Christine Kray—Teaching online has required a shift in my approach to course instruction. When I talked with a colleague at another university about my experience teaching online, she asked, “But don’t you just have to post your syllabus?” Nothing could be further from the truth. (This made me realize how far afield people’s understandings of online teaching can be—even those of fellow academics!)
Naturally, in an online course, you have to post much more than the syllabus (readings, discussion questions, activities, rubrics, instructional videos, etc.). But the most important first step in teaching online derives from the fact that you cannot simply “post a syllabus.” Whatever syllabus you might have created for a face-to-face classroom course has to be tossed out, or at the very least turned completely inside out. Traditional syllabi have a terse, legal, procedural, contractual tone. Such a tone would undermine the open and engaged atmosphere you’ve likely envisioned for your course. Instead, in an online course, all materials and all communications have to be inviting and encouraging. This doesn’t mean that they have to be lightweight, fluff material, or that the instructor has to dispense with all standards, but all communications have to help create a positive learning environment for the students.
Consider it this way. In a traditional classroom course, we often have two personae. In our interpersonal interactions in the classroom, we introduce Persona 1. We try to engage personally with the students. We learn their names, we ask them about themselves and their interests, we turn and face them, we make eye contact, we try to drum up interest and enthusiasm in the course materials by displaying that enthusiasm ourselves through body language, by moving about the room, and by modulating our voices. We express interest, care, and concern. That is Persona 1. Our second persona is embedded in the syllabus and rubrics. It is the stern disciplinarian, the one who talks about objectives, due dates, methods of assessment, grading, policies, academic dishonesty, and penalties. When we pass out the syllabus on the first day and “go over it” in class, we don’t just read it word-for-word, but we soften the tone by front-loading enthusiasm for the course material, emphasizing the significance and purpose of the different assignments, and then we let students go home and read the rest of the syllabus on their own, after they have already been (hopefully!) hooked in by interest in the course. In other words, we use that face-to-face classroom interaction on the first day to soften Persona 2 with the warmth of Persona 1.
In an online course, there is only one persona. Whatever is posted on Day 1 of the course has to have enough warmth and excitement to draw in the students, make them feel that it will be a positive learning experience for them, and sustain them with that warmth throughout the entire term. So, ditch the syllabus. Think about what students need to know—What are your goals for the course, what are the topics you’ll cover, why is this important, what are the main assignments, how will they be assessed, what are the due dates? Then, communicate those things to them separately, not as a single document, but in several different, shorter texts (or videos), all interlinked and easily found through the course’s architecture. Then, use the warm language of Persona 1 in all of those shorter segments so that the students absorb your enthusiasm for the material and want to keep going.
Online course shells here at RIT become available to students one week prior to the beginning of the term. The legal and procedural language and the veiled threats of a traditional syllabus don’t belong in an online course. Do you want Persona 2 to set the tone for your semester or perhaps scare students away before the term even begins? In an online course, first impressions are lasting impressions. Design your course to foreground welcoming, specific, and encouraging communications.
Christine Kray is an associate professor of anthropology at RIT. Her current research project concerns the incorporation of Maya refugees into colonial British Honduras (Belize). Her scholarly interests include: Latin America, humanistic anthropology, creativity in ethnographic writing, embodiment, and cultural dimensions of global power.