Instructional materials are the day-to-day elements (readings, videos, etc.) students engage in to meet learning objectives. As you might imagine, there are far too many types of instructional materials you can use in your course to discuss here. However, there are some best practices of which you need to be aware, which apply to nearly all: copyright compliance, accessibility, and professionalism.

Copyright Compliance

Concerns about copyright have been magnified by the growth of online education. Copyright is the legal protection of any tangible, original, and creative intellectual property. If someone creates content that meets all three criteria, that person does not need to do anything more to be protected by copyright. In the United States, a work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form.

If a work is covered by copyright, the creator has six defined rights. He or she is entitled to:

  • Make copies of the work.
  • Distribute the work.
  • Display the work.
  • Perform the work publicly.
  • Create other works based on the original work (sometimes called derivative works).
  • Assign or license the work.

Copyright Infringement

Copyright infringement occurs when someone other than the creator uses a work for his or her own purposes. In the online classroom, copyright infringement can occur when you embed a YouTube video in your course, download someone’s PDF and upload it to your course, or even when you use publisher-provided content in your online course. The consequences of this can include:

  • Injunction specified by the court
  • Impounding and disposition of infringing articles
  • Restitution

Fortunately, fair use laws are in place to help you legally use these materials in some circumstances.

Fair Use

There are several provisions and techniques that help educators use some portion of copyrighted works without having to pay or get permission. One way to do so is by following fair use guidelines. These guidelines allow others to use copyrighted material without compromising the rights of copyright holders.

When using a copyrighted work, it’s important to consider all four fair use guidelines. These are:

  1. Purpose and character of the use
    • Are you using the work for commercial or noncommercial purposes? Fair use allows noncommercial use because copyright protection does not prevent others from using copyrighted works for scholarship, instruction, or research—all of which are decidedly noncommercial.
  2. Nature of the work
    • Is the work published or unpublished? If a work is published, the creator has a more secure claim on it, meaning others can more easily use the work under fair use without threatening the creator’s ownership.
    • Is the work analytic or creative in nature? Claiming fair use on analytic work is less likely to infringe on copyright because not as much original thought is required for analytic work.
    • Is the work transformative? Works that are changed greatly are more likely to be considered fair use.
  3. Amount and substantiality of the portion used
    • How much of the work are you using? If you use large portions of a work or use the portion of the work that makes it most unique or substantial, the use is less likely to fall under fair use.
  4. The effect of using the work on the marketability of the work
    • If you use this work, will it affect the copyright owner’s ability to earn money from his or her work? Does the work have financial value?

If a work doesn’t fall under fair use, you can still seek permission from the copyright holder to use it. One common use of others’ work in the classroom is using a textbook, PowerPoint, or other publisher’s material. You’re generally allowed to use these materials if they meet all four fair use guidelines, but you still have to ask for permission to put the material online. In addition, you should always speak with their textbook representative and be aware of any clauses that impact the timeliness or overall usability of items they place in the online classroom.

If the work is freely available on the Internet and not restricted by any passwords or paid subscriptions, you can link directly to the work without asking for permission. However, make sure the website doesn’t open within the online classroom. Embedding or displaying the content in frame breaks the link between the content and the original URL and creates confusion over the ownership and the original location of the material. In other words, having outside material open in the same frame as the online classroom makes it look like you’re passing the work off as your own.

Although copyright can be a confusing topic, if you remain aware of fair use guidelines, seek permission, and link properly, you can help ensure that you’re using others’ works legally in the online classroom.

Accessibility

In designing an online course, you always need to consider the variety of students you’ll be teaching. Learning to design for students who have disabilities (whether visual, hearing, motor, or cognitive) will not only provide you with basic design principles, but also protect you from possible legal action.

In the United States, accessibility standards are set by two laws: Section 508 and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Section 508 refers to a federal law (the Rehabilitation Act) that requires U.S. government electronic information services to be accessible to people who have disabilities. In addition, Title 5 of the ADA clarifies that online classes must fulfill the requirements of both the ADA and Section 508.

Designing for accessibility isn’t difficult. In general, keep your content simple, adhere to best design practices, and deliver your content in manageable chunks. More specifically, avoid formatting, label your relevant images, and provide an alternative to any file you create.

Feel free to take a look at this document’s appendix, where we’ve gathered best practices in designing for accessibility onto a single page. It might be useful to print this out and keep it handy as you design instructional materials for your course.

Professionalism

Writing your own instructional materials is great for a variety of reasons. It helps you better meet your students’ individual needs, and it helps add authenticity and individuality to your course. As great as these things are, though, they carry their own set of complications. When students engage with these materials, they should be able to expect that they meet professional standards. In addition to being well-edited and free from grammatical or spelling errors, they should be free from bias and should not privately benefit the instructor.

Editing

First impressions are important not only in your day-to-day interactions, but in how students are introduced to your course content. Designing instructional materials that contain spelling and grammar issues makes a course appear unprofessional. In much the way many instructors expect their students to submit work that’s free from grammatical errors, course developers should hold themselves to the same standard. This isn’t just an expectation; it’s a model for how your students should expect to write when they submit their work.

Bias

The online classroom is an excellent place to promote unique, meaningful student thought, and ensuring that instructional materials are free from bias is an essential step you can take toward achieving that goal. Writing instructional materials in an unbiased tone is important to communicating in a professional, academic, and respectful manner. Students can (and will) form opinions on a topic, and a course’s instructional materials should be a foundation upon which they can be built.

Private Benefit

Being able to speak to your professional experience is a great way to demonstrate the relevancy of your content and your credentials as an instructor. Despite this, your course is not a place to promote your business and/or otherwise benefit yourself. Instructional materials are always beneficial—they help students meet learning objectives and prepare them for assessments, after all—but their primary benefit should always be to the student, not the instructor.

Alongside learning objectives and assessments, instruction is one of the three key elements of the course design triangle. Instructional materials are much more than reading assignments or video lectures, too; they’re the foundation off of which students begin meeting learning objectives, and they’re one of the tools they use to prepare for assessments. While it’s important that these materials remain copyright compliant, accessible, and professional, it’s also important that they be aligned with the other elements of the course design triangle, as doing so creates an effective, purposeful learning experience for your students.