Humanizing Pre-Course Contact with a Liquid Syllabus

Six years ago (gulp!), I wrote a post about the Liquid Syllabus. The concept is simple. Use a website tool rather than a tool for document creation to create a welcoming, supportive syllabus with visuals and, of course, a friendly welcome video of yourself.

I also included the practice in the second edition of my book in 2017. Since then, it has evolved and continues to really resonate with faculty looking for a starting point with humanizing.

With my colleagues, we included the Liquid Syllabus as an assignment in our spectacular professional development course, Equity and Culturally Responsive Teaching in the Online Environment, along with the 3-minute video below. The video identifies the benefits a Liquid Syllabus brings to students and to faculty.

Tapping the Potential of Pre-Course Contact

As you look ahead to your fall courses, please recognize how confused your students are about their courses and how traumatized they are from the open-ended unknown we have ahead of us. It’s hard for me to imagine being an incoming freshman or a transfer student arriving at a university. Even for student continuing at the same institution, the phrase “online course” means so many different things. That confusion will derail your students, especially those without successful experiences learning online.

Online courses require students to troubleshoot on their own and manage complex tasks. You can help by supporting them regularly, being clear about what’s ahead, chunking large projects and content into manageable pieces, and making every effort to establish trust and positive instructor-student relationship in those early weeks.

You do not need be in Zoom with your students to convey your presence. Send them a friendly email the week before your course starts with a link to a mobile-friendly Liquid Syllabus or welcome package. Pre-course contact is your opportunity to welcome your students, ease their anxieties, make a positive first impression, and ensure they know exactly what they are expected to do that first week and how to do it.

Getting Started

For those of you want to give it a whirl – first, pat yourself on the back! Next, if you are new to using website tools, I recommend trying Google Sites. Sites has made excellent strides in accessibility (an area that Populr.me, the last tool I recommended has fallen short). And it renders beautifully on a phone – be sure to open one of the examples on your phone to check it out!

Also, I presented a webinar with Fabiola Torres about Humanizing Pre-Course Contact with Google Sites. Here is the webinar archive. In the session, Fabiola shared her beautiful Liquid Syllabus example and I shared my adaptation, a Welcome Package. The Welcome Package is a single page Google Site that is designed specifically to give students exactly what they need to be successful in week one. One of my favorite new practices included in the example is the Pact, which is a clearly articulated list of what students can expect from me and what I will expect from my students. This is one of the many practices I have used from Zaretta Hammond’s stunning book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. You’ll also find a video I recorded with Adobe Spark (so fun and free!). If you use Spark, just be aware that you will need to download the .mp4 of your video from Spark and then host it somewhere else (like YouTube) to add closed captions. Need more ideas for videos? Check out Karen Costa’s great new book!

Fabi and I welcome you to borrow any language from our Sites that you find helpful.

Resources:

14 Comments

  1. David

    Interesting. The points about being welcoming and encouraging are well-taken, but why do you think it’s important that the syllabus be accessible by mobile phone? Students need a laptop or desktop for the readings (if for nothing else), so is it so bad for them to have to access the syllabus in PDF on a larger screen?

    Reply
    1. Hi David. Not all students have a laptop or desktop, especially headed into fall when most colleges (at least in California) are holding all of their courses online. If you teach for an access-oriented institution, ensuring students without laptops or desktop computers can access your course is very important. With that said, I would bet my bottom dollar that if you send students an email, they’ll read it on their phone. Providing a public link to a mobile-responsive website with your course info sends the cue that they matter. And that’s important for all humans.

      Reply
    2. Maureen

      I whole heartedly support and admire efforts for all materials to be accessible via a mobile device. Requiring expensive equipment like a laptop or desktop is a huge hit to equitable education.

      Reply
      1. Vasilisa Rutsch

        Thank you so much for sharing your information on how to create liquid syllabi! I am studying pedagogy in order to become a CC professor and I really appreciate the resources and knowledge you shared on how to humanize online classes.

