From time to time, I find interesting articles and link to them from my website. They could cover a whole range of topics, but I generally group them under the heading of “articles I like”, or my new title, “Curation:”. What they have in common is some sort of idea that I found intriguing or provocative. Today’s topic: A liquid syllabus.
The short mechanics of it are misleading, as you could simply see it as a syllabus that a professor has created for their course but which they place on their own personal website rather than on the internal university system. I initially thought what they were really talking about was creating an evergreen syllabus for a course, something that would allow them to update it more easily, or to link to other materials out in the wild that didn’t fit well for links and approvals within a stodgy university computer platform. Just another form of academic freedom, I thought. But I clicked through to the article for two reasons — one was to understand the liquid syllabus but the other was that it talked about improving access for vulnerable groups yet leaving the professor somehow more vulnerable.
How could it help vulnerable groups? And was the professor more vulnerable because it was more innovative and emerging issues? I had to know what the conversation looked like, coming so close to the interests I have in online learning, educational governance, and computers.
Reaching vulnerable groups
The initial elements were fascinating. They noticed that at some colleges, the biggest drop in enrolment happened between the enrolment point online and the first day of school. Some of that could be explained away by the finances of it all, some would easily be able to “register” without paying, but when the tuition bill came due, they didn’t have the money after all. But for many vulnerable groups, there was something else at play too. The university world seemed daunting and mechanical, with few humanizing elements.
A syllabus is often considered a contract between an instructor and their students. It communicates how the course will be taught, outlines how students will be evaluated and promotes the values of an institution or an individual instructor.
But a syllabus that is difficult or impossible to access during the vulnerable period between when a student registers for a class and when the student starts the class may never make an impact—positive or otherwise. That’s because students often arrive at college with mind-sets. Those from nonmajority groups, for example, may wonder about whether they belong, a phenomenon known as belongingness uncertainty. Some may also feel at risk of confirming negative stereotypes associated with their identities, known as stereotype threat. Others from varied racial groups and genders suffer from impostor syndrome.
A brief, if imperfect, welcome video as part of an instructor’s liquid syllabus can help mitigate students’ sense of belongingness uncertainty, Pacansky-Brock said. Ideally, the faculty member would film the video in a nonacademic setting, use welcoming language that speaks to social inclusion and offer a window into who they are outside the classroom.
Most important, when the welcome video is part of a liquid syllabus that is accessed via a public website, students do not encounter the barrier that learning management systems, which require usernames, passwords and navigation tools, sometimes present.
Frictionless access to mobile-friendly syllabi supports equity, as Black and Hispanic U.S. adults are less likely than white adults to have a traditional computer and broadband at home, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center study.
“In order for us to really close equity gaps, we have to begin thinking about how students access college materials, especially something as important as a syllabus,” Ortiz said, noting that when she was in college, she found the contractual language on syllabi intimidating. Her students access her liquid syllabi much more frequently than when the syllabi were stored in a learning management system. Many return to the documents throughout the semester, for example, for the hyperlinks she added to campus resources such as counseling, disability accommodations and basic needs.https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/11/11/frictionless-syllabus-access-some-bypass-college
Of course, they still have to provide the formal thing for the official version in the university’s online system, faculty management documentation, etc. But they can provide a more “humanized” version online, including in part, more plain-language context around key factors. It’s more work, but potentially more effective.
Again, as I mentioned above, I was thinking that the obvious risk was that they would be using material somehow in the liquid syllabi that wasn’t sanctioned by the university. Extreme academic freedom, perhaps. Nope, the risk is more about trolls and safety.
Liquid syllabus websites that stand apart from the college’s learning management system and college website are not without risks. Because the websites are public, faculty who create them could be targeted due to controversial topics they teach or because of their identities.
“I’ve talked to the faculty of color who are concerned about sharing their appearance in video because they don’t want to be judged and discriminated against by their students,” Pacansky-Brock said. “There’s a lot that needs to be untangled. It’s complicated.”
Lisa Paciulli, a lecturer in the biology department at North Carolina State University, generally avoids putting personal information online, but she paid a graduate student with her own money to create her public, online syllabi because she feels strongly that students should have easy access to information about her courses.
Why did it resonate with me?
