The Joys and Pains of the Traditional Syllabus: Using blogs as an alternative to the traditional syllabus

Dr Andrew Rudd is a Professor of Communication Arts who teaches media and film on campus. He is “speaking” about the use of blogs and other Web 2.0 technologies as an alternative delivery method for syllabi and some course content. Below Andrew’s post you will find a glossary and some additional resources to check out if you are interested in doing a similar project. We appreciate Andrew’s willingness to share what has been working for him!

-Adam

Many faculty consider the syllabus to be the cornerstone of well constructed pedagogy.  Expectations are explicit, shared and immediately available.  Regardless of how theoretical, organic or dialectical the course may be, students may take some refuge in the clarity of structure and direction that is laid out in a well-crafted syllabus.  Even if they don’t understand the idea of hegemony, but they know that they have a paper due in two weeks, and the test isn’t for two more weeks after that.

Hopefully (!?) all this structure makes the course *more* accessible and navigable for the students, allaying their fears and assisting them in progressing appropriately.

But there are pains that come with the traditional syllabus.  I find that the syllabus can make it difficult to diverge in an area of class interest, or to deepen in an area of need.  When I discover a new, better article that the students *really* should read…or hit upon an alternative assignment that would better facilitate learning and measure mastery…the calendar, the point values, the assignment structure all seem to resist this innovation.

Of course I tell students on the first day of class, that I will be re-issuing course calendars part way through the semester to match the unique path our class will forge through the semester.  But there is something about the paper and stapled version that still lingers with me in all its *finishedness* — a warning against change.

Internet Imperfection as Pedagogical Improvement

David Weinberger in his helpful book Small Pieces Loosely Joined writes about several qualities that the define the internet and the ways that those qualities influence and shape our own lives and thinking.  One of these qualities is *imperfection*.  In a society over-saturated with the sheen of advertising and the competitive corporate drive to maximize potential, achieve standards and demonstrate excellence, he points out all of the ways that *imperfection* works well for humans.

Imperfection invites participation, invites work, invites change, invites improvement.

Web communication is necessarily unfinished and imperfect, and in some ways — I like it that way.  (And finally, I come to the topic of this blog.)  Blogging is one of the many new forms of communication that have emerged on the web; I started blogging as a way to keep in touch with family and friends who lived far away.  It quickly became clear that blogging could be used for multiple other uses.

I started using blogging as a form of web supplement to my classes over five years ago. I now use a class blog (an example of my last class can be found here) for each of the classes that I teach and each of them includes all of the sections of my syllabus, menus that allow students to navigate the sections of the syllabi more fluidly, announcements about class ideas, assignments, due dates and information, links to other web-based materials and an embedded Google Calendar that includes due dates and class times.   On some of the blogs I also include more information about assignments, exemplary work that students have done in other semesters and study guides for exams. In some classes, I’ll even publish the outcomes of a group deliberation *while* the class is watching.

Some of the features I appreciate most about blogs include:

  • the ways that menus offer easy navigation,
  • the ability of students to subscribe to the RSS feed of the blogs,
  • the organization of posts that keeps the most recent post at the top of the blog,
  • and the ease and flexibility of the publishing platforms.

Most of the changes I make in any course have to do with due dates, a change in reading schedule or, occasionally, the addition of supplemental materials stemming from a conversation that emerged during class.

I use blogger, but have also used other platforms with success.  I’ve occasionally published remotely from my iPad which was widened the mobility of my own access.  While I have used class blogs with almost all of the classes I teach, I find that the content and structure of some makes the blogs more central to the life of the class while it simply serves as an ancillary resource for others.  I do not use class blogs for the classes where my effort is more collaborative than individuated (The College Experience or Faith in the World Seminar).

During a few semesters, I have integrated the course blog with an assignment to the students to blog.  In those cases, I found the blog traffic to be significantly higher and the menus I used to link their blogs together were a core resource students used.

As is the case with most technological innovations in pedagogy, the biggest drawback for developing this ancillary resource is the time that it takes to transfer the resources into the blog shell, to add various resources and then to update the blog entries appropriately.  I started by moving just one class into a blog form; I simply cut and pasted the elements of the syllabi into different posts and then built the sidebar menus. Over the course of the years, I’ve added various resources — sometimes to just one blog, sometimes to all the course blogs.   Each summer, after I update and tweak my syllabi, I have a second level of revisions to make, as I need to make sure that my posts are dated correctly, some of them poised to be published when appropriate, and altered based on any courses I’m making in the course.

Ultimately it is the temporality and the ongoing-ness of the blog that works well for my teaching style;  I believe that the centrality and ease accessing information is what makes the blogs work well for many students.

-Andrew

 

Andrew’s Kit

  • Personal Gmail account with credentials set up for Blogger (you could also use eCompanion or your Malone Google Apps account for similar ends).
  • Multiple and regular access to the Internet using laptop/iPad/SmartPhone.

Glossary of Terms

  • Blog: A web page (like this one) which contains regular entries by a person or group of people which is centered around a particular subject area, theme, or topic. A blog would be analogous to a public journal or diary. Wikipedia’s Explanation is here.
  • Web 2.0: Also called the Semantic Web. Are pages whose values is determined not necessarily by the content of the page but instead by the people and relationships which revolve around the page. Here is wikipedia’s explanation of Web 2.0 Technologies.

Other Resources

One Response to The Joys and Pains of the Traditional Syllabus: Using blogs as an alternative to the traditional syllabus

  • Earl Rodd says:

    I really like the blog idea for courses where that fits (which I suspect is most of what Andrew teaches!)

    I have put my syllabi on my website (since 2001) and students know that it CAN change. I do try to highlight changes and
    announce them in class if they are not far in the future. And I have sympathy for students who have worked ahead and did not notice a minor change.

    For my online (see http://www.malone.edu/erodd) I separate each course into 4 parts:
    -“Syllabus” – objectives, resources ( textbook etc.), topics, grading rubric, other administrative items.

    -Assignments for first half of semester. When a student clicks here, it goes directly to the current day.
    -Assignments for the second half of semester.

    Sometimes the “assignments” section contains the full assignment (maybe questions on a reading – students can cut/paste the
    questions to their WORD file) and sometimes a link to a printable file with homework questions and space for answers (works well for
    a lot of CS assignments). For courses with readings which are public, I put links to the web location. If they are eCompanion, then all I can
    give is the name.

    -Other links such as to online Computer science references, emergency updates.

    This method allows ME to:
    1. Change assignments as I see the class progress including new readings in courses where that applies.

    2. I rarely do the whole semester assignment layout at the beginning. Too many things (eg. snow) happen. In Computer Science,
    courses are rarely the same course as last time so I am always learning as we go just how the material flows.

    3. Have a rock solid reference. I tell students that regardless of what I may say in class or the hallway or anyone else says, if the
    web site says it, that is what and when is required.

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