Hacking the syllabus

Today, at #VCUALTfest, Lyndsay Durham and I co-facilitated a “hackjam” focused on hacking the syllabus.

I regret that we never got around to actually building or producing anything. But, we spent a solid 2 hours *conceptually* hacking the syllabus. That is, we had a reasonably small group of participants, but a vocal and energetic group who were really engaged in the idea of hacking a syllabus and who were clearly inspired by some the examples that were displayed and discussed.

Speaking of those examples, I’ve had some requests to share them…

I started by sharing my little story of how, one semester, I handed out a paper-based syllabus on the first night of a graduate course. I had the students read through the syllabus and then I told them to rip it up. Then, I asked them what and how they wanted to learn. I got mostly blank stares. Having anticipated that outcome, I did produce a “wiki syllabus” for the course that I told them was editable by them. It was “our syllabus” and they had full admin rights to tweak it as they saw fit. Long story short, not a single student edited any aspect of the site or syllabus over the course of the semester.

I also shared other syllabi that I discovered through a 2011 ProfHacker post by Jason Jones about Creative Approaches to the Syllabus. The syllabi I showed from there were the US History II syllabus, the Fundamentals of Biological Anthropology syllabus, and the syllabus for a course called The Outsider. Those have a visually appealing aesthetic to them and I like how that aesthetic represents the narrative of the course. That is, the syllabus embodies the narrative of the course. I do think that concept was one important takeaway for participants.

Those syllabi, however, were barely “hacked.” They were nicer looking than your average syllabus, but that’s about it. So, I showed how Howard Rheingold had re-imagined his syllabus as a mindmap or network diagram. For a course on network literacy, such a move certainly embodies the narrative of the course, but it also helps the students understand what a network is. Also, it helps students see the big picture of the course more clearly. This begins to get at a more “hacked” syllabus.

Participants also liked how the US History II syllabus offers the opportunity for students to take the course in three ways: as a wader, a snorkeler or a scuba diver. That metaphor resonated with us all, and it then led to discussions of varying pathways through course. That led to the idea of a “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style course, which is a dream Tom Woodward has been pursuing for a while. Could you create a course that combines aspects of the CYOA books I loved as a kid with aspects of augmented reality games (see e.g. these…)? The answer is “yes,” of course, with some effort. To this, I added the idea of a syllabus or a course site for a CYOA-style course that had recommendation engines like Amazon. “Hey, you did these two assignments, here are a couple of other assignments you might like to do.” The DS106 assignment bank might have a pretty good dataset from which such an algorithm and concept could be piloted.

Tom also offered Super Secret Crush as a representation of what’s possible with a web-based course that offers varying pathways. Play around with that site for a bit and try to imagine what happens if you have a syllabus that allows for varying representations of the narrative of a course.

Finally, we looked at Chioke l’Anson’s course where he used a StoryMap to augment his course site. This tool REALLY gives students a sense of the narrative of the course, placing content elements contextually in space and time. This StoryMap augmented a web-based course site, which was augmented by one of the best course trailers you’ll ever see.

When you put together a course site with a StoryMap and a course trailer, you have something very different than just the modal syllabus.

This, of course, brought us back to where the HackJam started, which was about the very purpose (or multiple purposes) of a syllabus. And, as Derek Bruff wondered, “Do we even need a syllabus?”

I haven’t fully represented all of the ways we conceptually hacked the syllabus over the course of two hours. But, I hope this allows those who were not in the session to reflect on the idea of a syllabus and to hack their own syllabi. I’d welcome thoughts, ideas, comments, etc. in the comment section.


8 thoughts on “Hacking the syllabus”

  1. “… one semester, I handed out a paper-based syllabus on the first night of a graduate course. I had the students read through the syllabus and then I told them to rip it up. Then, I asked them what and how they wanted to learn. I got mostly blank stares.”

    One of my instructor’s did the same thing and we were stunned, just like your students. He was reputed to be the “theatrical” professor or professor of “drama.” We thought it was just another act by him.

    I think students are not used to being given such a privilege, and being offered this choice comes as a shock. Preparation for such a privilege will require time and setting up of expectations. Systemic elements in education makes going your way instead of the traditional way a fearful endeavor.

  2. My experience (and a bit of research) suggest that learners (all of us) can unlock their creativity by being encouraged to act within a minimal (rather than absent) structure. So rather than presenting a syllabus and ripping it up – how about thinking about the skeleton of a syllabus and how that could be presented to encourage creativity. Should the skeleton be about outcomes, process, resources? I don’t know

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  4. I teach a class (Inclusive Community Development) that half my students think is left-wing brainwashing. I’ve rebuilt this class every single semester based on whatever happened in the last semester, and this year, I pretty much did exactly what you said – with same results. I keep trying. I hear Prof Rheingold’s classes work. I hope I will learn something here, poking around your links. Thanks for writing this stuff up.

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