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POT Cert Week 5: the online syllabus

Chapter 5: Creating an Effective Online Syllabus somehow failed to ‘grab me’ . Unlike previous chapters, it failed to make much of an impression on me. I don’t think I can rightly say why that is either. Maybe it’s because  I haven’t actually taught online (yet) and haven’t designed my course to a sufficient stage as to be thinking about the nuts and bolts of the syllabus. That’s not to say that the information wasn’t useful, it’s just that I don’t think I’m in a position to say exactly what information was most useful, or indeed what information might be considered ‘questionable’.

However, reading the chapter has caused me to ponder how I might best ensure and/or establish that learners have actually read the given texts within the course. In my experience discussions often fall flat because insufficient numbers have actually read the material. This is an aspect that I’m keen to make crystal clear within the syllabus. Does anyone have any advice on this?

You might have already guessed that I took away from the chapter the importance of being clear from the outset in your instructions and your expectations for the course. It can be said that the syllabus sets the tone for the course, and if it’s not well structured and the ‘geography’ of the online environment not clearly explained, a lot of precious time and energy will be wasted in the weeks to come. Here, I liked Ko and Rossen’s idea of producing a narrated guide to quickly help orientate the learners and to alleviate any anticipated difficulties (p.121).

The recording of The Interactive Syllabus highlighted the importance of taking account of the amount of clicking a learner will have to do in order to arrive at the required location and gave practical instruction on how how to design this in. It was very useful.

I’m interested to hear how others found this chapter and what they took away from it.

Published inProgramme for Online Teaching


  1. I think it must be difficult to write about the online syllabus in a book format. You just can’t really illustrate the possibilities of hyperlinks and embedded media very well. The textbook chapter has good tips for syllabus writing in general, even for not online courses. While it does mention the use of hyper-linking, its not really evident in the syllabus examples.
    For me the real value from this weeks lesson comes from the Interactive Syllabus workshop. It really got me thinking about the possibilities of using web technology with the syllabus. Even though there was a lot of LMS specific details, the principles illustrated can be applied to other online formats such as a blog or custom web site.

  2. Hi Helen,
    Agree with Norm on the difficulty of writing “for” online in book format. Even if books are my favourate format they can’t capture “the potential of online presentation” which to be honest, I have yet to figure out and will post as a question on FB today.

    Working on an online course I try and keep in mind that misunderstandings can lead to dropping out, disconnection or frustration. The syllabus is always at the very top of our courses placed ABOVE the “If You are New to Moodle” orientation (which often crashes or goes unread). The syllabus should always contain a couple of tips on restarting the class before anything else. It’s a toss up on whether telling students they will have the “classroom” unexpectedly fall out from under them this early in the course—a bit like handing out life preservers before leaving the dock—but if they go overboard it’s good they have the skills to get back to us. The help desk rescue boat will likely be too busy at this time too. We try to have the first class sessions start in the library where help is right there. Fine for on campus students…not so helpful for online students.

    Outcomes need to be explicit on what is expected to avoid confusion. We just finished a course supplied by the government for training Health Care Aids. The course consisted of seven 100 page module booklets and had to be “put online without alteration.” Some of the expected outcome pages contained over 50 items and became unreadable. We thought of breaking them out to accompany each relevant skill demonstration but couldn’t break the rule of presenting them as they were delivered to us. In a F2F class these outcomes can be mentioned often and exactly at the time/place of need. Online they can be pages away and you have to decide if repeating them where they are appropriate is helpful of or just more bulk added to the course. This is a case of adding the “presence” of the teacher where needed and it’s vital for the designer to ask an experienced teacher where points of clarity need to be placed. In the classroom the teacher can see who is having trouble where, online it can be guesswork.

