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Are Instructors of Online Science Methods Courses Liable for Nonfeasance?

by Brian Scott Fortney - June 20, 2014

Online teacher education coursework provides many advantages; however, online coursework has limitations for certain courses, mainly pertaining to safe selection, use, and disposal of chemicals. For example, science methods and science methods-like courses that teach inquiry methods require the use of chemicals for middle and secondary certification levels. One limitation, the development of understanding of safe and ethical practice and disposal of chemicals during inquiry instruction crosses into the grey area of nonfeasance or misfeasance, if chemicals are omitted. Avoiding the use and discussion of safe and ethical practice for any reason, while lawful, is an inappropriate omission that may place a university and university instructors in legal risk. Further, K-12 schools that hire certified teachers fresh out of a certification program expect a certain level of understanding of professional standards which are consistent with state and national standards and guidelines. The question, How might instructors of online science methods courses implement safe and ethical practice using chemicals when many students connect asynchronously, or via videoconferencing software from remote locations, is a troubling question.


Instructors and faculty assigned to teach purely online science methods courses at the university level, legally, may be in danger of nonfeasance, or misfeasance. In the state of Texas, online courses must be high quality, enact inclusive education for distance students, and model best practices in teaching that are consistent with corresponding face-to-face science methods courses, state and national standards and guidelines, and ADA and Rehabilitation Act requirements. Further, the state standards of Texas for science, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills [TEKS], produced by the Texas Education Agency [TEA] , require that 80% of instructional time in the Kindergarten and First grade levels be spent “conducting laboratory and field investigations, following safety procedures, and environmentally appropriate ethical practices” (TEA, 2014). For grades 2 and 3, this percentage changes to 60%, grades 4 and 5, 50%, grades 6-12, 40%. As the grade levels increase, the percentage of time spent in investigations decreases, coinciding with an increase in depth of knowledge of content and connection between concepts. One task of university science methods coursework is to challenge future teachers to develop a deep understanding of scientific content within the process of inquiry in K-12 classrooms. One critical factor for science methods course work, according to the National Research Council (NRC), is to develop a deep sense of inquiry as connected with solid content, pedagogy, and formative assessment techniques.


In legal terms, The Legal Information Institute [LII] at Cornell defines Malfeasance as: “Intentional conduct that is wrongful or unlawful, especially by officials or public employees” . Nonfeasance, “a failure to act where there was a duty to act,”  differs from misfeasance in that misfeasance is defined as “conduct, that is lawful but inappropriate” (LII, n.d.-b).

According to the National Research Council, inquiry is defined as

“…a multifaceted activity that involves making observations; posing questions; examining sources of information to see what is already known; planning investigations; reviewing what is already known in light of experimental evidence; using tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data; proposing answers, explanations, and predictions; and communicating the results. Inquiry requires identification of assumptions, use of critical and logical thinking, and consideration of alternative explanations” .

In early grades, the creative aspect of inquiry takes many forms; to this, later grades merge chemicals, mathematics, and statistics within scientific inquiry to conceptualize, model, and answer complex inquiry questions regarding abstract concepts. Along these lines, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board [THECB], the authority in higher education in the state of Texas, approaches certification with the philosophy “access without quality is mediocrity and…quality without access is unacceptable” . By this standard, especially at the secondary level for future teachers of science, yet equally as important at middle and elementary grades, an understanding of the safe and ethical practice, selection, use, and disposal of chemicals is consistent with safety and ethical standards of the domain, and profession. This requires that classrooms have appropriately maintained safety equipment. This understanding conflicts with advantages of purely online education coursework where university students connect from a non-university setting, often from a place of residence.


