24 September 2012

Creating an online syllabus

I'm working on a class to get a certification for online learning - course design. As a result, I'm working on an online class and I needed to create/tweak a syllabus. I've been studying some different resources for online syllabi:

  1. The Syllabus

  2. Creating an Effective Online Syllabus

  3. Online Course Design: 13 Strategies for Teaching in a Web-based Environment

  4. Developing Your Online Syllabus

I've collected my thoughts while looking at best practices for creating an online syllabus:

One of the interesting differences between K-12 and higher ed is the importance of a syllabus. I think this mostly has to do with 3 factors: (1) the amount of time you have students on a weekly basis, (2) the fact that you only have higher ed students for half of the year and (3) students in higher ed also have more responsiblity to do independent learning as far as the content of the course goes.

In K-12, students get a lot more handholding than they do in higher ed. We need to give explicit information concerning the text (students have to find their own text, it’s not provided), students need to know where to go for help (tutoring, disability services, etc. - they don’t have a guidance counselor or special ed case worker to guide them) and the list could go on.
Inviting a colleague to see your syllabus is an interesting thought. Usually, this doesn’t happen on our campus unless there’s a problem, i.e. grade appeal. Having recently been in K-12, there isn’t the culture of sharing that is (more) expected in higher ed. Many (even on my higher ed campus) are unwilling share and show what they are doing. Without getting too philosophical, I think this is what’s wrong with education. We’ve cultured an atmosphere of secrecy instead of a collegial peer learning network. I definitely see the value in encouraging peer review on syllabi. If for no other reason than to get another set of eyes on it to “keep the university out of trouble”. For instance, if I forgot to include our disability statement, that could be a real problem in many cases.

As an adjunct instructor in Physical Geography, I really appreciate the analogy of the syllabus as a road map. Not only to see where we are going, but what kinds of challenges/experiences will the learner encounter along the way? Do I have to buy my own gas or is there a built-in system of help available?

I know many students have a problem with organization. Most classes use the first day of school as a day to cover the syllabus. This probably seems like drudgery to many students. What kind of strategy can we use to increase the usefullness of the syllabus and recapture that first day of class? Here’s my idea: why not create a screencast of the instructor going over the syllabus and require students to watch that and take a quiz over it? Just a thought. We need to sell this syllabus as a tool, rather than a requirement. I do really like the idea of giving a schedule to show explicit scaffolding of concepts so students can understand, I need to learn A before I can get to B. It’s a process of sequenced steps, not a bunch of individual activities. It’s got to be sold as an overview, not simply a list.

For students, the contract is likely the most important piece. They want to know “how they are going to get (earn - hopefully) their A (B, C, D, whatever). Explicit instructions on how to earn what points for what activity. Certainly the expectations from the instructor may be the most significant piece in this section. What can they expect time-wise from me? Do I keep up on grading? Do I start and end class on time? If I am contacted, what expectation is there for a response? What is the best way to contact me?


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