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Legally speaking: Online courses and ownership

If you are on the faculty at a college or university’s nursing education program, you know the importance of offering online courses to students. Indeed, online learning is at the center of many nursing education programs. According to several authors, almost 600,000 new students in the U.S. enrolled in at least one online/distance learning course in 2013 and the total number reached 6.7 million in prelicensure nursing programs.1

If you are going to develop an online critical care component of your course, you will need to consider many points. For example, you must emphasize to the students that they have control and responsibility for the learning that will occur, and the course content can be accessed whenever the students want to access it.2 In addition, you know that you will need to break down large amounts of content into smaller, manageable modules.2

One of the major legal concerns you might face when you develop an online course is its ownership. Clearly, as a course developer, you want to retain ownership, but the college or university might consider the development of your course as a product within the scope of faculty employment.3 Despite your claim that the course content is based on your knowledge drawn from experience, research and other scholarly work, your institution of higher learning can legitimately claim institutional resources (e.g., software, hardware, online platforms) are used for the creation and dissemination of the course content.3

If ownership rests with you as the author of an online course, many commentators on the subject believe that such ownership encourages faculty to develop new courses, protects course quality, (e.g, accuracy, updates) and maintains academic freedom.3 Academic institutions argue that if ownership rests with faculty, faculty would be more prone to freelance, acting as consultants and developing software for competing institutions of higher learning and even selling their instructional services to the highest bidder in the highly competitive academic world.3

The ownership debate and the quality of the online course you develop impacts a second legal concern, that of meeting established standards of online/distance education courses that affect accreditation of the overall nursing program. For example, the Alliance for Nursing Accreditation, in its Statement on Distance Education Policies, mandates that such courses and programs meet the same academic program and learning support standards and accreditation criteria that face-to-face nursing programs meet.4 In addition, the statement requires that such courses provide learning opportunities that facilitate the growth of students’ clinical and professional role socialization and establishes mechanisms to measure these outcomes.4 Also, accreditation and program site visits include a review of distance/online education programs.

You may want to review the American Association of Colleges of Nursing’s “Essential Series,” which “outlines necessary curriculum content and expected competencies” of graduates from baccalaureate, master’s and doctor of nursing practice programs and “the clinical support needed for the full spectrum of academic nursing.” The series is available at

Know, too, that critical care nurse colleagues support online learning as an additional tool to traditional educator-controlled methods of education.2
Before you develop your course, check the policy of the institution at which you teach regarding course ownership. If there is no policy, what has the institution done with other courses developed by faculty in general and nurse faculty specifically? And, are you able to meet required criteria for your course and its compatibility with the overall curriculum established by your professional nursing associations regardless of the ownership issue?

In short, be sure you know what the policy states, or what established practices exist for online courses, and then make a reasoned decision about the course you prepare and place online.


  1. Bobby Lowery and Nancy Spector (2014), “Regulatory Implications and Recommendations for Distance Learning Education in Prelicensure Nursing Programs,” 5(3) Journal of Nursing Regulation, 24.
  2. E. Paige Benson (2004), “Online Learning: A Means to Enhance Professional Development,” 24(1), Critical Care Nurse. Available at Accessed June 18, 2015.
  3. Media X at Stanford University ((2012), Course Rights in Cyberspace: Ownership Issues in Online Education. Available at Accessed June 18, 2015.
  4. Alliance for Nursing Accreditation (2015), “Alliance for Nursing Accreditation Statement on Distance Education Policies.” Available at Accessed June 16, 2015.
By | 2015-07-29T14:56:54-04:00 July 29th, 2015|Categories: Nursing Careers and Jobs, Nursing News|0 Comments

About the Author:

Nancy J. Brent, MS, JD, RN
Our legal information columnist Nancy J. Brent, MS, JD, RN, received her Juris Doctor from Loyola University Chicago School of Law and concentrates her solo law practice in health law and legal representation, consultation and education for healthcare professionals, school of nursing faculty and healthcare delivery facilities. Brent has conducted many seminars on legal issues in nursing and healthcare delivery across the country and has published extensively in the area of law and nursing practice. She brings more than 30 years of experience to her role of legal information columnist. Her posts are designed for educational purposes only and are not to be taken as specific legal or other advice. Individuals who need advice on a specific incident or work situation should contact a nurse attorney or attorney in their state. Visit The American Association of Nurse Attorneys website to search its attorney referral database by state.

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