PDF Syllabus Builder: Open-source Tool For Online Instructors

George Joeckel of University of Utah

This is a guest post by George Joeckel, an instructional designer at the University of Utah.  George welcomes collaboration on instructional design issues, particularly for online teaching/learning issues.  If you have questions about this new design tool, contact George at george.joeckel@usu.edu.

By George Joeckel

On July 26, my colleagues and I at Utah State University released the first version of a syllabus authoring tool at the Sloan Consortium Emerging Technologies for Online Learning conference.

The PDF Syllabus Builder was subsequently published by Sloan-C as a peer-reviewed Effective Practice: http://bit.ly/NEG7oZ. This open-source tool is licensed under a Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

Our team at the Faculty Assistance Center for Teaching (FACT) developed the PDF Syllabus Builder as an XML-based dynamic PDF (using Adobe Live Cycle Designer) for three main reasons:

  • Adobe Reader is a free and ubiquitous software program
  • The tool operates on a local machine: no internet connection is needed; no browser version issues; runs on PCs and Macs
  • Text-based PDF files are accessible to all students (508 compliance)

Upon opening the tool in Adobe Reader, users are guided step-by-step through six areas of the syllabus: information, course objectives, course resources, course activities, policies and grades. An example syllabus is provided to model content and design best practices.

In the Objectives area, users can create course objectives with action verbs aligned with Bloom’s Revised taxonomy. Campus policies and federal laws relevant to education provided in the Policies area ensure that every learner is informed of her or his institutional and legal rights.The tool also computes a points-based grading scale from point values provided in the Grades area.

Here’s a three-minute introductory video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYFpu_zBMqU

Download the tool: http://fact.usu.edu/files/uploads/PDF_Syllabus_Builder_v1_beta.pdf

Another Handy Tool: The Course Schedule Builder

One element common to most syllabi that users won’t find in the PDF Syllabus Builder is a course schedule. During the development process, one of our goals was to create a “learning agreement” less prone to revisions. We are firm believers in a flexible and responsive learning environment, but we made a distinction between two types of changes after a course has begun: “dynamic” and “disruptive”. In examining traditional syllabi, we determined that most of the dynamic changes—which we defined as providing a benefit to students, or at least causing no significant harm—occurred in the course schedule.

As a result, we now advocate providing the course schedule as a separate document that can be revised as needed. We created a complimentary tool–the PDF Course Schedule Builder (the subject of an earlier post)–that allows instructors to:

  • Organize learning activities into modules
  • Develop a sequence for learning activities in each module
  • Provide a description and the calendar information (start/due date—if applicable) for each module and activity

This framework of the learning activities can be used as a “design blueprint” to guide the development of the course in a learning management system and/or other technologies used by the instructor. The PDF file the tool creates also functions as an organized, detailed and accessible course schedule for students.

“How to” video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QZQiwzsr2k

Download the tool: http://fact.usu.edu/files/uploads/PDFCSB_v1.pdf

Again, if you have questions about these design tools, contact George atgeorge.joeckel@usu.edu.

It’s your turn.  What tools do you recommend for building a syllabus of an online course– or to assist with other instructional design issues?  We welcome your thoughts.  Leave your comment below.

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One Response to PDF Syllabus Builder: Open-source Tool For Online Instructors

  1. Pingback: Need-to-Know News: The Making of a MOOC, College Scorecard and Syllabus Builder Tool | online learning insights

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