Posted on May 7, 2013
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.
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:
- Specific to this particular course
- Recommended, or generally useful for students who would take this course
- Specific to our department, college and/or university
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:
- Assignments (my most-used category in every syllabus blog)
- Recommended (or, Resources)
- In the News
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.