Creating a Policy and Procedures Manual Specific to Online Education

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I’ve had the pleasure of serving as the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse’s primary online administrator for the past 12 years and recently was reflecting upon things we have done on our campus over that time span to promote and grow the number of online courses and programs we offer. While many colleges and universities have more extensive online offerings than we do, we have grown from two online programs and about 30 online courses a dozen years ago to about 15 online programs and 450 online courses today.  

We decided early on that it was important to create a policy and procedures (P&Ps) manual specific to online education, and I think that decision has served our campus well. I have the pleasure of attending and speaking at a few online education and distance learning conferences per year; while presenting I often ask audience members whether their institution has such a manual. I am still surprised by the number of institutions that do not. Many times well over half of the individuals in the room raise their hands to indicate that such manuals don’t exist on their campuses.  

While some institutions are in a place where online education P&Ps are consistent across campus, most are not. Years ago I was reading an article about online education and came across a statement that read something like this: “The only thing consistent about online courses and degree programs at our institution is inconsistency.” I chuckled.

Greater consistency is one benefit that can come from creating an online education P&Ps manual. How things are done across programs, departments, schools, and colleges can vary greatly in regard to online education—sort of a Wild West approach. This inconsistency can create confusion for students, staff, faculty, and administrators. 

Interestingly, most colleges and universities have at least some P&Ps related to online education. But many have not taken the next step: compiling these P&Ps in a single location or document. Doing so allows the campus community to more easily search for P&Ps and allows for easier dissemination (more on that in a bit). It can also help when preparing for a regional accreditation visit.

Still, some institutions may offer virtually no online courses or programs and may truly be starting from scratch. If that is the case, staff and instructors will often have questions about how things are done. Here are a few I received early on:

  • “Can I start my online course a week earlier than the scheduled start date?” This instructor wanted to start their online course a week early so the course didn’t conflict with a scheduled vacation. The answer was no, and we now have a policy stating that online course start and end dates mirror those of face-to-face courses.
  • “Can I get paid more for teaching my online course since it is more work?” This instructor was lobbying for additional pay for teaching online compared to what they would earn for a face-to-face course. The answer was no, and we now have a policy stating that instructor pay is the same for courses regardless of format. 
  • “Can I teach my course using my personal blog?” This instructor intended to teach their online course solely through their personal blog. The answer was no, and we now have a policy stating that instructors who teach online must offer those courses through the institution’s learning management system.

One way to get started on a P&Ps manual is to determine the answers to questions like the ones above (I received many more!) and then write them down in a single location or document. Keep in mind: often the answers to these types of questions will need to come from university administrators or a faculty governance committee or both.

Another idea is to look at P&Ps manuals from other institutions. Simply complete an internet search using phrases such as “online education P&Ps,” “online learning P&Ps,” “distance education P&Ps,” and “distance learning P&Ps,” and you should find dozens of examples to review. Reviewing other institutions’ P&Ps can also help you determine whether there are P&Ps you don’t have but maybe should. 

It is helpful to use a team approach when creating a P&Ps manual. If your institution has an online education committee or online advisory board, this is often a good group to charge with creating the manual—especially if the group has strong representation from across campus (faculty, staff, students, administrators, etc.). Another thing to consider is who will give your P&Ps manual final approval once it is created. Will it be the provost? The faculty senate? The chancellor? Having someone like the provost, chancellor, or president of your faculty senate champion the effort to create a P&Ps manual can be helpful and ensure that it gets done.  

As for dissemination, having all your P&Ps in one location or document makes it much easier to share them with the campus community. Early on in my online education administrative career, I would send out our manual (we happen to call it our Online Education Handbook) every semester to staff, faculty, and administrators. While the number of individuals who read the manual was probably pretty small, at least our campus community knew it existed and had easy access to it. 

Online education is dynamic, and it is not uncommon for P&Ps related to online education to change. Make sure you keep your manual up-to-date when changes occur. I also recommend giving your manual an extensive review every two to three years to ensure that everything is current and determine whether new P&Ps need to be added.

Brian Udermann, PhD, is director of online education and professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse.