Tips from the Pros: Transforming the Online Syllabus

As online instructors, we have finally figured out that the web is a visual medium and have been replacing the long text documents that constituted our original lectures with engaging presentations that make use of images, video, and sound. But despite the shift, most of us still use the traditional text-based syllabus.  

Michelle Pacansky-Brock, author of Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies, calls for an “extreme syllabus makeover” to a richer format. She points out that textbooks have migrated from nearly all text to a more visual style that ties text to illustrations. This is in accord with the pedagogical principle that “providing multiple means of representation” better allows students to make connections between concepts. She suggests that the same principle can be used with online syllabi by adding images, video, sound, etc., to amplify the message.

A visual syllabus is also more attractive, and a more attractive syllabus is more likely to be read. Today’s student has grown up in a world where information is presented visually and so has an eye attuned to visual media. The student will better understand information that is presented by visual means over purely text-based means. This has been confirmed by her students’ responses to the new format. She found far more students contacting her after reading the syllabus, with one saying that it demonstrated more concern for teaching on her part.

Pacansky-Brock transformed her art history syllabus by adding images of the works that the students will study. She also added video messages to students, as well as covered topics not normally discussed in a syllabus, such as her teaching philosophy. The format is now more like a publication, one that is meant to excite the reader rather than just list basic course information.    

The “made over” syllabus can also include a video bio about the instructor. This is especially important in an online course, where students do not meet the instructor face-to-face. It humanizes the instructor to the student and helps kick off the learning relationship. (See the December 2013 issue of Online Classroom newsletter for information on how to make a video bio or welcome.)

Pacansky-Brock suggests putting the syllabus outside the closed confines of the LMS on a public site. We err by waiting until students show up in class to share the syllabus with them. They should be able to see it before registration so that they know whether the course is right for them. After all, we do not wait until after someone buys a car to give information about the engine, so why must students be kept in the dark about their course until they enter the class?  

This syllabus can also serve as a means for students to speak to one another across classes. Former students can be given a section to post advice to current students. They might make suggestions such as “Get your final project group together within the first few weeks, because it will take a while to get organized.” It can take students a few weeks or assignments to get familiar with the structure of a course. Instead of learning the hard way, students are given advice before they get themselves into trouble. Information like this coming from a former student will carry more weight than the same message coming from an instructor.

There are a number of good platforms for creating a richer syllabus. Pacansky-Brock put her photography syllabus on, but recommends other micropublishing systems as well, such as Smore and Tackk. The syllabus contains photos that help set the tone for the course. One can easily imagine how something similar can be done with any other course. A civil engineering syllabus could include images of bridges or other structures the students will study, while a physics syllabus could include images of particle collisions, and an English syllabus could include bios of the authors or stories in the class.

We have also seen the emergence of excellent online publishing platforms over the past few years that make it easy to produce attractive and professional-looking content. Lucid Press is one example. These platforms offer a wide choice of templates that make publishing as simple as plugging in content. Plus, the result can be viewed online, or downloaded as a PDF to be viewed offline on mobile devices.

Take a look at the syllabus example below put up on—a system that offers free pro accounts to teachers at —and consider how you can transform your own syllabus into a rich document that speaks to students and better prepares them for the course ahead.

The History of Still Photography:


Pacansky-Brock, M. (2014). The Liquid Syllabus: Are You Ready? Found at

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