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Teaching Online Journalism

Your syllabus as a blog: How to do it

For about three years, I have been using WordPress.com (a free blogging site) to create a syllabus for each one of my courses. I first tried it in 2007, and now I’m totally sold on the practice. (See two examples: graduate course; undergrad course.)

One of the best features for students: If you choose a WordPress theme that is mobile-ready, your students can very easily check their deadlines, assignments, etc., on their smartphones, from anywhere.

You can also update your syllabus from your smartphone. There’s an app for that: IOS and Android.

So how should you start? First, set up a free WordPress.com account. Everything you need to know is here: WordPress Basics.

You can always delete a WordPress.com blog — you can create and maintain multiple WordPress.com blogs under one single username. Your first blog can be a little testbed for you to get to know WordPress as a blogging platform, if you aren’t using it already. Then after you feel up to speed, launch a new blog and make that one your syllabus.

If you are using WordPress, there’s no reason to wait. Just launch a new blog before your next course begins, and set it up as the syllabus!

What to put on the ‘Pages’

Most WordPress themes make it easy for you to show the titles of “Pages” as big navigation buttons on every page of the blog. I’ve settled on a standard short list of Pages, based on some standard sections of a traditional syllabus.

About This Course: Key details at the top, such as the room number, meeting times, and contact info for the instructor. Those are followed by an informal description of the course (longer than the university catalog description) and reasons why a student might want to take it.

Course Schedule: This is the page that students will be checking all the time during the semester. It includes the day and dates for all class meetings, all deadlines, assigned readings, etc. However (and I feel this is very important), it does not include details about any of the work. It has an outline format and large headings for each week, making it very easy for students to use.

Required Work: For me, this is a really important part of the package, because it bridges between the skeletal Course Schedule page and the full-fledged descriptions of assignments, which will be posted on a weekly basis after the course gets under way. The Required Work page lays out the percentages or points for all assignments and provides a rationale for each type of assignment (e.g., blog posts, presentations).

Syllabus: Standard boilerplate items that do not change much, or at all, from year to year, such as the course description, attendance policies, honor code and accommodations for students with disabilities.

I’m sure for various kinds of courses, the instructor might want to add or subtract pages from this list. The way you organize it is quite important — you’ve got to be thinking about how students use documents and text. Not many of them are going to read everything!

What to put in the sidebar(s)

The Search box should be at the very top — typically on the far right side. Find it in the WordPress Widgets list, in the Dashboard list under “Appearance.”

A “subscribe by email” link is very helpful to some students (although not all will use it). Also in the Widgets list — “Follow Blog.” I always put this immediately below the Search box.

Sidebar links in WordPress default to one category: “Blogroll.” But you can change that (Dashboard > Links > Link Categories). I like to provide separate categories for links that are:

For a class in which students keep their own individual blogs, I use RSS (see Widgets) to display each student’s most recent post in the sidebar.

What to put in the footer

Most students will not look at the footer, so don’t put anything vital there.

How to post assignments

Most students like a predictable structure in their courses, so I make it clear to them which day of the week they can expect to see a new post on the course blog. Usually I say Monday, but I post on Sunday night. If I post anything on another day, it should be optional.

Most posts are specifically related to one single assignment. If there are a lot of details, I use subheadings and bullet lists. WordPress makes it easy to post links to resources, and I also like that students can ask questions directly on the assignment post, by leaving a comment. If students are creating something that can be linked to, you can require them to post their link in a comment on the assignment post.

With careful use of WordPress categories, you can make it easy for students to promptly find the latest assignment even if you are adding other kinds of posts as well.

How to use categories effectively

The categories for “Posts” are different from the categories for “Links.” You can easily set up a few key categories (Dashboard > Posts > Categories) such as:

I think it’s sensible to limit the number of categories to the minimum you can tolerate. It doesn’t help anyone to have lots of categories that each have only one or two items. You can always add unlimited tags (such as topic names) to any post.

What to print for the first class

If the class meets in a computer lab, I can condense the printed document down to one page, providing my contact information, the URL of the course blog, and a few other details. We can go over the full syllabus online during the class.

If the class meets in a regular classroom, I will hand out a four-page version on the first day, and that will include a brief version of the Course Schedule and Required Work pages. It also includes my contact information and the URL of the course.


Categories: blogging, teaching


8 Comments

  1. Goodness gracious. And I never thought of this why? I bet I could adapt this idea even for my upcoming Coursera course.

  2. [Mindy McAdams] Your syllabus as a blog: How to do it http://t.co/vEdqJPqqIS

  3. I do this also. My students love it. I also have a RebelMouse page that I installed as a sidebar on my blog. It’s titled “Interesting Things” and captures my Fcaebook posts, tweets, instagrams, etc. I try to re-tweet interesting articles about the industry.

  4. Great ideas, Bridget! I try to be cautious about posting too many things, because students often tune out if I overload them. I use a bookmarking site — https://pinboard.in/ — that allows me to publish links according to the tag I gave them. So for some classes, I tag items with the course number, and then only those bookmarks appear on the blog. I put these in either the sidebar or the footer, depending on the course.

    For example, see the footer here: http://mmc4341.wordpress.com/ The first three columns are automatically updated whenever I tag a new bookmark.

  5. @macloo on how to use WordPress to create a classroom syllabus (yes, students love it) http://t.co/B7aU0iz8J4

  6. Meyer says:

    Can I use blogspot instead of wordpress? Blogspot allows us to modify some coding to make our blog looks like what we want.

  7. Meyer – Sure, you could use any blogging system. I personally find that WordPress has many advantages over Blogspot (Blogger). Plus, WordPress is not owned by Google, and WordPress is open source.

  8. [...] As the name suggests, McAdams’ blog focuses on how to teach online journalism. For example: how to make a blog out of your syllabus or a step-by-step guide on how to teach web video. Mindy McAdams tips are valuable as she tests out [...]

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