Presenting Syllabi and Course Assignments as Pages in Moodle

The semester approaches, and I can’t help but tinker with the design of my courses. I know better than to reinvent the wheel, and much good advice has been proffered with respect to the first rule of productivity: don’t fix what’s already working. Nevertheless, my inner (and somewhat pathological) perfectionist compels me to tweak.

For me, course retooling begins with the syllabus, my touchstone for the sequence and topics of discussions I hope to nurture throughout the semester. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but I craft my syllabi to be detailed précis of course content as well as quasi-legal contracts that spell out course-related protocol. As such, it’s not uncommon for my syllabi to run 10-15 pages in length, and I optimistically include a week-by-week schedule.

Optimism is usually downgraded into realism two or more weeks into the semester. Despite my best intentions, my course schedules often change midstream as I carve more time for cultivating unexpectedly brilliant conversations in the classroom and/or for my occasional failure to adequately cover a challenging topic. And sometimes I just need the flexibility to make a 90-degree turn and accommodate exploration of new ideas and topics. To this end, I usually include a caveat in my syllabus: “Schedule subject to change in subtle ways, especially when instructor geeks out over particular topics or discussions.”

The problem is that I’ll want to update the syllabus when the schedule is derailed. And sometimes I want to update the assignments to reflect new parameters or potentialities realized during our classroom discussions. But updating means that I have to pull out the MS Word document, render the edits, convert the document to a PDF, and then upload the PDF to the Moodle, possibly several times during the semester.

FIG 1So many steps! Surely, in the age of robot vacuum cleaners and self-driving cars, there must be a better way. And so there is: create and post your syllabi and assignments as “Pages” on Moodle rather than as PDF files.

Some key advantages to this approach:

• A Moodle page is more dynamic than a PDF and can be easily edited / updated throughout the semester. No, you don’t need prior training in HTML; the editor in Moodle is sufficient for most of what you need. FIG 2That said, it won’t hurt you to learn some basic HTML code (the internets are rich with help pages), and a little knowledge goes a long way in crafting easy-to-use pages that better meet your curricular goals.

• Menu links on your page allow students to quickly navigate to parts of the syllabus or assignment they want to (re)read. For example, let’s say your student wants to revisit the section addressing the relative grade value of specific assignments. By including a quick-link menu, (A) they merely need to select the appropriate option and presto (B)!

FIG 3AFIG 3B

• Content from other web sources can be linked from your assignment / syllabus page.

FIG 4This is not always possible with PDFs, especially those produced with MS Word on Macs. You may, for example, want to link to a specific Lynda.com tutorial so that students can learn the fundamentals of a data visualization app before analyzing a dataset.

• Last but not least, an editable syllabus used in a previous semester can be copied over with the rest of the course content at the outset of a new semester; you don’t have to search your hard drive for the relevant MS Word syllabus file AND you don’t have to reinvent the wheel (or relearn some forgotten HTML coolness) every year. Enough said.

For me, posting syllabi and assignments as pages has been a huge time saver and allowed a more flexible digital approach to organizing courses and sharing up-to-date information with students. Furthermore, with more demand, I can imagine future versions of Moodle featuring more built-in tools that streamline the process of creating quick-link menus, adding images, etc. In the meanwhile, should you be interested, I’m happy to share a simple template by which I create syllabi pages in Moodle.

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