March 22, 2018

I’ve been working on a committee that is revising our University syllabus template. It sounds benign and straightforward. Unless you have ever been on a committee of any kind, in which case it probably sounds about like the tempest in a teapot that it is. Seriously, though, it requires examining so many assumptions and beliefs about how teaching works, why we have a syllabus, who it serves, who really controls which aspects of each course, and so forth. If we fully flesh everything out, we’ll have our new template ready in 2025. This is one of the fundamental problems with committees of academics. We think too damn much, sometimes.

sheep with head stuck in fence

Someone remind me not to join any more committees. Image by a_roesler on Pixabay. Used under a CC-0 license.

One of the things that’s become clear to me during the process is the perceived difference between online and on campus courses. Many people on the committee have some fear – maybe that’s too strong – some concern about allowing faculty to change online courses after they’ve been developed. I get it. Not everyone knows how to make ​content ADA-compliant and accessible. Faculty make mistakes and do things that are confusing to the students. They might delete something that was important. And in an online course, evidence of these mistakes is preserved for all to see in writing or video.   


Mistakes are how we learn. We know this is true when it comes to students. It’s also true of faculty. We must be given the room to make and bounce back from mistakes. We need agency in the classroom, whether on campus or virtual. We’ve got to try new things to grow.

When I think about how my own teaching has evolved over the years, I am pretty sure that I am where I am because I tried all kinds of weird things. Sometimes they worked. Sometimes they didn’t. I could never be the kind of educator I am, though, if someone had told me that I couldn’t make substantial changes to my courses. When I make a mistake in an online course or when a new activity is a total flop, it’s my job to fix it. And I do. That’s the price of experimentation.

It’s ridiculous to think about trying to dictate what happens in an on-campus classroom. Asking someone to report to the dean or another administrator if she wanted to use a new discussion activity during class would be marked waste of everyone’s time. And yet this is on the table for online courses. If I accidentally teach the wrong topic in an on-campus course and only realize it after class, I then need to adjust the syllabus, explain what happened to the students, and make sure we cover the missed material another time. The same thing can happen online. Really.

It makes me sad, too, to think of static online courses that never change trimester-to-trimester. Classes that remain the same – outside of feedback on assignments and maybe a few announcements – even as the students in the class come and go. I know there are ways to humanize and personalize online courses that don’t involve making changes to the shell course. I would also argue, though, that faculty who WANT to go beyond these steps should be able to do so.

Let the courses evolve and change based on who’s present.

One argument that has been brought up is course drift. If we take a carefully-developed course and make small changes to it every trimester, won’t it drift too far from the original? It totally might. It may drift into something even better. Maybe something worse? It’s hard to say. We revise them all every few years, so they’re not going to go too far without oversight. We have learning outcomes for each course. Let the faculty figure out how to meet them. It’s our job.

small blue feather

Image by Sponchia from Pixabay; used under a CC-0 license.

I think the perceived permanence of online courses is what’s behind this reluctance to surrender control. They’re so carefully crafted to meet various standards. How could we risk losing that by allowing edits? I know it’s a leap. It’s one that we must be willing to take for the sake of our students and ourselves.

About Camille Freeman, LDN, RH (she/her)

Hi there! I'm a clinical herbalist and licensed nutritionist specializing in fertility and menstrual health. I run the Monday Mentoring community of practice and also offer continuing education programs for highly-trained herbalists and nutritionists (Check out this year's Deep Dive!). I'm also a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I teach physiology, pathophysiology, and mindful eating.

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