Liquid content refers to web content that is highly shared – where the desire for sharing is driven by contagious or ‘viral ideas’ within the content. OK, ok. Maybe a college course syllabus won’t become viral (for good reasons) but what if a course syllabus could transform into a content experience that students really wanted to look at and engage with, as opposed to resource we dictated they “must read.” Are we at the tipping point for this to happen?
Back in 2011, I wrote a post titled “Time for an Extreme Syllabus Make-Over?” In that post I explore the importance and value of the course syllabus to both instructors and students, ideas I still support. I also explored the value of communicating with students more visually than faculty generally do in higher education. This argument was contextualized in a brief reference to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and mentioned the general shift toward the visual digital media context our students toggle in and out of as they move between their formal (i.e. in Blackboard, Moodle, Desire2Learn, Canvas, etc.) and informal (in the open web — YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, etc.) environments. That dichotomy remains — if anything, visual content has become more central to an individual’s informal learning as the ownership of smartphones has accelerated in recent years.
I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on this notion of the 21st century syllabus (and chuckling to myself that I would even use such a phrase). Three years ago, I found a visually compelling PDF to be cutting edge. Today, with so many students accessing content from smartphones, is a PDF the best format for a syllabus? I think not. The syllabus should be a resource that could be easily accessed and bookmarked on a phone, not locked inside an LMS, and a resource that does not need to be downloaded.
I receive a notification in my email each time someone downloads the “Educator’s Guide to a 21st Century Syllabus” that I shared back in 2011. And each time I receive one of those notifications, I am torn — part of me wants to take that resource down, as I think it needs some serious updating, but I also feel it is helpful to faculty who may not be ready to leave the PDF format all together.
This is where digital media can really become transformative for a resource like a syllabus.
Here is my grand vision. Imagine with me. What if your syllabi were beautiful? What if they were a pleasure for students to engage with? What if they provided opportunities to not only understand and access policies, expectations, schedules and such, but for our students to meet us? What if the syllabus became a site where former students could share voices (stories, feedback, words of encouragement) with future students? Isn’t THIS what our goal should be as we move into this amazing landscape of mobile, digital media?
What if these syllabi were all open websites, as opposed to documents secured inside a Learning Management System, as so many are? Thiw would encourage sharing of ideas amongst faculty and students could bookmark them on their smartphones and refer to them frequently, on the go.
But beyond that, they could be linked to pre-registration experiences for learners. Why do students need to wait until after they register for a class to review a course syllabus? This has always made me scratch my head. Imagine if the registration process was truly student-centered and students could not only review the course syllabus but also experience a video from each instructor and any other creative resources designed into that syllabus.
Now we’re talking.
Now you may be thinking, “I don’t know how to make a syllabus like that” or “faculty at my institution aren’t that tech savvy.” Well, you are wrong — and I hope you take that as a challenge.
In the past year, many micro-publishing tools have emerged that facilitate simple creation of beautiful, captivating single-page websites. They are perfect for making a liquid syllabus. In past blog posts, I’ve referenced Populr, Smore, and Tackk — and all three of them make great tools for creating beautiful, mobile-friendly course syllabi (or digital flyers that link to course syllabi)!
Below are a few examples of syllabi for you to explore that have been created with these micro-publishing tools. I encourage you to view them on both a web browser and your mobile device, an important experiment for testing the value of new tools in our mobile learning society.
- Offers a robust ad-free account for educators, although you would never know it based upon the design and organization of their site. Populr.me offers institutional accounts too, which could be incredible transformational for faculty across the board, as the upgraded options included blocks of content that can be customized and updated from single point and pushed out into templates across the institution. While I have not used this type of account, I imagine this being a pathway towards supporting faculty syllabus creation by establishing a template with institutional policies plugged in, saving the faculty time and creating more consistency in the student experience overall. Of course there are many other uses too like faculty pages, faculty training offerings, events, committee meeting notes, and more.
- How are you using Populr.me?
Populr.me Syllabus Examples:
- History of Still Photography by me, Mt. San Jacinto College. I am happy to share the clone link for this syllabus with anyone who contacts me directly through my blog. 🙂 You’ll notice that I, personally, choose to include a PDF at the bottom of my Populr.me syllabus so students who prefer the option to also print the resource have that option.
- English 102: Stretch Composition I – created by Stacey Anderson of CSU Channel Islands
- How to Humanize Your Online Class – created by me for CSU Channel Islands
- How to Design Your Online Course – created by me for CSU Channel Islands
- Designing Engaging Online Activities – created by me for CSU Channel Islands
- Tackk is my newest find and we are becoming very happy together. I’m using Tack to create Unit Overviews for my online class (which I write about here and plan to blog more about soon). Tackk does not have options for creating multiple columns but the user experience is lovely — very simple and the content is beautiful. Each Tackk also has the option to include a stream at the bottom to which viewers may comment. Tackks can be embedded (adjust the height and width provided to make it larger and fit well in your LMS) and even when embedded, the videos play great on my iPhone and iPad (which I can’t say about the same YouTube videos I embed directly into Blackboard…sigh). Customizable URLs are also built right in, which is nice!
Tackk Syllabus Example:
- English 116: Critical Thinking & Composition by Tracy Schaelen of Southwestern College.
- I have not actively used Smore so it’s tough for me to comment on its features. Smore offers educator accounts for $59/year and details are available here.
- In the limited use I have with it, it seems to have fewer layout options than Populr.me (which can be limiting for syllabus creation). Smore is marketed as a tool for creating digital”flyers.” It is simple to use and the content you create is beautiful. Analytics are also included.
- How are you using Smore?
Smore Syllabus Example:
- Disabilities in Society by Jill Leafstedt at CSU Channel Islands. (I should note that this is an old syllabus of Jill’s. After learning about Populr.me she made the move and started using it for her syllabus.
I just came across this post and wonder what you think now, 3.5 years later!
BTW, toward your idea of having open syllabus pages (not trapped in the LMS), we tried to institute a syllabus builder tool back in 2009 or 2010 when I worked full-time as Manager of Online Teaching & Learning at SF State. See an example: https://syllabus.sfsu.edu/syllabus/view/2147-16306
Part of the goal was to allow faculty to reuse static parts of the syllabus (e.g., office location) and update dynamic parts of the syllabus (e.g., topics, activities). We also allowed faculty to share with colleagues teaching the same section, etc. If I were leading the effort now, I would a) add slots for videos to give an overview of the course (maybe your “Welcome Mat” idea, plus explaining key syllabus points), an introduction to the instructor(s), and any others that make sense, and b) work with tool developers to help faculty convert the text into an additional infographic version.
Thanks for the great article!
I love using Smore–it is intuitive, and I like to see what seems to resonate with those who see it.
Here is a sample of one of mine for English 100 (college composition): https://www.smore.com/paqt2
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