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  • Design Lenses, 16 May, 2011
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  1. Welcome and Introductions
  2. Notetaker volunteers?  Etherpad:
  3.  Today's topics:
    1.  Syllabus capabilities - facilitated by Jacques Reynauld (HEC Montreal) and Yitna Firdyiwek (University of Virginia)

Meeting notes:


  • Jacques Raynauld, HEC Montréal
  • Lynn Ward, Indiana University
  • Debbie Runshe, Indiana Univeristy/IUPUI
  • Janice Smith, Three Canoes
  • Jon Hays & Eli Cochran, UC Berkeley
  • Yitna Firdyiwek, University of Virginia


  •  Syllabus capabilities - facilitated by Jacques Reynauld (HEC Montreal) and Yitna Firdyiwek (University of Virginia)
  • See Syllabus Manifesto for background (link on T and L Lenses page)
  • Background - Yitna and Jacques organized a BOF at Sakai Denver about syllabi. CSU was there as were Keli and Daphne. Continued discussion throughout year. Ended up with smaller group of Jacques, Yitna, and reps from two other schools.
  • Created a manifesto document to summarize their thoughts, especially in relation to Sakai OAE.
  • Abstract gives a good summary of what they are trying to do. Information in syllabus is useful for wide range of purposes and actors. Paper syllabi are well understood - many guides and websites about writing a syllabus.
  • Moving a syllabus to a website - the matter becomes less clear. In a new environment, need to address topic correctly. Syllabus is a rich source of information for sharing, reusing, and data mining. The introduction to the manifesto presents this in a detailed way. Multiple uses of a syllabus can be important.
  • In section 2 of the manifesto, they discuss the traditional paper-based syllabus, including references, one of which describes a syllabus as a contract, a permanent record, a learning tool.
  • In seciton 3 of the manifesto, they explain why online syllabi are important for multiple purposes (see manifesto).
  • A common belief is that a syllabus is something you put in your website for the students to consult and then you construct your course in a different way. This idea should be considered differently. Instead a syllabus in a web-based environment, the syllabus should be the whole course.
  • The group discussed very structured websites versus more freeform websites, representing the styles of different universities.
  • The role of the syllabus in the teaching and learning environment has been underestimated. It has been thought of a document to refer to rather than one to be actively used in the teaching and learning process. In the context of an electronic system, the role of the syllabus can be revisited. It can start to morph into something much more dynamic.
  • The first issue is can the syllabus in addition to being the central document to teaching and learning, can it be the focus for integrating teaching and learning with technology. Issues confronting the electronic syllabus can be see from the points of view of the instructor, the administration, and the student. Each pulls the syllabus in a different direction. Institutions want to see a predefined structure that is data driven. Instructors want something that is much more customizable and that allows them to be creative and expressive. The students may have varying needs depending on how much interaction they want and how they see the learning contract between the instructor and themselves. They may want more dynamic interaction between the syllabus and other components of the course.
  • In the end the boundaries between the syllabus and the course tend to blur.
  • Dealing with the semantic underpinnings of structure, one can look at different purposes of syllabi to determine how structured it should be.
  • The group looked at Table 3 in the manifesto. It exemplifies the difficulty of getting a handle on what the role of the syllabus should be. Three perspectives of student, instructor, and administrator, along with the intended purpose and the degree of structure required.
  • At UVA, instructors are adamant about freedom to construct their syllabi. Other institutions like CSU have very elaborate and organized ways to prepopulate syllabi.
  • What does this mean for Sakai OAE? We don't know. That's why we are putting it up here. Is this a valid statement to say that the role of syllabi should be reevaluated in a web-based environment? We are by no means dictating any kind of perspective on the syllabus. We like the way it shimmers and changes and challenges us. It holds a lot of promise for where we can go with it.
  • Having a kind of structure can be seen by many instructors as something that is very valuable. A blank page is something you have to organize. Having a predetermined way to organize content of a syllabus is an advantage for some instructors.
  • Questions:
  • Portfolio workflows: In OSP students often need some guidance for what to do when, a kind of student dashboard. Answer: UVA worked on an interactive process to link students to specific discussions, assignments, tests. etc. A one-stop shop for students. Everything the students needed to do in the course was all right there. Students knew what to do when. Support for students by a single integrated environment. Students loved it immediately. Instructors liked it because it eliminated the mechanics of telling students what to do when. At the back end it did not change anything - students still had to figure out how to use the assignments tool. Yitna believes this needs to happen with portfolio processes.
  • Is it possible to make this too much of a spoonfeeding experience? Answer: It could provide an opportunity for real creativity rather than teachers and students putting energy into coping with frustration.
