Teaching Hub

Use Your LMS to Reclaim Your Syllabus

by Nathan Loewen, Department of Religious Studies

Cutting to the chase

neon sign saying open 24 hours

Here is how to make your syllabi openly accessible online. Have your syllabi do less and then use your institution’s Learning Management System (LMS) to make up the difference and then some! I previously challenged the notion of “learning management” and championed what an LMS does. Now I want to think about how to divide tasks between publicly accessible syllabi versus password-secure course pages:

Keep your syllabus basic with a no-changes-required layout from term to term containing basic versions of the following (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Contact information as your name with a link to your entry in the institution’s directory.
  • A simple course description stating the general topic and method along with a link to your department’s “about” page.
  • Four to five course objectives that articulate how the course relates to your academic field, the topic, scholarly methods used and skills to be learned.
  • Four to five student learning outcomes that align with the expectations of your assignments.
  • A list of five to ten topics that outlines the progression of the course.
  • Brief statements of assignments and their weighting within the final grade.
  • A list of when assignments are generally due (e.g., Week 3 – Test 1).
  • The policies of your department and institution.

What’s missing from this list? All the material that I suggest you should arrange on the course home page in your LMS:

  • Give detailed contact information including office hours, your response policy and a link to a campus map detailing the location of your office.
  • Invite initial curiosity in the topic with an image, survey, mapping tool, video, text, etc.
  • Explain your teaching philosophy and pedagogy. Interactively. Do not copy-paste from your job application folder. 😉
  • Demonstrate how the course “works.” For example, illustrate how your learning outcomes relate to the course content (e.g., readings) and the assignments.
  • Create a folder containing all the course assignments and your grading methods (e.g., rubrics).
  • Provide a detailed schedule of the entire course.

The last item above is literally the “syllabus” part of the syllabus (derived from the Latin term for “list”). Since the dates on that list change each term, it does not belong on your public-facing, open online syllabus.

I suggest that the above strategy is one way you can reclaim your syllabus.

“I have lost control of my syllabus. I’ve focused so much on making it meet the standards enforced by the online syllabus management system that I’ve lost sight of its true purpose: to invite students into a safe space where they can show and develop their greatness.” Angela Benson opens her post on this blog with these words. Dr. Benson expresses the difficulty of creating an inviting, student-centered syllabus with the Online Syllabus Management (OSM) system in use at UA.

Dough being rolled out with a rolling pin

There are many benefits to the OSM. Our syllabi are often the first point of contact with students. An important benefit to the widespread adoption of the OSM is that all our syllabi are accessible to students and parents (e.g., during registration). Students say they appreciate knowing what will happen in our courses in advance.

Viewed as an open-source distribution point, the OSM provides a potentially powerful source of information to educate our wider constituencies and publics about the how education happens at a publicly-funded university. “Dissemination of knowledge” is a core component of UA’s mission.

There may be a risk of a flattening effect built into the structure of the OSM. Dr. Benson describes, for example, how, “the online system will allow me to add instructor-specific components to my syllabus, the system will not allow me to determine where these instructor-specific components are placed, nor will it include these instructor-specific components when I copy a syllabus from one semester to the next.” That the OSM automatically populates required syllabus elements saves precious time. The “iron triangle” of speed-quality-cost may affect the OSM as it does any education technology: it does the job quickly and saves UA from photocopying costs, but there may be a missing element of instructional quality.

Since providing a syllabus is something all faculty hold in common, there is plenty of literature in peer-reviewed journals (e.g., Syllabus) and online media that explores and explains how to create syllabi that will engage students.

Some resources aim at getting you started. The open syllabus project contains over one million syllabi. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a great three-part series on the essential functions of your syllabus. The Chronicle also has fast hacks to upgrade your syllabus as well as a post for those who consider themselves syllabus dummies. While useful, these resources do not help you reclaim your syllabus.

When is more actually less? When the topic is syllabi.

An OSM Editing PanelAnother resource for reclaiming your syllabus is the group of faculty who practice critical digital pedagogy (CDP). Jesse Stommel describes it as “an approach to teaching and learning predicated on fostering agency and empowering learners (implicitly and explicitly critiquing oppressive power structures).” Despite the fact that American courts have found that syllabi are not contracts, the notion persists among faculty and administrators. CDP argues this notion creates an agonistic relationship between faculty and students from the get-go, and, such syllabi cannot but be read by students as a disempowering “riot act.”

Examples of alternatives proposed by CDP scholars include co-creating syllabi with students, specifically restructuring syllabi to invite learning and using graphic design for so-called engaging syllabi.

The potential for UA faculty to integrate these strategies into their OSM syllabi is limited to modifying some elements of the text along with the ability to include tables and links (see the upper-right corner of the example). And, these strategies prevent you from having an open, publicly accessible online syllabus. They are just too much for one thing to accomplish.

What can be done?

My proposal is to use the Course Home Page on your LMS as an extension of the student-centered, engaging syllabus.