Manage Your Risk in Online Learning Environments

student working on laptop

You should manage the risks associated with online learning to help your organization stay on course toward fulfilling your mission and serving others.

Online learning has become more popular over the years, but it is nothing new. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there were 6,932,074 students enrolled in distance education courses at degree-granting postsecondary institutions during the fall of 2018. Online learning options have significantly increased over the past 30 years, with the number of online students trending upward during this period.

Historically, online students have largely been comprised of working adults or adults with families who do not have the time to gain a degree in traditional education settings. Today, this dynamic could be shifting due to various factors such as:

  • Increasing costs of tuition for traditional learning;
  • Higher quality of education for online programs;
  • Busier schedules making it increasingly difficult to attend traditional learning programs; and
  • The COVID-19 pandemic.

While we have yet to fully understand the impact COVID-19 will have on our society, we already know that it is likely to be significant to many aspects of daily life. In what was close to overnight, our traditional routines were turned upside down and the world found itself scrambling to make massive changes.

We quickly made the transition at every level within our school systems from in-person to virtual learning. What was primarily a “higher education” option turned into “all education” as our schools closed their doors and pivoted to virtual learning classrooms. As our country struggles with how to emerge from this pandemic, it is clear that no one event did more to bring about “virtual life” than the COVID-19 pandemic. What once was taboo in some regards, virtual life became the go-to option for business and education and is widely accepted as viable and effective. There are already many stories of how some businesses and schools have decided to remain virtual indefinitely, as leadership learned it was effective.

The virtual way of doing life has significantly increased and is likely to remain a relevant and impactful option long after COVID-19 is only talked about in history books. With this change comes the opportunity for significant loss exposures that we must contemplate and address.

Abuse Prevention

Just because the learning is online does not mean that abuse cannot occur. Potential offenders can still gain access to minors in online settings, which is why adequate controls around policies/procedures, screening/hiring, age grouping and monitoring/supervision remain a necessary part of an online learning program. Keep in mind that you will also need to consider what is happening within the backgrounds of your students and how to address concerns when they arise.

Cyber Security Threats

As our time online increases, so do opportunities for hackers to gain access to and even steal sensitive information. Therefore, we need to maintain effective control of sensitive information by practicing adequate security measures for networks, servers, laptops and virtual classrooms.

Educational Liability Concerns

People learn in different ways, and some people find online environments to be difficult to learn in. Claims such as failure to educate, employment-related matters, breach of duty, and errors and omissions are potential exposure concerns within your online education program. Ensure that the content, educators and practices are adequately in support of the quality of education your online learning program is intended to provide.

Third-Party Risk Transfer

Any time you work with a third-party, there is the potential for shared risk. This implies that in the event of a loss, your organization and the third-party organization might both be liable and therefore subject to any resulting litigation measures. In even more concerning situations, a third-party might even attempt to transfer their own risk to your organization. Make sure you know what you are getting into by employing strong risk transfer controls such as the following:

  • Contract or Memorandum of Understanding with attorney review
  • Hold harmless and indemnification language in favor of your organization
  • Certificates of Insurance
  • Use waivers as necessary
  • Check references and verify certifications/education

Managing the risks associated with online learning would help your organization stay on course toward fulfilling your mission and serving others. Revisit your plans regularly to reassess the effectiveness of your risk management controls and make necessary changes accordingly.

For additional Loss Control guidance, please visit the Plan & Protect safety hub.

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