Week 5 Syllabus

Left some thoughts on this assignment at Learningcreep by Helen Crump  http://learningcreep.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/pot-cert-week-5-the-online-syllabus/comment-page-1/#comment-40

 Students are usually alone online—imagine walking into an empty classroom on the first day and apparently there’s no one to ask the most simple questions. No one there at all, help desks are jammed in the first few days, and yes,  this is when everything crashes. No one anywhere.

Regardless if the students paid attention at the “orientation to online” session of those that come, most were overwhelmed in the first 10 minutes by all the information packed into that hour’s worth of information. And those are the ones who are face to face students who can ask the instructor for help at their first class.

Because it is often the first thing read by a student, a syllabus should always have a link back to an introduction to basic online survival. At least “where did my class go and how do I get it back” help for those who crash the first time out.

Steven Brookfield in his “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher” points to the syllabus as a place to explain the rationale for your particular way of running the class so students can know what they are getting into. Yes, it’s possible the course isn’t “yours” but you are teaching it and need to start relationship building right away. Some examples from his welcome to a “Teacher as Change Agent” class that allow him to “claim” and personalize the course:

“…most courses work best when there’s a mixture of methods–teacher presentations, small group work, large group discussion, reflective silence, individual projects and so on.

That while a teacher can take responsibility for drawing the initial map of where a course is going, the journey will always change, depending on what happens along the way. This syllabus can be changed at a moment’s notice to take account of both your responses to course activities and mine.

So please note the following product warnings:

If you don’t feel comfortable talking with others about yourself and your experiences, you should probably drop this course ASAP.

If you don’t feel comfortable with a loose course structure…”

This sort of information is best kept for higher level courses? I’m not sure. How much responsibility for managing the course belongs to the student? When is it appropriate to release some control? The syllabus can reflect the “style” of class, not just its content. Some of the classes we build have no leeway, the outcomes are rigidly fixed. These courses have micro-managed expectations. Others are more open and allow for direction changes as long as goals are met. I don’t personally think any class should be left unattended for pure self study but some are.

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  • Norm Wright  On October 2, 2012 at 7:15 PM

    I’m hopeful that some of the problems you describe will diminish as students (and teachers, and institutions) gain more online experience. Even now, many high school students get online experience, but older students may not have had that opportunity, so even at higher levels you may find students coming to their first online classes.
    I like the idea of the survival guide. Even if your school provides something like that, every course is different, so it might be worthwhile to have something like it for your specific course too.
    It seems a little confusing to say on one hand that the syllabus is the place to explain the class so students know what they’re in for, and on the other hand saying the syllabus can change at a moments notice. I’m all for flexibility and adaptability, but I’d resist making drastic changes once the course is underway. As the book mentions. some people see it as a sort of written contract. Whether or not it really is is another matter, but people sometimes see it that way.

    • scottx5  On October 2, 2012 at 8:20 PM

      Hi Norm, agree that online experience will diminish the opposition. I tend to be impatient though with teachers who hide behind the screen of serving students to get past their obligation to keep up with changes in their profession. Our student base is shrinking and one of the reasons stated in student surveys is that they come from high schools where online is the norm and arrive at our college and get sage on the stage. These students are mobile, know what they want and go where they can get it.

      Really though, I don’t care much for the plight of the instructor who’s head is in the sand. To me the important teachers are the ones who teach “remedial” or the non-traditional students. Their job is focused on the needs of their students. Their hesitation to move online has to do with an honest belief that online delivery is simply not suitable for the needs of their students. At this point they are right but the clock is ticking on funding to marginal deep rural students and if we can’t come up with some solutions these students will just be dumped.

      To me, the important part of education is the connection between student and teacher. I don’t see teachers as universal delivery modules who can present any subject under the sun with clockwork precision. It isn’t about the content, it’s about the relationship that makes the content meaningful. School for me was neutrally delivered meaningless noise and it wasn’t until I became an apprentice that knowing something became useful beyond passing a test.

      Still think the syllabus is a malleable document. Maybe it should say “these are our goals and we will do everything we can to see that you get there, but this isn’t a guarantee of success, it’s a pledge that we will try.” We’ve been sued by students who figured the training and good grades entitled them to the job of their choice. We are careful not to imply that schooling is all you need. Even if the trend is to equate education with income and nothing else, we try to avoid that promise.

      Thanks for responding to the posting.

  • Laura  On October 2, 2012 at 10:30 PM

    The part where you talk about showing up at class on the first day completely alone without anyone there to whom questions can be asked is a powerful image. Even if we are very available electronically in the start of a class (e.g., email, video conferencing, instant messaging, etc…), I wonder how many students feel this way: completely alone. This is food for thought.

