Written by Brian Udermann, Ph.D
Article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.
I was in the mood to write something spicy and exciting this month, so naturally my thoughts turned to policy and procedures manuals.
(Actually, if I were the type of person who found policy and procedures manuals exciting, I think I’d begin to worry about my overall state of health.)
So let me put it this way: policy and procedures manuals may not be fascinating or stimulating documents – but they are important.
Shortly after becoming the Director of Online Education at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in 2007, I started to get questions from both faculty and administrators that I didn’t have the answers to. Questions like:
• “I’ve heard teaching online is more work, so do I get paid more for teaching an online course?”
• “I can use my personal blog to teach my online course, right?”
• “Is there a final exam policy for online courses like there is for face-to-face courses?”
• “Is it ok if I end my online course a week early because I want to go on vacation?”
• “Why is it that my dog doesn’t like it when I blow in his face but he sticks his head out of my car window when I’m driving 70 mph on the freeway?”
Okay, the last question is actually my own and has always perplexed me, but the others are all questions (along with many others) that I received early on in my administrative career. Questions that I didn’t have answers for.
I realized that if I didn’t know the answers to these questions, then faculty, staff, chairs, and deans probably didn’t either. I also realized that once we did have answers for these questions it was going to be important to write them down and share them with the campus.
One obvious benefit of having a policy and procedures manual is that when there is more consistency and standardization across departments and colleges, there is usually less confusion.
The chaos option
I frequently interact with online faculty and administrators across the country and often ask them to describe the overall administration of their online programs in one word. Many times that word ends up being “chaotic”. I then ask those individuals if their program has a policy and procedures manual. The answer is almost always no.
I’ve been surprised by the number of times over the past 20 years that I’ve asked policy-related questions to individuals in human resources, information technology, business services and other units/offices on campus and have been given an answer that started with “Well, its always been understood that …”. In other words, “We don’t have an official policy on that but there are institutional expectations…“
Why not write them down? (!)
A policy and procedures manual can and should be utilized as an effective communication tool. Too often, though, even when these manuals actually exist, the information is not shared or disseminated appropriately. I would recommend that program administrators share their policy and procedures manuals at least once a year (maybe at the beginning of each new academic year) with faculty and staff. I know some online administrators that share their policy and procedures manual twice a year (at the beginning of new semesters). I’d suggest erring on the side of over-communicating as compared to not communicating enough.
Now, despite the fact that we do have an online education policy and procedures manual at my institution, and despite the fact that the handbook is sent out to all faculty and administrators twice a year, I still regularly get questions that are clearly answered in the handbook (much like faculty get course related questions from students for things that are clearly articulated in their syllabus). In that case, I simply cut and paste the section of the handbook related to their question and send that back in an email–with a link to the handbook.
Actually writing a manual
So if you don’t have a policy and procedures manual related to online education at your institution, how do you go about creating one?
Start by looking back at the questions you’ve received and decisions that have been made and simply write them down; then have them approved by appropriate personnel or committees on campus. Some of these decisions at my institution have related to:
• How a student goes about dropping an online course.
• How students in online courses complete teaching evaluations of their instructors.
• Workload requirements related to teaching online compared to face-to-face.
• Enrollment limits for online courses compared to face-to-face courses.
I’d suggest forming an online advisory group or online education committee (with faculty representation) to discuss and draft specific policies. This can be done at the same time that questions are being discussed and decisions are being made.
Ideally, this should be done with assistance and input from the relevant university offices or faculty governance committees. For example, our office of records and registration helped draft our policy related to how to drop an online course. Likewise, if you are discussing policies related to compensation, workload or tenure it would be wise to get input from the faculty governance committees that oversee these areas.
Ultimately, our online education handbook was approved by our faculty senate. Since our handbook contains both policies and procedures as well as best practices related to online teaching, the faculty senate thought it was best that we called the document a “handbook” and not a policy and procedures manual. Since the creation of our handbook was a collaborative process at every step, the final product was accepted all around without controversy.
Policies and procedures manuals should be clear and concise and written in language that is easily understood. These manuals should be reviewed every year or two and updated appropriately as needed.
Like most of you, I in fact don’t find policies and procedures manuals sexy or exciting. But I do recognize the important role they can play in your relations with the rest of your institution. If you currently don’t have a policy and procedures manual specifically related to online education on your campus I’d suggest adding that to your “to-do” list–preferably somewhere near the top!