TechChange Introduces Collaborative Syllabus Building


This is the second post in our Digital Pedagogy series, where we will share how we are trying to make online social learning even better with new learning activities. Check out the previous post here.

As an educator, I’m always looking for new and more effective learning activities that fit with my philosophy of learning. Teaching in this digital age is very exciting with the availability of new tools for different types of activities and distance education. Despite these advances and advantages of online learning, it is not always easy or possible to adapt in-person activities into an online environment.

My role at TechChange focuses on our online facilitated courses that we run. All of these courses run for four weeks and are based on our learning model, which uses social learning and game mechanics. Course completion is assessed by interaction (indicated through TechPoints) as opposed to grades.

Introduction to Collaborative Syllabus Building

With all of our courses, we try to be as responsive to the participants’ learning goals as possible. One of the first questions we ask participants in the first week of a course is whether or not we have missed something in the general content or direction of the course. We then try our best to incorporate these topics and resources into weeks three and four.

As we were designing our upcoming course on Mapping for Social Good, we found ourselves discussing the topic of content and scope once again. With mapping, there is a lot that can be discussed, from the very technical (there are masters programs just in digital mapping/GIS) to the ways mapping has been and can be used for social good. Instead of having the course facilitators decide on the content and potentially miss key topics that the participants want to cover, we have implemented a learning tool called collaborative syllabus building (will now be referred to as CSB in this post).

CSB is an activity used effectively in classrooms to improve motivation and performance of students by asking the learners to provide input on the curriculum, grading, course activities, and/or course expectations. For an in-person class this often occurs before the course starts or during the first few weeks.

Collaboration for setting topics is not confined to academia. Unconferences (also called OpenSpace Conferences) have become popular for their participant-driven focus. Typically, the unconference has no set syllabus and the participants set the agenda and sessions. Instead of having a conference organizer decide what the participants want to hear or learn, the participants vote by their attendance.

Educators and facilitators are already using technology to aid this collaborative participant-led process. For instance, educators have used Moodle to administer a survey prior to a course or a wiki for the collaboration. There are a number of other collaboration tools that can be used for this purpose. Most often, these tools are used in conjunction with in-person or hybrid (online and in person) events.

Digital Pedagogy post photo

Adapting CSB for TechChange

At the core of social learning, a key component of TechChange’s learning model, is the idea of collaboration. We decided to adapt CSB for our 4-week online courses and will be trying it out this week for our mapping course!

In order for CSB to be effective, the course participants need to feel comfortable enough to ask questions about the topic. So with all of our CSB activities, we will be providing a short introduction to the topic and forums for participants to explore the content before the course begins. Having enough time to incorporate feedback and allow participants from diverse time zones provide input, we will run the CSB activity for a week prior to the course beginning.

For the syllabus itself, we will have learning objectives and course activities that we feel we need to cover in order to discuss the content. The rest of the syllabus, including additional learning objectives and course activities, will be based on what the participants want. While we can’t promise that everything participants recommend will make the syllabus, we will do our best and share the final syllabus at the beginning of the course.

We’re very excited to be trying out CSB this week with Mapping for Social Good! Have you used CSB in an online course before? Tell us how it went by tweeting @NormanShamas and @TechChange or comment below!

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