Classically Inclined

August 17, 2020

Fitting the pieces together

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 4:37 pm
Tags: , , ,

Like everyone else who will be teaching in the autumn, I am currently wrestling with how to move my teaching on-line and what the new world will look like. I think I’ve spent at least 40 hours on professional development over the last few months, what with getting up to speed on best practice for on-line learning and doing my best to respond responsibly to the Black Lives Matter protests and the increasing urgency of the need to decolonise academia in general and my classroom specifically (of which more in a different post). My current job is looking at my Moodles for the autumn and working out how best to apply them. My current brain-fog is sitting around the question of what a syllabus is actually for in a world of electronic teaching resources.

I would be the first person to confess that my use of Moodle over the years has been as a resource-dump rather than as a dynamic teaching tool. This isn’t surprising – Moodle didn’t exist when I did my undergraduate degree, and my introduction to it was much more as a repository than anything else. I was a bit more adventurous with using bulletin boards and so on for assignments when I was teaching as a PhD student, because of the more flexible assessment structure in US universities; when I got back to the UK, that flexibility went, and so did my use of Moodle for that sort of thing. (Because if there’s no grade, the students won’t do it – right?)

Fast-forward to now, a Certain Number of years on, and I am very behind on what can be done in Moodle these days, not to mention having had absolutely no training on digital pedagogy since whatever courses it was I took as a graduate student. Teaching digitally is a pedagogical specialism which can’t just be picked up; while I’ve had some excellent support from my institution for it, I’ve also put work into thinking about how best to organise a Moodle page, what the best way to structure on-line activities is, and multiple things of that nature.

One of the things I now find myself battling with, though, is what on earth a syllabus document is actually for.

In the old world (she types nostalgically), my syllabus was a comprehensive, one-stop shop for the course. It had general policy information, a schedule of classes, and then class-by-class prep work for each class so students could consult the file and have instant knowledge about what they were supposed to be doing. (Let us leave aside how often this happened for the moment, that was the point of the syllabus.) The syllabus also included bibliography, both for individual classes and for the course as a whole.

Fast-forward to the New Normal. Now, I have to have all my asynchronous activities and pre-seminar work clearly set up on Moodle for each week of teaching, so students can navigate through each week’s content independently, with only a small portion of overall learning activity being face-to-face and synchronous. My reading lists are all in our TALIS reading system, with a plug-in which lets me include a link directly in Moodle so students can click and find what they need. But I still need to have a syllabus document on my Moodle because… I still need a syllabus document. But why?

In fairness, I can see the point of having a syllabus which has some general information in it and a full schedule of the year’s learning, in a rather general sort of way, particularly since the Moodle page is not going to be built for the whole year by the start of term. (If I can get five weeks of activity built before term starts, I’ll be counting that as a victory.) But do I really need to duplicate my reading list? Do I need to have the full ‘what we’re doing each week’ seminar details when there’s going to be far more supported detail and activity on Moodle than there has been in any past year?

I suspect I would feel very differently about this question if I were not in an open-ended post, not least to make things easier when moving between institutions and having a core document with all my information handy. But as someone with institutional security (today’s governmental U-turn on A-level results not withstanding), that doesn’t feel as important now; Moodle will roll over next year, and I’ll be there to use it, so I’m pretty sure I will benefit from my work.

My solution at this point is to keep the first parts of the syllabus as they are, but to delete the detailed ‘what we are doing in each seminar’ bit – that’s going to be replicated on Moodle each week, with more interactive content, and I don’t see what the value of having a partial summary in a Word document students probably won’t pay a lot of attention to. I can also download my Moodle page as a PDF to keep a record of this year’s structure if I think that will be helpful (which it probably will be).

I suppose I’m sharing this because it’s an example of one of the small things I’m running up against in preparing for teaching next year which feels pretty straightforward in terms of making a decision but actually reveals an awful lot about some underlying assumptions about how teaching works  and is delivered. Sometimes that means asking whether what you’ve been doing… just because you’ve always been doing it is actually the best thing to do. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t be re-examining my teaching under these circumstances, but I do hope that there will be some long-term benefits that come out of it in terms of better practice around the digital environment. Although frankly, given from where I started, isn’t going to be too difficult.

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