April 7, 2015

Online Teaching Tips: The Online Syllabus

(This is one article in a series offering tips for teaching online. The suggestions and ideas shared are based solely on my personal experience teaching online for many years, and not on any "hard" research.)

Having taught in both face-to-face and online environments, I have learned that it is necessary to craft your syllabus differently for an online course than for a face-to-face course. That is, if you have taught a course face-to-face previously and are moving the course online, your old syllabus probably won't fit the needs of your online students. 

For me, there are 2 principal functions of the syllabus: 
  1. To detail important course-related policies and procedures necessary for students to navigate and work effectively and efficiently within the course.
  2. To protect the instructor from accusations by students that important policies and procedures were never explained or were misunderstood. 
Because teaching online changes how you interact with your students - you do not have the benefit of explaining the course materials, procedures, or policies to all of the students at once and answer any questions immediately - both functions need to be as detailed and explicit as possible. 

Yes, it is possible to "amend" or "explain" your syllabus through instructor posts or emails to students, but with the indeterminate and inconsistent manner in which many online students access your course, because of their schedules, your posts or emails may go unseen for days or sometimes even weeks. Also, if you continually find the need to explain your course procedures or policies to students to the point that a broadcast post is necessary, it is indicative that this information should be included in your syllabus. Add to this the decreasing likelihood that your syllabus will be accessed or read after the first week or two, it is important to get your syllabus right the first time.

WHAT TO INCLUDE
Because your online students access you and your course content in a slightly different way than they might if they were taking the course in a classroom, your syllabus should address these differences. While all syllabi should include course description, learning objectives, assessment policies, etc., there are certain "tweaks" and additions to this information that should be addressed in your online syllabus

Communication with Instructor
A traditional syllabus likely will have a telephone number and email address, along with office location and a list of office hours. While these are fine to include in your online syllabus, you must consider how students would most easily and conveniently communicate with you when they are working in the course. 

Electronic communication of some sort likely will be most convenient. Including your email address is a must. But, if you are open to using social networking for your course communication, include your Google+, Twitter, Facebook, Skype, or other username, as well. Giving your students multiple means of communicating with you accommodates the varied backgrounds and technology expertise of your students. Direct Google+ messages work best for me. But however you choose your students to communicate with you, clearly state your preferred method clearly in your syllabus. Also, if access is an issue (e.g., you only have email access until 4 p.m. daily), you should inform your students that responses to inquiries sent using that limited mode of communication will be delayed and by how long.

Office Hours are a bit more complicated. I have attempted a number of different strategies over the years to accommodate office hours - regular times for online chats (Instant Messaging) and online video chats; varied times for online chats; random "pop-in" availability, etc. But, what I have found is that during these times, very few, if any, students take advantage of office hours. While this is not too different from student participation in office hours in a face-to-face classroom, it is likely that the varied times students access the course will leave you listening to the crickets chirp while you wait (this is particularly odd while waiting for someone to join a video chat!). 

I ask my online students at the start of the semester when they are most likely to access the course. If there is some general consensus to access times, I attempt to place an office hour during those times. However, I more commonly see students accessing course content at all hours of the day and night, so having a set office hour likely is not useful for many of your students. Instead, I simply state that office Hours are available upon request. 

Technical Issues and Computer Requirements
Technical problems will arise teaching online. While I experience far fewer these days compared to 5 or more years ago, they do crop up. It is important to instruct students where to turn when they need assistance, whether it is you, your school's computing HelpDesk, publisher support pages, or somewhere else. This information should be clearly stated.

Likewise, you should detail what the minimum computing requirements are for this course, including all necessary applications, web accounts, computing specifications, and preferences. These requirements *may* be slightly different for PC v. Mac (I have not had any Linux users yet), so include both. Also, be very clear on your preferred web browser. For me, Internet Explorer has never worked well with my courses, so I always recommend using the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, or Safari (for Mac).

Course Navigation and Course Content Access
This likely is the most important aspect of your syllabus for your students. They need to know how to get around and work in your course. Be as detailed as possible in your instructions, trying to anticipate problems students may have. Use step-by-step instructions with images, where possible. Or, even more useful, in addition to the written instructions, create a quick YouTube video or two students can watch that demonstrates how to navigate and work within your course environment. 

Login/Attendance Expectations
If you anticipate requiring students to work in your course environment at certain times or a certain amount each week, this should be made very clear, along with a statement of how not meeting this requirement will be addressed. I would strongly encourage avoiding establishing any such access policies, given that many online students are working your course into their varied, changing schedules. Don't make them fit into your schedule. It is much easier for you to accommodate their schedules, than it is for them to accommodate yours.

Assignments and Assessment
Again, details are important here. Be clear on all of the following:

 - How to access assignments
 - Work submission guidelines and procedures
 - Late work acceptance policy
 - How final grades will be assessed (not each assignment, but in general)
 - How and when to expect instructor feedback

It is a good idea to describe generally what assignments will be required (e.g. Discussion posts, two reflective essays, and an infographic), but best to leave detailed assignment instructions out of the syllabus, and instead place them in separate documents that offer not only assignment instructions, but could include assignment rationale, expectations, submission directions (include a direct link to submission location, if possible), and assessment procedures. Including this information for each assignment in the syllabus moves beyond the scope of the syllabus.
Disclaimers and Statements
Always include a notice about your willingness and ability to accommodate students with documented disabilities. Require them to contact you at the start of the semester. If your school has an "academic honesty" policy, please include a statement notifying students that they are bound to that policy in all of their work in the course. Finally, if you plan to use copyrighted material (e.g., displaying excerpts from books or articles, the presentation of audio recordings or videos, or exhibit photographs), include some notice indicating that copyrighted material will be used in the course to promote content understanding, critical thinking, and skill development.

TIPS
Make Syllabus Web Accessible
You cannot assume all of your students have Microsoft Word, or Excel, or another (expensive!) software package to access your course documents. Students today use a variety of word processing applications that may or may not be compatible with other applications. Simply uploading a Word document may present access problems for some. So you will be best served if you craft your syllabus with web access in mind. 

You can use the Word feature to convert your document to a Web page (simple formatting only, no graphics) or a PDF. Or, even better, use Google Docs or Word Online to create your syllabus. These are already web-based document creation tools, which makes documents created using these tools Web compatible and easily shared using automatically-generated URLs. Or, consider building your syllabus on a wiki or Web page from the start, avoiding the word processor entirely. 

Use Hyperlinks
You are creating a document that your students likely will view through a web browser. Take advantage of the ability of most the feature of most word processing applications to include hyperlinks in your document. Include direct links to your email address and social networking profiles, course schedule, technical support links, "getting started" videos, links to purchase required materials, and any supplemental websites or resources used. Also, don't link only once. is is, if you include a link to your course schedule once on your syllabus, it should be linked every time.  

Craft to Protect Yourself
This sounds cynical, I know, but students will inevitably contact you at some point stating they were not informed about a course policy, or did not know how to access an assignment, and could not complete it. The detail you put into your syllabus not only facilitates student success in your course, but it also helps protect you from these types of statements. Because you can reply to a student, "The syllabus clearly states that..." protects you should the student escalate the situation to your immediate supervisor. 

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