  • To me the syllabus defines relationships between the course and higher order things like programs, by linking course and program objectives, for example. But I am a little uncomfortable defining the syllabus as the visual representation of the course. There can be other means of representing courses. Also front loading of content in the syllabus can get in the way of learning. Answer: Ways of visualizing the course are very important. Text document alone is not sufficient. The nature of the syllabus needs to be changes to become more dynamic, embedding tools and opening up windows to perform activities. When you package it up, you can't it any more. There are different ways to visualize a course. Working with an instructor that teaches gaming -- too many constraints by pdf documents. Wants to branch into 3D environment. Organizing function of syllabi and differnet representations of course - exactly the problem this group is trying to reconcile. You need both.
  • For things like learning outcomes, is it the syllabus that allows us to attach objectives to an assigment? Where do the learning objectives live? How are they provided? Do other areas of the application also need to access and take advantage of learning objectives? If you use a module in your course, it is part of the expanded syllabus, and you can attach the learning objectives there.
  • Is the syllabus a way of imposing structure on things that exist elsewhere or do those things exist autonomously separately and apart from the syllabus. Does the syllabus provide structure or functionality or both? Answer: Through Parks and Harris, you can look at any syllabus and break down the content into permanent record, contract, teaching and learning material. Is this all? Or are there other categories we need to consider. Can we impose a rigorous categorization on the syllabus. Are there other elements that do not fit into one of these three areas?
  • Table 1 and the elements in it - a very constructive place to start. Need to encourage groups to think more on this level than on how do we implement the ideas. The student does not know or care about how it is implemented. I would hope that it would ultimately be implemented in ways that meet various learning styles. I am curious about the relationship between this vision and what Keli was doing with the template in OAE. It is a place to start looking at these different elements and meaningfully work with the OAE project.
  • The other question (from Yitna) is about the perspectives of the student, instructor, and administrator. If we take the institutional view, that is where the emphasis on structure comes from. How do we design keeping in mind all three perspectives at the same time.
  • Right now in Sakai OAE, you can use the document creation capacity to do much of what we have desribed, but how do we go beyond that to construct different views for different users? To do that, the underlying structure would have to be in place from the very beginning.
  • Most courses have syllabi. Few would object to a syllabus being interactive, an interactive road map to the course content. It is a question of whether or not that should be the primary representation. Clay Fenlayson hopes that the student gets to decide how they would want to view the information. The student should have the option to select views that he or she finds most helpful in managing their work. We need to take all these differnet ways of representing a course and groups of courses into account as we think about these issues. There are lots of different ways of looking at this problem.
  • If we want students to be able to access this information on their phone, it has to be organized. There has to be some kind of semantic plan. By taking the time and convincing people to organize better stuff, it is going to be more flexible later on for lots of users. If we keep the information in a loose way, it will be really hard to do this at a later point.
  • Has anyone mapped the life cycle of a course? How does a course begin? Depending on the context for a course, some of these toggles could be set. Does the institution intend to collect data on the courses? Don't want the tool to dictate structure, but allow institutional and individual choices in determining how much structure. In the life cycle of a course, there may be many variables. Who owns the courses, who designs the courses?
  • Next steps for the manifesto? Would love to see and willing and interested in answering the question in Table 1. Are there gaps? Can we build on this work to help determine what the data elements in the syllabus need to be? For example, from a student perspective, what do they need to actually take and successfully complete the course? If some of the key elements are missing, then the instructor needs guidance in completing these missing elements. Presenting this information in a more robust form would be very instructive for the OAE project. There are all kinds of flexible ways to present these data elements and still maintain their meaning.
  • Question would be how to do this most effectively? Good topic for next week would be to think about the elements of the syllabus that are missing. Common components and what are the data elements associated with each of the 12 sections. Is the syllabus group continuing to meet?
  • The syllabus group would like to include more voices. We need to list the data elements and get more traction on all the pieces before discussing how the elements can be handled. The group is happy to share what it has done with a larger group of people. All these elements are key to the work in Montreal (and UVA) as well.
  • Will plan to continue this disucssion next Monday. Following Monday is Memorial Day in the U.S., a holiday. Will plan to look at Table 1 and do some gap analysis there.
  • One of the big challenges is how to organize the course material. That is where faculty want the flexiblity. We want different views - calendars, groups, etc.
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