        I want to share my thoughts… I agree that it is convenient for students to access school announcements and materials on the phone. However, I disagree that laptops and desktops are expensive in comparison to smart phones. An older and/or simpler laptop is often much more affordable than an i-Phone (up to 3-4 times cheaper) and computers were used for education decades before mobile phones became smart phones. Last spring, my son’t middle school let students borrow Chrome books for distance learning, and this year, because the demand was higher, we invested in a Chrome book for him. We still haven’t, however, bought him an i-Phone, because they are expensive. I also do not know how students would write 3000-6000 word essays (or even longer) without any access to a computer, just to share one example. Many community colleges actually lended them to students precisely to support equity in education. So to me, a phone-friendly syllabus sounds culturally relevant and demonstrates that a professor understands students and is technology smart, but it still does not sound necessary. I am willing to be open-minded about it though!

        Reply
        1. Hi Vasilisa. Thank you for your probing question and open mind!

          The Liquid Syllabus is designed to greet students with their instructor’s warm, human touch before the course starts. have two college-aged children. Each of them has a computer or laptop and they have broadband. They also have a phone. Even though they do use their computer to do their academic work, they always check their email on their phone. By making a mobile-friendly and public Liquid Syllabus, students are greeted with your warm human touch via video and a mobile-responsive webpage. Being prompted to read a non-mobile responsive document (with no warm, friendly video) on a phone sends a very different message to a student about that particular class (and I would bet students wouldn’t do it at that moment, which is the point).

          To go deeper, you are right. A smartphone is more expensive than a Chromebook. But the situation is more complex than that. Community colleges, as you know, accept everyone. Our students include learners with high GPAs and strong cultural capital that poise them for success. These aren’t the students the Liquid Syllabus is designed to intentionally support. The equity gaps that persist in higher education illuminate the fact that college has been designed to leave out our Black, Latinx, Indigenous and other students of color. To fix this, we need to change how we do things.

          Here’s some data you may or may not be familiar with. A study by the Hope Center found that 6 out of 10 CA Community College students were housing insecure in the past year and 1 in 5 were homeless in the past year. Students with the following identity markers are more likely to be impacted by basic needs threats: sexual orientation (transgender and those who don’t identify as male, female, or transgender), sexual orientation (those who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual), and race/ethnicity (Black, indigenous).

          Low-income adults in the United States are more likely to own a smartphone and less likely to have a laptop or broadband at home to connect a laptop (or Chromebook). A 2018 EDUCAUSE poll confirmed that more community college students own smartphones than laptops (https://www.educause.edu/ecar/research-publications/ecar-study-of-community-college-students-and-information-technology/2019/device-access-ownership-and-importance).

          In California, 40% (the largest racial/ethnic group) of the roughly 2 million community college students we serve are Hispanic. And Pew Research has shown that Black and Hispanic adults in the U.S. are more likely to rely on a smartphone to access the internet. What that means is even if they were given a mobile device, they could not use it unless they were also provided with network connectivity.

          If we view a smartphone as an add-on to a Chromebook or a laptop, yes, it can seem like an expensive, luxury device to own. But the reality is that many people use a smartphone for an all-inclusive access point: to coordinate job logistics, to stay in touch with family and friends, for entertainment, and to do their schoolwork. And these are the same students who are disproportionately impacted in higher education. This is why making learning environments mobile-friendly is anti-racist.

          You’re right that computers have been used for education for decades, but if we are truly committed to improving equity gaps, we need to examine how we’ve always done things and make changes to support the success of all of our students.

          Sincerely,
          Michelle

          Reply
  2. Jenn

    Hello! Thanks for the great idea. How would I manage a Liquid Syllabus for one that changes constantly as students and I learn together how to meet their needs? My syllabus is not static. Due dates, readings and assignments change often. Policies do not.
    Thank you!

    Reply

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