Syllabus, Syllabus, Who’s Got the Syllabus?

Most of this week’s readings and videos were uncontroversial to me.  If you look at this site here, you can see an example of how I layout and organize all the content areas of my course including the syllabus, schedule, assignments, examples, and so on (if you’ve looked at my Medical Ethics course, you’ve seen this).  I think of this as the syllabus-view design.  If you look here, you’ll see my current schedule, which for the first time includes direct links to all electronic  assignments.  You can see samples of this in the first two units (Introduction and Metaphysics).  I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that we should always have direct links to whatever content we are referring to.  My “syllabus” is made of multiple content sections, each connecting back to the other.  But that means that any student who wants to review the instructions for an assignment can reach it with one click from any page: first the syllabus, then the “learning packet,” then the example page, then the rubrics.  And so on.

This is perhaps one of the most important design elements of an online syllabus: minimize clicks.  Make something easily and immediately accessible and the students will use it.  No clicks is ideal, one click is good, two clicks is bad, and three clicks is an abomination . . . .

It’s funny to me reading and watching these resources because it made me realize how little training I ever had with Blackboard (my first LMS and my first hate!).  When I worked in Blackboard, I was one of those instructors (as I suspect are all of the instructors in my department) who posted their syllabus as a word doc or pdf in the content area or at best put it in its own content area.  I look back at that now and think “really!?”

Given that I’m going to be teaching more about using Blackboard in the future, it makes sense for me to think about what practices are most effective in that LMS.  A particularly useful source for this is Lisa’s article, Insidious pedagogy: How course management systems impact teaching.  Blackboard is a fairly clear example of this “insidious pedagogy” because it has a start point that encourages simple content delivery instead of any kind of more interactive course structure.  Here is the announcements section, here is where the course documents go (an amorphous mass of info if I every saw one), here assignments, oh! and here discussions . . . if you feel so inclined.

And this default setup is all the more molding of course design if an instructor is not already trained to deal with setting up and organizing the course.  Imagine the first time you were confronted with a new, complex program . . . or maybe you don’t need to imagine because you are dealing with it now.  These easiest thing to do is take your cues from the program.  “This must be the right way to do it.  Why would they design the program this way if it wasn’t?”  But, of course, this isn’t true.  [There are worse offenders than Blackboard out there.  Blackboard has options.  A place like Udemy is primarily built for content delivery only.  That is not the riht model for open/private education.]

Thinking about training beginning instructors, it strikes me that the initial suggestion made in the First Friday “Interactive Syllabus” recording is the best: grouping content and activities by topic–what might might be called a topics-oriented style of design.  The idea of that bar on the left of the Blackboard site suddenly becoming the map to the course is incredibly appealing and visually illustrates the kind of spatial and conceptual thinking that instructors need to shift to when helping students navigate what Ko and Rossen call online “geography.”

I leave you with a strategy that I use with my posted lectures.

Questions to Consider:

  • Have you ever been the “victim” of insidious pedagogy?  When?  How?
  • Which style of course layout do you find more appealing: topic-oriented or syllabus-view?
  • What kinds of successful organization of courses have you seen or used in the past?

Trackbacks & Pingbacks 1

  1. From (Parenethical) - It’s Was a Very Nice Party on 02 Dec 2011 at 4:12 pm

    […] Week 5: An exploration of my own feelings about syllabus design.  I especially appreciated the idea of an interactive syllabus.  I had never thought about it in this particular way–embedding the course so fully in the syllabus itself and making the syllabus the main access point. […]

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