The Course Syllabus

June 24, 2010

hammockMost full-time faculty, at Palomar College anyway, no longer teach summer school classes. Now I’m not suggesting that they are spending the summer resting comfortably in a hammock – with a tropical drink close by – but it’s probably safe to say that most are not thinking of their fall semester syllabus right now!

With fall semester about two months away, though, now may be a good time to reflect on changing our syllabus for next semester. This post doesn’t really feature technology or relate to online education, instead, this time I want to comment on two very different approaches to structuring a course syllabus. While each approach was highly successful, according the the respective authors, the approaches differ in tone and emphasis. I’ll attempt a brief description of each and list the links to the resource for anyone interested in following up.

In A Behavior Contract That Made A Difference, Lori Norin and Tom Walton describe their list of behavioral expectations that they ask students to read carefully and then sign. Norin and Walton reported that ” . . . the contract positively impacted retention and behavior in the classroom as observed by us and noted by our dean.” Students, too, reacted positively, because the contract spelled out the rules of the class as well as consequences for not following the rules. The authors state that colleagues of theirs began using similar contracts and have also reported better retention and classroom behavior as a result. What is this “contract?”

The contract Norin and Walton distribute to their students consists of some 21 rules or expectations that the professors have regarding student behavior. The contract reported in their report was a departmental one and individual instructors have the right to revise the departmental one (item 20: “I understand that each professor may add additional rules in writing to this departmental document.”). Rule 17 specifies that cell phones must be turned off or turned to vibrate and the professor may enforce a consequence for ringing or texting during class. Rule 18 prohibits iPods or MP3 players in class. Other rules cover attendance, assignments, electronic communications, and plagiarism. While expectations for student behavior were explicitly identified, I did not see any comparable statement regarding the instructor’s behavior. Maybe in another document? If not, I think students could justifiably request a similar statement of expectations regarding the professor’s behavior for the class.

The second approach as detailed in Making A Syllabus More Than A Contract by Roxanne Cullen was very different. Cullen’s motivation for revising her syllabus was “to create a more learner-centered academic experience.” In this approach the syllabus became a document with three main categories and several subcategories. The first main category, Community, “includes subcategories that relate to the accessibility of the teacher, the presence of learning rationale, and evidence of collaboration.” The second category is labeled Power and Control and “the subcategories focus on teacher and student roles; use of outside resources, and the general focus of the syllabus . . .” The intent of this part of the syllabus is to focus on student learning outcomes. Here some accommodation to students is evident: for example, opportunities may exist to negotiate “policies, procedures, assignment choice, etc.” The third category Evaluation and Assessment, “subcategories examine the use of grades, the feedback mechanisms employed, types of evaluation, learning outcomes, and opportunities for revising or redoing assignments.”

The tone and emphasis of these two different approaches to communicating expectations to students couldn’t be more different. The first is a tough love approach – we know what works best, here are the rules, follow them and you’ll be successful – that provides clear, precise guidelines for behavior and asks students to sign a behavior contract. The second is far more democratic and collaborative. At one point Cullen states that she wanted her guidelines to “look less like arbitrary laws set down by the teacher and more as though they served enhanced learning.” Significantly, Cullen states that “The most significant change I made was in the area of power and control. Instead of establishing an attendance policy, class participation rules, or penalties for late work, I indicated that all of these would be negotiated by the class.” Would this approach encourage more student ownership and buy-in and, therefore, more engagement and commitment? Or would it encourage an attempt by students to make the class as easy as possible?

Well there we have it – two very different attempts to create a classroom conducive to student learning and higher retention. Both are reported to work well. Which approach seems more sensible to you? Or can we combine the best of both approaches?


Assessing Your Online Class

May 24, 2010

Spring semester 2010 has just concluded and it’s way too early to begin planning for summer school! Or, maybe it’s not too early. In this blog post I want to share an interesting list of tips for doing an online class the right way. This list of tips or suggestions was developed at Humboldt State University and is titled
A Checklist for Facilitating Online Courses.”

The checklist identifies four important roles for an online instructor: managerial, pedagogical, social, and technical. For each of those roles the checklist lists specific tasks. In addition, the checklist groups the specific tasks by the time in the semester in which they should be done. For example, in the Before The Class Begins time period, a list of managerial, pedagogical, social, and technical tasks that should be considered before the class starts are presented. Other tasks in each category are associated with During The First Week, Throughout The Course, and During The Final Week.

A major value of this “best practices” guideline is that it helps us to think through the process of delivering a robust, well thought-out online class. If you take the time to go through the document you will undoubtedly get some good ideas about things to include in your online class. And even if you decide not to use many of the ideas in this guideline, just reading through them will almost certainly stimulate you to think of other things to do in your online class.

What are some of your “best practices” tips – one or two things you’ve found to be very successful in your online class?

Blackboard Faculty Spotlight

April 30, 2010

During 2009 and Spring 2010, the Palomar Academic Technology Committee (ATC), in response to ACCJC recommendations, embarked on a series of related projects to establish processes that would ensure the quality of online classes.

