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This is How We Do Things Here:  Developing a Policy Manual for CMS Usage

Dr. Susan Zvacek

For many institutions, the adoption of a course manage system (CMS) begins as a “small” initiative with a few interested faculty, a step that quickly results in hundreds of course sites residing on one or more campus servers.  Seemingly overnight, decisions related to the use of such tools – decisions that might once have had easy (sometimes even obvious) answers  – are tied inextricably to issues of academic freedom, intellectual property, and system security.  Developing an understood and accepted set of policies and procedures for CMS usage begins to make sense.

Schools with established distance education programs typically have policy manuals in place, having dealt with issues over time related to course access, information security, student services, etc., regardless of the delivery method for instruction.  (For more on structuring policy for such programs, see, for example, Gellman-Danley and Fetzer, 1998; or King, Nugent, Russell, Eich, and Lacy, 2000.)  This article is not intended for individuals working in these programs; rather, it is aimed at instructional or technical support staff who may find themselves – ready or not – charged with devising a policies and procedures manual or related documents.  The following sections include an overview of what policy is, why it’s good to spell it out clearly, and several practical ideas about organizing and writing a policy manual.  (One cautionary note: in some work settings, use of the word “policy” is reserved for specially approved administrative or regulatory activities.  In these cases, terms such as “recommended procedures” or “approved operations” may be preferable.)

For the purposes of this article, policies are defined as “the procedures, codes, and rules, written and unwritten, used to structure present and future decisions” (DiPetta, Novak, and Marini, 2002).  Policy development is often more a process of articulating the bases for decision-making than of formulating rules from scratch, and should take place early in the implementation of a CMS.  The reality, however, is that “decisions frequently outrun policy,” especially in fields that evolve quickly, and “the more urgent nature of decisions as opposed to the deliberative nature of policy” may result in a lack of planning (Fincher, 1999).  

Why bother with policy development?

When an institution adopts a course management system, having “rules” for how it will be used may seem unnecessary and bordering on nitpicky, especially if the software is used primarily to support and enhance traditional face-to-face instruction.  A policy manual, however, is an excellent way to codify procedural issues, and adopting a uniform set of policies provides numerous advantages over seat-of-the-pants decision-making.   Additionally, should the institution’s online learning initiative evolve to offer fully-realized academic programs online, the essential policies will have developed organically, a factor that Schreiber (1998) identified as indicative of successful distance education programs.  The most obvious reason is to ensure consistency in how things are done and how others are treated.  By operating under an agreed-upon set of policies, day-to-day management activities need not depend on individual personalities, ethics, favors

Zvacek, Susan M.

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