The Syllabus Blueprint: Creating a Structurally Sound Syllabus for Online Courses

Equity and Inclusion

Brief Abstract

Test out an interactive syllabus designed to help faculty create accessible syllabi that are specifically designed for online courses. Choose your own learning path through this just-in-time training tool. Your takeaways include access to the interactive template and a downloadable Word file for editing and use at your own institution. 


Jennifer Mattingly has over 12 years experience in teaching and developing online and blended courses and currently is the Online Teaching Coordinator for Northern Illinois University. She has held a variety of positions in higher education, including leadership positions in enrollment/marketing, curriculum services, and has chaired academic programs. She is known for innovate and creative approaches to program and service development, and recently traded in her full time faculty hat for a position in faculty development.
Claire Duvall, MS Ed, is an instructional designer in the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center at Northern Illinois University. She has a special interest in electronic accessibility and is helping to move NIU toward fully accessible online courses.

Extended Abstract

As online courses grow in both popularity and necessity, the need for materials created purposefully for the online environment, like the syllabus, also continues to grow. Often faculty refurbish face-to-face syllabi to serve their online course, basing new development on functionally obsolete documents. Just like older bridges may not have adequate lane widths or vertical clearances to serve traffic, these refurbished syllabi aren’t able to adequately serve online students who use them to understand the structure of the course.

While faculty are the architects of their courses, they often benefit from some assistance to help them ensure their syllabi meet quality standards and appropriate codes, such as considerations for online learning and accessibility requirements. We see need for assistance in the following areas: 

  • Design for Accessibility: Universities are now required by law to provide material that is fully accessible in their online courses.
  • Design for the Online Environment: Considerations for assignment types, policies, communication preferences and resources need to be adapted to the online student.
  • Adaptable/Changeable for Individual Course Needs Faculty Preference: Faculty need the freedom to adjust the template to best suit their content and student needs

Envisioning the Blueprint
But how do we help our faculty bridge the gap between knowing online specific and accessibility compliant syllabi are needed and actually creating them? How are we able to advocate and drive change institutionally around these needs? Our initial thought was to develop a syllabus template that would serve as the blueprint to help faculty create their syllabi.

The first hurdle that cropped up in development was that we found in order to fully understand and use the template, faculty would need additional guidance, and putting notes and instructions in the actual template created too much clutter within the document.

We then looked to what potential training or resources might help faculty to develop a strong, online-focused, accessible syllabus. Our second hurdle was the realization that working with multiple faculty in individual consultations or large group sessions could create development chokepoints, taxing resources and causing delays due to time availability and scheduling issues. Additionally, faculty need the training when they are ready implement the standards necessary for quality online syllabi, and delays in training could mean frustration and faculty sticking to old routes for their syllabi development.

Training the Architects
To solve these issues and drive this necessary institutional change while supporting our faculty in the process, we have created an interactive syllabus template that is the first step to bridging the gap between the knowledge of need and the actual creation of online specific, accessible syllabi. This allows us to have an interactive training piece that reflects the format of the syllabus template and also provide faculty with a clean version into which they simply enter their information. 

The interactive syllabus will provide faculty with an opportunity to learn various aspects of making a syllabus accessible, identify important elements for the online learning environment, and the freedom to choose their own learning path regarding the different elements of the syllabus.

For instance, the interactive template provides faculty with an opportunity to learn various aspects of making a syllabus accessible—they simply click on the parts of the template they need to learn about, such as using styles, creating meaningful hyperlinks, and using sans serif fonts. Additionally, faculty can click into areas of online course development that they should consider.

There will also be links to additional training within the interactive features (like developing online assessments or how to customize MS Word styles) if the faculty member would like deeper knowledge within a particular area.

It is our hope that these elements will contribute to the development of a structurally sound syllabus that is accessible and focused on the online environment. Additionally, the resources and training within the interactive syllabus could help inspire faculty to consider how the other materials within their course should be developed from an online learning and accessibility perspective. This in turn will create more bridges to learning for all students.

Level of Participation: Take on the Role of Inspector During our Discovery Session
During our Discovery Session, we will first demonstrate our interactive template with a couple initial examples, and then participants will have a chance to interact with the template on their own. They will be able to explore areas of online course design that are reflected in a syllabus or investigate aspects of accessibility in online documents.

Since the template is a work in progress, our goal is to elicit ideas from participants for ways to improve the template specifically, and, also to learn how they are moving toward accessibility and promoting online design at their institutions.

Session Goals
Individuals participating in this Discovery Session will be able to identify ways to incorporate just-in-time training at their own institutions. They will also be able to evaluate how this training can support faculty in making positive institutional change to incorporate accessibility and how this can be scaled at various institutions. Takeaways will include access to the interactive template and the downloadable Word document template for editing and potential use at their institution.