The idea is fascinating to me as so much of what is in there is outside my wheelhouse. Starting with the vulnerability side, I blog a LOT. I’m probably closing in on 2M words at this point. So the public risk of putting myself “out there” is one I dealt with a long time ago. But I’m not a PoC and I don’t push a very active agenda on anything. I blog about niche topics, generally explain how things work for those who aren’t in the same realm, or I’m blogging about my own relatively simple life. I’m not out clubbing seals nor saving the rainforests. And I’m a white male. I don’t put much of “me” out there visually, few photos or videos of “me being me”, but I’m also not a professor who stands in front of a new class every year for the first time.
I took a course from two professors online, I was auditing the course so they didn’t “see” me as a student, but i found the one female professor particularly engaging on the topics. They divided up the syllabus a bit between them, and the stuff she covered (identity in games, culture, etc.) was fascinating. If I was on-campus and taking the course in person, I probably would have tried to talk to her after class about some of the topics or attended tutorials she offered. Virtually? I’d have to settle for whatever she had online. But she had also blogged previously about the Gamergate world out there, and how women were subject to trolling at disproportionate rates, etc., and the reaction online was, well, predictable. As a result, she seems to have almost no online presence. Maybe she’s out of that academic world, maybe she’s changed her name, who knows. I’ve been roasted and attacked online a few times, so I have some small inkling of attacks based on gender rather than content, but it’s not the same as what they experience nor likely to ever be so. Which means my risk/reward calculation looks very different from hers or theirs.
But the accessibility stuff also seems alien to me. If I was looking at a course, I’d research the crap out of it. I’d kick in the doors, take names, download every file I could, enter every computer system I could, etc. I would have no qualms at all about whether I “should” be there, or “would” be there. Which is not to say I don’t suffer from imposter syndrome in the other aspects with crippling anxiety that I can’t do something or whatever, but I’m an analytical introvert. I might not show up for a mixer, I might fear being rejected by the cool kids, but online interactions with a syllabus? That poses ZERO friction for me. Hell, I have downloaded syllabi from universities where I don’t even know anyone who attended that university! Free curation of a topic? Hell yeah. I think all syllabi should be available from every university online for free. 🙂 Cuz I’m not the one paid to create it only to risk other professors stealing all my work and offering the same course at their university.
Liquidity in Canada
Which gives me a thought. How public are syllabi in an area I know? What if I search for public administration, Canada, course and the term syllabus? It’s a TERRIBLE methodology, but I’ll give it a go.
- The University of Alberta has diploma programs geared towards municipal government, and while they have lots of videos showing a diverse population, none of their content is easily accessible, looks like all syllabi are in the learning management system once fully registered.
- Kompass has pages to get you to give them your info and they’ll send you something, but virtually no details seem to be available beforehand.
- UBC has some decent course offerings, lots of videos and descriptions, but no obvious details on course content beyond a general overview.
- Waterloo has some syllabi directly available online although considerably out of date (2012). Good videos, poor quality images of “striving to show diversity” which was weird since it is already abundantly apparent in their profiles they’ve got it covered.
- Dalhousie had a decent syllabus publicly available, just the raw version, recent enough.
- USask had a really good one, good resources, but it required a bit of clicking to get through and was very dry and academic looking. Certainly not “liquid” in any way.
- York is easily accessible, but no liquid factor at all.
- Queens has its syllabus — for its program, not its courses.
- Carleton has one available, but out of date.
- I had high hopes for Athabasca given that it was “online” before everyone else. Nope, generic website, nothing special.
- McGill’s site wasn’t bad, just not enough detail. Their “welcome” aspects were okay though.
- Cape Breton U had an okay page, looked welcoming for design, but just not enough info to help me understand their approach.
- Ryerson/Metro has an okay program, very business-like in its approach, but again, not much on the actual courses beyond a blurb.
- I did find the Atlas of Public Management site. It is really intriguing, so I have set it aside for further perusal. A database of public management courses around the world, lifting a lot of it from individual university websites. A curated overview, if you will.
- Guelph was an abbreviated version.
- The joint URegina and USask school had great online stuff for their past syllabi, albeit abbreviated versions.
- Adler had some interesting stuff, but presentation was a bit odd…Their “liquid” benefits were all at the bottom of the pages.
It took me a really long time to get to a version that wasn’t on official university sites. I found one on a private page of a UofT professor. It’s a pretty static “about me” site, a professional academic’s site so to speak. It’s not a blogging setup, for instance. Does it meet the definitions of “liquid”? I don’t know. It wasn’t as obvious where the pieces were for his courses, Google found them, not me just browsing his site.
I may do some more research on professors with their own sites in Canada, but for now, it was an interesting article to think about today.