    Another thing that needs mentioning is feedback delay. Help desks and teacher’s office hours often coincide with student needs. Delay in resolving a question can work both ways. The student can be defeated by the problem and skip it, or learn by force of will. Neither of these are recommended learning strategies Working through a problem without help can be a confidence builder and great for a sense of autonomy. Personally I love this feature of online study because it allows me to create fictional solutions that are way more interesting than dull old reality.

    So none of this relates to Chapter 5 being a bit dull (I agree). Remember those movies where the pilot on an airliner passes out and one of the passengers is guided through a safe landing by the ground crew? Online is like that. Imagine the really important stuff and hope the passenger isn’t Lassie.

  3. I agree that Chapter 5 was a tough read but I do believe it gave a practical approach to developing an online syllabus. Lisa’s Presentation was much more interesting… but to me was easier to understand and implement ideas because I am aware of the bare basics needed in an syllabus for an online course. I love the concept on an online syllabus being interactive and viewed as a survival guide for the course. I think the combination of the text and the presentation was very helpful in evaluating and improving my online syllabus.

  4. completing the reading…that has been an issue at every level I have taught and learned–from high school to graduate school. And to me it is an issue both online and onsite. I will think more about this and perhaps share some thoughts with the whole group, but here are a few first ideas:
    1) integrate brief quizzes into the reading schedule (after every ten pages or so). These can “count” toward a grade or not, but they heighten engagement.
    2) integrate analysis of passages from the text into discussion activities and prompts
    3) create prompts and group activities that have students apply what they have read to some kind of problem–require students to link their response to page numbers in the text
    4) invite students to evaluate the text–what felt relevant in this week’s reading–what did not feel relevant–what was easy to understand–what was not
    5) ask students to do mini-presentations on assigned sections of the text to each other–this can be a post, or a powerpoint, or a voice narration

    So there’s a few ideas to play with. None are perfect, but all offer avenues for having students engage with at least part of the text in ways that might invite them to do more.

  5. Thanks everyone for all of your valuable comments. Certainly, there was lots of helpful stuff in Ko and Rossen’s chapter but the demo of an interactive syllabus was far more enlightening, and enjoyable. All the same, the incorporation of a rigorous syllabus is most definitely an essential ingredient in an online course that I will endeavour to deliver.

    Thanks also to Jim for his honest comments and useful tips about engaging students with course reading material. I have delved a little deeper into this topic and found an excellent article by Eric H. Hobsborn “Getting Students to Read: Fourteen Tips” It asserts that “a consistent pattern of research findings has established compliance with course reading at 20-30% for any given day and assignment (Burchfield & Sappington, 2000; Hobson, 2003; Marshall, 1974; Self, 1987)” consequently, “faculty face the stark and depressing challenge of facilitating learning when over 70% of the students will not have read assigned course readings” (p.1). He goes on to highlight the reasons for this,

    *no justification in the course syllabus for reading selections (Grunert, 1997)

    * little to no differentiation between reading that is actually required to succeed in the course and reading material labeled “required” (Hobson,

    * a mismatch between course text literacy levels and students’ reading abilities (Bean, 1996; Leamnson, 1999)

    Accordingly, he offers 14 tips to remedy this. It is an excellent starting point for thinking about inherent assumptions about students’ course reading.

    Reading after all is becoming more central as more and more people engage in knowledge work, but whilst learning is becoming more ‘social’ and ‘collaborative’ it seems that reading still remains largely a solitary activity. So in addition to the ideas offered to improve reading compliance, I think we also have to start thinking about developing strategies and activities that make reading itself more social and collaborative… to take some of the ‘heavy lifting’ out it and make it more appealing. I’m really going to think about this. It’s important to the type of learning experience I hope to design and facilitate.

  6. […] Week 5: Within the topic of the online syllabus, I found the recording of “The Interactive Syllabus” to be very useful. It highlighted the importance of taking account of the amount of clicking that a learner will have to do in order to arrive at the required location and gave practical instruction on how how to design this in. Rachele DeMeo’s presentation in Week 23 also demonstrated the importance of visual design in an online syllabus. […]

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