Advantages to online instruction include asynchronous discussion, allowing, for example, students to complete a degree or certification while working full time, raising families, reducing costs, serving in the military, as well as affording opportunity to attend a university from a rural or international setting. Additionally, asynchronous, online pedagogy may facilitate deep thinking and connections that, in turn, support synchronous discussion utilizing videoconferencing software. This is the heart of blended coursework. Indeed, for online, blended delivery, and face-to-face instruction, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s mission includes “aligning higher education outcomes with current and future workforce needs” . Current and future workforce needs include understanding of selection and safe use and disposal of chemicals. Consistent with this mission, blended delivery and face-to-face coursework affords the opportunity for hands-on use of, and selection of activities that use chemicals which is consistent with the guidelines and standards of the field and amenable to online, follow-up discussion. Yet, purely online coursework does not offer this opportunity. True, there is ample opportunity to challenge future teachers to think differently about concepts of science, and teaching science in K-12 levels when linked with appropriate online resources. Further, deep discussion of resources found online can be enacted in an online format. However, where does this leave the hands-on aspect for use of chemicals in a purely online format? Educators teaching online secondary science methods courses, by definition, must facilitate and model selection, safe practice, and disposal utilizing chemicals, especially with future teachers of chemistry, biology, and Integrated Physics and Chemistry courses. Likewise, this discussion is critical for future K-8 teachers of science, especially as there is no guarantee of completion of coursework utilizing chemicals, and teachers are currently confronted with online resources that require understanding of safe and ethical practice and disposal of chemicals.

For example, the activity entitled An Elephant’s Toothpaste requires the use of a 6% (20 volume) Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) solution, which may be purchased at a beautician’s supply store, or a drug store alongside Hydrogen Peroxide solutions of greater strength. Being a clear, colorless liquid, this looks identical to water, another chemical in the activity. With little understanding of the hazards of Hydrogen Peroxide, a common mistake is to select the more concentrated version. Yet, in a classroom with minimal to no safety equipment, and a teacher not formally trained to handle emergencies regarding chemicals, this quickly becomes a safety, and a legal issue. If the teacher was certified in an online program, this creates a gray area as purely online certification courses do not have access to chemicals and chemical safety is most likely omitted from the syllabus. At any level, a properly maintained eyewash station (or appropriate alternative) is a critical component in addition to proper chemical splash goggles. For university instructors, online instruction, by necessity, negates the monitoring and use of many chemicals, consistent with state and national guidelines and standards on safe and ethical practices. Specifically, in an online format, standards for safe selection, use, and disposal of chemicals prevent use of chemicals for instructional purposes. The challenge: How might an online, university science methods instructor create inquiry activities that model best practice, and facilitate discussion of safe, ethical practice and disposal of chemicals, when online students connect from their home?


If online science methods course instruction for future K-12 teachers of science must enact, model, and discuss “hidden aspects” of quality inquiry lessons-including selection, safety, disposal, and management of chemicals during inquiry activities, and be consistent with face-to-face instruction, challenges arise. Even with the best video conferencing software available, online students are often not in classrooms with peers. They are often located hours away from their nearest classmate. The technology available constrains pedagogical techniques to asynchronous discussion (small group), and “direct instruction-like” procedures, which require every online student to personally locate, construct, and manage materials to use during synchronous class meeting times. There is no guarantee that safety equipment exists at the location of the online student. Therefore, the only recourse open to the instructor of the online science methods course is to avoid use of materials that may be hazardous, and utilize online resources. This includes conditions of asthma and other allergies, as there may not be a second adult present during the instructional time. The avoidance of chemicals, then, locates online science methods educators within the gray area of nonfeasance, or misfeasance. The concluding question, How might instructors of online science methods courses implement safe and ethical practice, consistent with safety and ethical standards of the profession, using chemicals when many students connect asynchronously, or via videoconferencing software from remote locations, is a troubling question.


National Research Council. (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Texas Education Agency. (2014). Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills [TEKS].  Retrieved May 19, 2014 http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/tac/chapter112/ch112a.html

Texas Education Agency. (n.d.-a). Summary of Higher Education Legislation: 83rd Texas Legislature, Regular Session.  Retrieved May, 19, 2014 http://www.thecb.state.tx.us/download.cfm?downloadfile=5E784889-B2FF-8D41-076D899C371FB322&typename=dmFile&fieldname=filename

Texas Education Agency. (n.d.-b). Texas Higher Educatiuon Coordinating Board.  Retrieved May 19, 2014 http://www.thecb.state.tx.us/

The Legal Information Institute. (n.d.-a). Malfeasance.  Retrieved May 19, 2014 http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/malfeasance

The Legal Information Institute. (n.d.-b). Misfeasance.  Retrieved May 19, 2014 http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/misfeasance

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 20, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17577, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 7:45:14 PM

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