  • jenniferfhumber  On October 3, 2012 at 10:53 AM

    Really interesting post, Scott. I share your idea that a connection between the student and the teacher is very important. Unfortunately, I don’t know that all faculty can/are willing to make that committment. I also agree that the syllabus is very important to student success, both in the course and throughout their academic journey. It should be viewed as a vital contract.. but even more as a helpful resource in their ability to complete course requirements. Great points and helpful insights.

    • scottx5  On October 3, 2012 at 12:32 PM

      Hi Jennifer, thanks for pointing out that the syllabus is important to student success. Wonder if it could be called both a map forward and a history of where you’ve been? Makes sense to me as functioning as piece of a much larger puzzle too.

      I have an aversion for forcing patterns on anything prior to at least reviewing if not experiencing a bit of the journey. Some of this is a fondness for being lost (to a point) and the experience of the predictable being a comforting illusion. Promising outcomes was what I did for years building houses and fixing machines. The journey to the outcome always seemed the important part–way more important than being there. I’d certainly suggest never hiring me as a guidance counselor.

      Maybe I live in a fantasy world where the roadside distractions are the hidden destination and the goal is really unimportant? Could be why I don’t have any educational degrees and even my trade certificates are sort of locator beacons that I’d rather turn off than attract people who presume I know what I’m doing when I’m not convinced I ever did.

      I work in a college and, not surprisingly, people come there to pick up skills to change their life. Not sure it’s helpful to pretend this is all there is to becoming the human they want to be. Guess with a syllabus the limits to how much of their puzzle will be filled in by us are made clear?

  • Mandy Markham Johnson  On October 3, 2012 at 1:36 PM

    I like the “product warnings.” I would rather a student know upfront what will be expected from the course. I think this is particularly helpful if you’re working with non-traditional students who have full-time jobs and many other commitments. It may not be a good time in his/her life to participate in a course that is going to require a lot of reading, for instance.

    • scottx5  On October 3, 2012 at 1:53 PM

      Hi Mandy,
      Good point about the syllabus informing the student on how much work is involved or expected. Some schools have advisers to develop learning plans for online students. My wife has two masters from Royal Roads University in Victoria Canada given almost entirely online and they provide the advisory service. RRU is pricy and geared to post-grad working professionals but there’s no reason the service couldn’t serve non-traditionals as well (is there a better term?).

      I wonder if it has to do with the assumption that online students are all highly motivated and self-directed individuals?

  • Ty Nevith  On October 3, 2012 at 2:27 PM

    I absolutely love your analogy of walking into a lonely classroom. That gives me an entirely new perspective with regards to creating an online syllabus.

  • Jim Sullivan  On October 6, 2012 at 12:40 PM

    I really appreciate this idea from your pot: Students are usually alone online—imagine walking into an empty classroom on the first day and apparently there’s no one to ask the most simple questions. No one there at all, help desks are jammed in the first few days, and yes, this is when everything crashes. No one anywhere.

    I think it so vital that we think from the student perspective as we imagine our courses–syllabus and design. How does this look and feel to a student? How does it address the students’ needs and anxieties. The more we think about moments like the one you describe here, the stronger our courses are.

    • scottx5  On October 6, 2012 at 1:55 PM

      Hi Jim, in a lot of ways we can’t help but make self-paced courses individual projects. That said, there are things that can make the course feel like it was part of a larger environment–less isolating. Someone here has mentioned sending a welcoming message to the student or maybe even a phone call. By accident I discovered something that was successful in a couple of cases. Under pressure we rolled out a class before editing was complete. The poor instructor got so tired of fielding complaints she posted my phone number on the discussion site and the complaints came directly to me.

      Our policy is that courses once built are no longer “ours” which is “correct institutional behaviour” but awfully disengaging and inhuman. So in violation of procedure I answered all the calls and worked with the students to correct our department’s errors. This worked very well as it put a face to the class and opened it up to student participation at a very empowering level. Of course this little trick has to work outside normal channels. First, in my case I’d get busted for breaking procedure–which makes doing it even more satisfying. Second, the fact that this goes against policy makes the encounter more meaningful. Students have grown immune to the empty public relations promises of inclusiveness and whatever (their bullshit detectors are way more developed than policy writers can imagine). There’s nothing more personal than breaking the rules together, this is very hard to fake and the students know it.

      This process is like a little door back to people. I’m not sure if this can be built into a course or not. It can’t be simulated. Has to be real. Maybe having someone to call, just a human voice at the other end? Definitely NOT a frequently asked questions utility! Any ideas?

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