Death to the syllabus

As is often the case, Tomorrow's Professor (in this case Mano Singham) provides some excellent food for thought. Singham's argument is that we should reconsider the syllabus and the message that it sends. Syllabi are often a model of the worst in formal education – above all controlling and disrespectful of students, but also dull, restrictive, anti-learning devices. Singham even uses the word 'punitive' about the typical syllabus, observing that 'its tone is more akin to something that might be handed to a prisoner on the first day of incarceration'. I totally agree. If you have to have one, a syllabus should be an inspiring document, with flexibility and imagination built in from the start. But the average syllabus reflects a different purpose. As Singham puts it:

'The implicit message of the modern course syllabus is that the student will not do anything unless bribed by grades or forced by threats.'

It is a vicious circle, a negative feedback loop that perpetuates itself and, eventually, even comes to be seen by students as a good thing – they want to know what to do, when to do it. Formal learning junkies, they have developed a dependency that is hard to kick, and we don't help them in any way by reinforcing this mindset. And so we carry on, making ever more 'managed' experiences which are essentially to do with controlling students and keeping bureaucrats happy. And, in the process, the joy of learning is lost.

Whilst we're on the subject, another stupid idea from the folks that brought you formal education is the standardised course – the idea that every subject is learnt in multiples of 100 hours (or whatever your preference may be) is beyond mad. It is positively pernicious. It is an arbitrary limitation that seldom fits the needs of teachers, let alone students. Typically, we either try to squeeze too much in (at least for some students) or pad it out so that (at least some) students are bored, and maybe so are the teachers. Everyone suffers. This is topsy-turvy reasoning. The arguments in favour are all to do with external constraint: simplified admin, convenient  for holidays, makes it simpler to compare instutions and so on. But it has nothing to do with whether it makes sense to learn that way. It doesn't have to be like that. In the online world we are not so constrained. For instance, online scheduling tools are quite effective nowadays and allow groups to organise themselves quite effectively: we don't have to limit ourselves to top-down insitutional timetables. And the classroom is as big as it needs to be.

People naturally learn different subjects in different ways in different contexts and over different time periods.  Therefore, we should build learning designs that are appropriate for the different needs of individuals, the resource constraints and the different needs of the subject matter. They should be no bigger nor smaller than they need to be for the person, the subject and the pedagogy. Sometimes a simple learning object will suffice that might take the learner an hour or a week (whatever) to finish. Sometimes a discussion will need to occur, sometimes even a lecture. Sometimes a laboratory session will be needed. Sometimes it will take years of sporadic reflection, discourse and practice. Again, it should take as long as it takes, in whatever form makes sense, not what a timetable cut into arbitrary chunks dictates. It is silly enough in a conventional paced course, but in the context of unpaced open courses it is ridiculous!

The world has changed. Maybe there was a time when the industrial model was necessary as a means of providing education for all. We needed mass-production models to cope with the numbers. But, at least in many contexts, this is different now. We don't need to do this any more: it is one of the ways that moving online can free us from constraints. When the most efficient means of teaching was to get as big a group of people together as possible to make the best use of limited guru-time, and libraries were places you had to visit in person, and administration was done by hand, and schedules had to fit around classroom availability and teacher presence, and courses could not easily be mashed up and remixed except by their authors, there was a logic to it. Now it is time to shake off those shackles and rethink what we really want. The technology is there, the standards are there, and it would be dead easy to create exciting, learner-driven learning experiences that actually fit the needs and interests of the learners and the subject matter being explored. All we need now is to slightly rethink what we mean by the university.

Mastery doesn't come in neat chunks of 10-15 weeks, or whatever your particular chunk looks like. If we need to summatively assess (it is an important role) then the form and content of that should be negotiated with the learner. We can decide the number or credits to give at that point or, ideally, later.

And of course, we should make the assessment relevant. Sometimes the formal part might not be attached to a particular learning transaction: integrating, aggregating and connecting different subjects, ideas, topics and so on is far more important and revealing of knowledge than assessing small, isolated learning objectives. Of course, we should continue to provide formative feedback whenever it makes sense to do so. Or we could drop the whole notion of summative assessment altogether until it really matters. Once a student has aggregated enough (informal) credits then they can submit a portfolio and/or some performance-related tasks, depending on the subject, and be judged by a panel of what, by then, will be their peers, much as we do in a PhD thesis or research paper review.

This is not radical. This is not new. This is not uneconomic. It is just common sense. And yes, sometimes we will settle on our old ways because they are the best ones for a given context. But we should never take that for granted.



I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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