Ensure Quality of Online Classes

The Academic Senate requested that the ATC devise some means of validating that instructors were prepared and able to develop a high quality online class. The first step involved reaching agreement about what constituted an “Accomplished” or high quality online class. An ATC workgroup researched the literature to discover published best practices and to review what other colleges and universities had done to assess the quality of their online classes. Combining several well reviewed assessment rubrics, an ATC workgroup developed an “Online Class Validation Checklist.” This checklist is intended to assess 5 important areas of an online class:

1. Online organization and design,
2. Interaction,
3. Appropriate use of technology,
4. Universal Access, and
5. Assessment and Evaluation.


Once the full ATC had endorsed the checklist we devised a pilot-test during Spring 2010 in which we assessed 6 current online classes using this checklist. The full ATC participated in this pilot-test evaluation. The result was that the checklist was deemed useful in assessing the quality of online classes but it required some modification. The most extensive modification was to Category 4: Universal Access; this category was revised to reflect current universal access practices.

I’ll have more to say about this “online class validation” process in a later blog but here I want to focus on the high quality of the online classes that we looked at. Of course to be candid, the people who volunteered to have their online courses assessed, in all likelihood, believed that their courses were well developed – and they were right! All the classes the committee reviewed were developed using the Blackboard system, the course management system used at Palomar.

Representative of the excellent online classes offered at Palomar College is an Introduction to Sociology class taught by Professor Terry Humphrey. Terry’s Introduction to Sociology class illustrates many of the best practices that contribute to an effective and accomplished online class. I’ll highlight a couple of these features here and encourage anyone who is interested in this issue to view the video interview with Terry in which she shows her course and describes her intent in developing it. Terry’s course did an excellent job in the following areas I thought:

  • Structure and Organization – the course was organized on a weekly basis, with all the assignments, tasks, writing, quizzes, discussion board and so on grouped by weekly folders; students knew exactly what was required of them each week
  • Good use of Announcements – Terry posted announcements on a regular basis, calling the students’ attention to important details; she also made a practice of emailing those announcement directly to students (an automatic option in Blackboard) and this she felt made a big different in terms of student involvement
  • Regular and varied assessments – student learning was assessed in a variety of ways which gave students the best opportunity to demonstrate what they had learned

It seems like the things that produce the best learning outcomes in an on-campus class are the same things that work in an online class: engaging learning activities, regular assessment and feedback, and an involved instructor who values and rewards student participation. No secret here and it’s encouraging to know that it can be done with online students as effectively as with on-campus students.

Interview with Terry Humphrey about her online class

Online Class Validation Checklist

Online Class Organization – Best Practices

January 3, 2010

We all have a lot of material and resources we want to make available to our online students but there are so many ways to do this. Are there some guidelines, some best practices when it comes to organizing our online class?

It turns out that many people at many institutions have given this question a great deal of thought. Recently at Palomar, the Academic Technology Committee (ATC) was asked to develop a mechanism to “validate” online courses. This request came directly from Palomar’s recent Accreditation visit. One of the recommendations of the Accrediting Committee was that Palomar needed to develop some means of validating the quality of distance education classes. During the Fall, 2009 semester, the ATC reviewed the literature on high quality online classes and programs.

After reviewing the tools and strategies other insitutions used to develop exemplary online classes, the ATC constructed a best-practices, checklist document. The checklist is intended to assist online instructors as they prepare their online classes. The checklist will be pilot-tested during the Spring, 2010 semester. TERB, the committee at Palomar that develops standards and practices for evaluating classes/instructors, has modified the ATC checklist slightly and the modified checklist will serve as the instrument that faculty will use when they evaluate online classes.

If anyone reviews the checklist (see link below), I would be very interested in hearing your opinion – about what you like, don’t like, as well as any suggestions you have to improve it. If any of you would like to be involved in the pilot testing during Spring, 2010 (either as a reviewer or as a volunteer to have your course reviewed), please let me know.

Validation of preparedness to teach online – new revision

Actively Engaged Students

December 11, 2009

Being Proactive or Hand Holding?

We all want our students to be actively engaged in our online class but what strategies are most likely to ensure that this occurs? This issue came up at a recent faculty committee meeting and the discussion became very animated!

There were those who argued that, once the class Discussion Board was set up, the instructor should stay out of it. This line of reasoning goes like this: If the instructor is too intrusive students will not respond to each other but rather post only to get the instructor’s attention. Further, some held, if the instructor posted replies to some students but not others, some would have hurt feelings. In addition, according to this perspective, students should not be reminded of due dates and prodded if they missed an assignment – after all, these are adults and that sort of thing doesn’t happen in the “real world” where people have jobs and are expected to do them. In short – we are doing students a disservice with this sort of hand-holding.

I was among those who took an opposing position. I believe that students are best served when the instructor is proactive – in the Discussion Board and throughout the course. Students understand that the instructor will not post a reply to every student’s comment and they do appreciate seeing that the instructor is actively engaged in class discussions. And in my experience students are grateful when I’ve reminded them of due dates or that they have only one more day to turn in an assignment or take a test. In my experience, instructors who are proactive online make it more likely that students will become actively involved with the course and remain that way. What do you think?