in the syllabus or posted elsewhere on the course site is not an excuse for failure to conform to these policies. Of course, the existence of the course policies and how to access them should be prominently publicized in whatever introduction you provide for students who enter the course.

Student Privacy Policies

Privacy policies and related procedures protect a student’s legal right to privacy and confidentiality. Most educational institutions in the United States have a student privacy policy consonant with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).1 If your institution’s policy is available online, post a link to it on your course site; otherwise, post a copy of the policy itself. Of course, you should also post your own student privacy policy if it is distinct from that of the institution.

To protect student privacy, you can restrict access to your course site so that outsiders cannot see the resources that reside there, including students’ discussion responses, for example. Bear in mind that students’ privacy rights are violated when they are required to post photographs and other personal information on a course site, as in getting-to-know-each-other activities. Such activities should be voluntary, not required, and your privacy policy should make this very clear. Also, references to personal traits such as race, ethnicity, disabilities, age, and gender should be made public only if a student initiates the actions to do so.

Student privacy concerns are as much a matter of perception as they are of substance. Although there are exceptions, most students will not object to your making information about them available to other students and to course site visitors. However, most students will appreciate knowing that approving access by others to such material is entirely voluntary. In particular, if you plan to publicize students’ work inside or outside of the course site—including, for example, their words in electronic discussions, e-mail, or assignments—be sure to inform them of your intent and obtain their permission to do so.