Best practices: Five tips for creating an effective online syllabus

A syllabus should be the “go to” document for students in any course no matter its’ delivery method. An effective syllabus should eliminate the possibility of confusion on the part of your students as it should answer relatively any question they might have about the course and course components. Creating an effective syllabus is as much about sharing valuable content as it is about creating structure especially in the online environment when regular course “meetings” typically don’t come into play. In an online course your smiling face and reassuring voice aren’t normally present so the syllabus must convey those qualities through language. Taking the syllabus created for a face-to-face version of a course and adding “This course is fully online.” just doesn’t cut it. In today’s article I want to share four tips with you on creating a syllabus that is perfect for the online learning environment.

Tip #1: Include important information.

When writing your syllabus you should consider not only the things that you would include in a traditional face-to-face syllabus but also additional information that is specific to the online environment. For example replace items like the room number with the course URL meeting dates and times with the required number of logins office hours with virtual office hours and more. It is important to include the “normal” syllabus items of course. Included here would be the course description general course requirements (like prerequisites) grading and participation guidelines and communication. For online courses it is of the utmost importance to clearly define grading participation and communication—as you won’t have the luxury of explaining these face to face.

Tip #2: Define participation expectations.

Participation in an online course is not a “given” like it is in a face-to-face course (where participation means completing assignments and showing up for class sessions). Pointing out the specifics of participation in an online course would include items like how many times students are expected to log in each week the amount of minutes or hours expected to be in the site each week and contributions to community or course forums. You should also include in this section expectations for YOURSELF as the instructor. Meaning what should students expect to see from you in the course as far as posting and replying in forums etc.?

Tip #3: Give grading goals.

Included in the course syllabus should be explicitly defined grading criteria. This should include all of the graded assignments and their description the points allowed for each and a description for how earnable points in the course will be aggregated to determine a final grade. Assignments that you will grade subjectively such as reflection papers or journal entries should be graded using rubrics. To help students understand how you will assess their submission include a copy of the rubric in the syllabus. If you are using Moodle’s rubrics save yourself some time by taking screenshots of them to include in the syllabus instead of creating them twice – in the assignment and in the syllabus.

Tip #4: Clearly define communication.

Communication can be tricky in online courses if you do not clearly define communication methods. In your syllabus make sure you post items such as your e-mail address office phone number office hours (even though students will not actually “visit” your office) Skype or other IM system contact names and preferred communication methods. You may prefer students contact you via Skype to ask questions rather than by phone (you can Skype with multiple students at a time but only be on the phone with one). Remember that your students will have varied levels of proficiency in different communication methods (you may have a student who is not comfortable using IM and prefers a phone call). Be patient with your students and make sure that you provide plenty of time slots for students to contact you if they have questions or concerns.

Tip #5: Make the most of Moodle modules.

As a best practice we suggest using the Book module for your course syllabus. The Book module allows you to chunk your syllabus into logical segments (e.g. grading participation course description course requirements communication) using the Book’s chapter feature. It has in-module navigation that allows students to view the syllabus in chronological order but also has a great Table of Contents allowing students to jump to specific pages. The Book module also allows for printing—so students can print the syllabus for later use as well!

Keep in mind that if anything you should strive to be even clearer in an online syllabus than you may have been in previous versions that were written for face-to-face courses. To learn more about creating an effective online syllabus enroll in our Best Practices in E-Learning online course today!


~Laura Lea



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