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FERPA Implications in Teaching Online

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. The law applies to all schools and institutions of higher education that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education.
FERPA gives parents certain rights with respect to their children's education records. These rights transfer to the student when he or she reaches the age of 18 or attends a school beyond the high school level. College students are considered responsible adults and are allowed to determine who will receive information about them.

  • College students have the right to inspect and review their own student's education records maintained by the school. Schools are not required to provide copies of records unless, for reasons such as great distance, it is impossible for students to review the records. Schools may charge a fee for copies.
  • College students have the right to request that a school correct records which they believe to be inaccurate or misleading. If the school decides not to amend the record, the student then has the right to a formal hearing. After the hearing, if the school still decides not to amend the record, the student has the right to place a statement with the record setting forth his or her view about the contested information.
  • Generally, schools must have written permission from the college student in order to release any information from a student's education record. However, FERPA allows schools to disclose those records, without consent, to the following parties or under the following conditions (34 CFR § 99.31):
    • School officials with legitimate educational interest;
    • Other schools to which a student is transferring;
    • Specified officials for audit or evaluation purposes;
    • Appropriate parties in connection with financial aid to a student;
    • Organizations conducting certain studies for or on behalf of the school;
    • Accrediting organizations;
    • To comply with a judicial order or lawfully issued subpoena;
    • Appropriate officials in cases of health and safety emergencies; and
    • State and local authorities, pursuant to specific State law.

Schools may disclose, without consent, "directory" information.  VCU defines directory information as:

  • student name
  • date admitted
  • birthdate
  • mailing address and telephone number
  • local address and telephone number
  • university e-mail address
  • semesters of attendance
  • major(s)
  • minor
  • specialization
  • school
  • full- or part-time status
  • classification (freshman, sophomore, etc)
  • degree sought
  • honors and awards
  • degrees and dates received
  • participation in officially recognized intercollegiate sports, weight, height, hometown, parents' names and previous school(s) attended (for members of athletic teams)
  • ID photograph
  • Emergency Contact Information

FERPA directs that schools must tell students about directory information and allow students a reasonable amount of time to request that the school not disclose directory information about them. Schools must notify students annually of their rights under FERPA. The actual means of notification (special letter, inclusion in a bulletin, student handbook, or newspaper article) is left to the discretion of each school.  VCU provides this information on our webpage.

Those students who request a FERPA block should be aware that this request does not restrict administrative access to their information where there is a legitimate educational interest, but does restrict other sharing of this information. For example, a FERPA block will not keep advisors or tutors from seeing the student’s information, or prevent the student from being listed on a class list where access to the list is limited to members of the class, or from being shown in online class tools as long as use of such tools is restricted to members of the class.

Online classes are covered by FERPA in the same way that face-to-face classes are covered.  By the above rules, it is acceptable for students to see each other's name and email addresses in Blackboard class rosters but it would be unacceptable for you to scan in your BANNER roster which contains student ID numbers.  It is acceptable to use the Blackboard gradebook and let students check their own grades, but unacceptable to post a list of grades, even if you used last 4 digits of a SSN as an identifier.  It is acceptable to allow outside guest speakers to talk to your class in Wimba Classroom, but not acceptable to send your guest speaker an advance copy of the class roster (unless you had the permission of all students).

Southern Methodist University had good advice for its faculty members:

If in doubt, don't give out!

Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 09/22/2009
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