Syllabus digitization takes hold on college campuses

Students can see an updated online syllabus seconds after a professor makes an adjustment.
Students can see an updated online syllabus seconds after a professor makes an adjustment.

College students’ online calendars immediately can reflect any changes to their class schedule, test date, or homework due date, thanks to web-based course syllabi that alerts class members any time a professor tweaks a lesson plan.

Online syllabi features have been available for years on popular course management systems such as industry giant Blackboard, but four campuses have turned to an internet syllabus service called Concourse that allows for customization—meaning faculty can make certain parts of the document visible to different sections of the same course. This is a useful tool for faculty who teach courses with undergraduate and graduate students who will have different assignments.

Students can sync Concourse syllabi with web-based calendar applications such as Microsoft Outlook and Google Calendar, and faculty members can access course syllabi without building a separate web site for each class.

“It’s an easy way to make the students aware of any changes that go through,” said Jason Kuruzovich, assistant professor of management information systems at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y., who uses Concourse to manage syllabi for all three of his 2010 classes.

Paulina Fink, a sophomore at RPI, said that knowing her Google calendar will automatically sync with any changes made to her online syllabus offers peace of mind for students who worry about shifting class schedules and due dates.

“I can just go on the computer and it’s always there,” said Fink, 20, adding that she prefers having a paper and electronic syllabus for each class. “It’s a nice backup system for students when professors do both.”

When Kuruzovich rearranges, deletes, or adds course content on the Concourse web portal, he clicks the “save and notify” button that registers any changes made to the syllabus, sends an eMail to his students warning them about the change, and reschedules the event—a class project, for instance—in their online calendars.

Chapters that take less time than originally thought, Kuruzovich said, is a common reason for faculty members to edit their online syllabi.

“When that happens … you want to be able to spend time on something else,” he said.

Syllabi vary from professor to professor, experts said, with some educators including only cursory details about their course on a single sheet of paper, and others handing out 10-page packets that spell out objectives, course material, office hours, institutional policies, and a host of other subsections.

“If you see the syllabus as a contract, you might feel obliged to print it out and give it to students,” Kuruzovich said, adding that he avoids distributing paper syllabi because students might rely on that version instead of the online document. “If I print out a paper copy, it’s providing an indication that that may be a go-to reference.”

Judd Rattner, CEO of Intellidemia, the company that makes the Concourse syllabus platform, said students and their professors rely on syllabi as a roadmap through a semester full of lectures, quizzes, exams, homework assignments, and class projects.

Mass confusion can leave students unprepared for a test if classes are canceled because of inclement weather or the instructor changes a due date, but doesn’t publicize the modification.

“What we’re finding is there’s far more value for a syllabus than was originally thought,” said Rattner, who added that Concourse’s syllabus layout—which resembles a piece of paper—has proven attractive to students and faculty, because it’s a “very familiar kind of environment for them.”

Some faculty members keep parts of their syllabus private, blocking contact information or class assignments to anyone outside the class. Kuruzovich said he keeps his syllabus information open to faculty at RPI so they can draw ideas for their own Concourse syllabi.

“To me, it’s part of the sharing; it’s almost the intellectual commons of the school,” he said. “If I’m having influence, and if someone’s adopting my syllabus, it’s a compliment to me.”

Concourse also features a search engine that lets students and faculty search for syllabi with general and specific keywords.

Rattner said students can scroll through course syllabi before the start of a semester, using the public information to determine whether they’ll register for the class or choose another course.

Fink, the RPI student, said before she signs up for classes, she reviews professors’ web-based syllabi to see whether final grades are based on term papers or projects that don’t require long-term writing assignments.

“It really helps with the decision-making process,” she said. “It makes it a great tool.”

“Having a syllabus online brings the document to life,” Rattner said. “It’s absolutely where higher education is headed.”



Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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