July/August 2003 // Commentary
The Interactive Syllabus:
A Resource-based, Constructivist Approach To Learning
by Sylvie L. F. Richards
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Sylvie L. F. Richards "The Interactive Syllabus:
A Resource-based, Constructivist Approach To Learning" The Technology Source, July/August 2003. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The syllabus is usually an orphan in virtual learning design strategies, a text-based given that replicates in digital form its paper twin. Most online courses pay little heed to it, content to have the syllabus serve traditional calendar and administrative functions. There is nothing inherently "sizzling" about the syllabus, and since it structures the course, it seems a poor candidate for constructivist innovation. Yet its capacity to serve as an overarching structure is precisely the reason to select the syllabus for an inquiry into innovative course design and delivery: The syllabus is the instructional roadmap for the course, and all other course functionalities are dependent upon it. A well-designed syllabus is a blueprint for student success in a course; conversely, a poorly conceptualized syllabus may contain the seeds of student failure. How, then, can we make the syllabus a robust, content-rich learning environment that fosters student success?

The interactive syllabus is an instructional design tool that attempts to solve some fundamental problems in course design and delivery. By using the term "interactive," I do not mean to suggest an intelligent expert system able to give diagnostic feedback or one that is adjustable based on the learner's knowledge (Baniulus & Tamulynas, 1997). Rather, I mean a learner-manipulated environment in which concepts are presented in different ways and at different times, resulting in multiple and adaptive interpretations necessary for knowledge acquisition. In this sense, the interactive syllabus is a design tool that facilitates the implementation of broader constructivist strategies in an Internet-delivered course site. (For an overview of constructivist principles, see Exhibit 1.) The interactive syllabus becomes the first agent in a reactive stream of course objects, including task-driven assignments, simulations, and communication tools that allow meaning to be negotiated. When incorporated into online course design, the interactive syllabus can provide a high level of initial interaction between the learner and the material, resulting in increasingly progressive engagement with course materials in a nonlinear and adaptive process. It is an instructional design tool that falls within the confines of what Perkins (1991) has labeled "beyond information given" (BIG) constructivism.

The advent of course management systems brings urgency to providing a truly interactive design for the course syllabus. Too often, uploading word-processed documents directly into the system is confused with "putting content" into a course site. The syllabus has not been broken down into components such as Course Objectives, Course Requirements, and Grading Policies. These prescriptive items are often lumped together with the potentially more interesting descriptive features of a syllabus that outline the topics to be studied. The interactive syllabus exploits these descriptive items and creates a robust learning environment in an open format that permits self-determined investigation. As such, the interactive syllabus becomes the initial reservoir of course knowledge that permits students to engage in fruitful and profound study.

In offering an overview of the interactive syllabus, this article draws upon my prior experience in researching its design and pedagogical value, experience that eventually contributed to a teacher training workshop course I taught at Brooklyn College. Whether a course is hybrid in nature (i.e., one in which online materials supplement classroom work) or fully online, the interactive syllabus is a vital component of a successful virtual learning environment.

Adapting the Interactive Syllabus to the Subject Matter

There are two different learning domains that influence the design of the interactive syllabus. The first is the well-structured domain, represented by the physical sciences. Here the subject matter is often complex or multi-dimensional, but it is not open to interpretation. It must be learned in an orderly, sequential fashion in order for the student to master the subject. In this case, the interactive syllabus must initially present a representation that clearly illustrates the subject before soliciting further student engagement in projects or other activities. For instance, in the interactive syllabus for a microbiology course, a Flash animation displays one key concept slated for discussion (Figure 1). The animation heads the interactive syllabus and puts into motion what would otherwise be a static and less intuitive presentation. In this way, a rigorous discipline is adapted to a more flexible learning environment and to different student learning styles.

Ill-structured domains (such as history, literature, art history, and music appreciation) are greatly enriched with the use of multimedia content that permits the open acquisition of knowledge in a nonstructured way. Because ill-structured domains require students to appreciate complex interactions among several key concepts, a good interactive syllabus will contain diverse media that encourage exploration by all students. For example, in the interactive syllabus for a course on imperialism, students can learn about Gandhi by reading about his life, viewing documentary video clips about his life and work, or viewing a multimedia slide show about his life. With the use of additional hypertext and multimedia resources, students engage with great autonomy in deeper explorations of the British Raj (Figure 2), leading them to a greater understanding of imperialism. These understandings are communicated through social discourse with the instructor and with other students on the discussion board. The result is higher level thinking produced by a "cross fertilization of information sources across media formats" (Strommen & Lincoln, 2002).

Elements of Design in the Interactive Syllabus

The look and "feel" of the interactive syllabus remains discretionary with every instructor. However, a conceptual map in table form—with three or four columns (for images, topics, readings/viewings/audio clips, and resources) and as many rows as required (for weeks of the semester, topics to be studied, etc.)—works well for any discipline. In the following discussion, all of the interactive syllabi cited as examples of good instructional design are from humanities courses. Instructors in the sciences may find the associated recommendations appropriate for their classes as well. The model is scalable, meaning it can accommodate faculty members with different technological skills, from novice to advanced. In our training workshops (Exhibit 2), we take approximately 90 minutes to show inexperienced faculty members how to construct interactive syllabi for their courses. The time is divided into search techniques for finding online materials (full textbooks and subscription-based articles; audio files; video files; and images), storage of these resources in a Word document, and the use of an HTML editor (we use Dreamweaver) to construct the table. Workshop participants learn how to bring in images and links to media to create an interesting presentation, as exemplified by the interactive syllabus for a course on Jane Austen (Figure 3). We need only an hour of additional instruction to teach those who are interested in more sophisticated software, such as Flash, how to upload certain compression algorithms and display these robust files.

As the content specialist, the instructor should search for informative Web-based resources to include in his or her interactive syllabus. Resources gathered from the Internet should not only be appropriate to the subject but also target different student learning styles. For instance, visual learners benefit from images, charts, maps, videos, and animations. Auditory learners respond to audio files, especially if these are linked to accompanying text files. Kinesthetic learners appreciate controls that allow them to regulate the way in which they interact with course materials. A well-designed interactive syllabus (Figure 4) appeals to all three learning styles in its use of materials. Resource links should be checked twice during the semester (Dreamweaver has a links checker), and the instructor should conduct an "Internet review" for new materials each time the course is taught to keep the syllabus current. In most cases, the instructor can reuse an interactive syllabus from semester to semester and adapt individual modules from one syllabus for use in other courses. The obvious benefits are a substantial savings in labor and the scalability of the syllabus components.

As a general practice, students should not be assigned the task of finding appropriate links for course topics. By and large, they do not possess the information literacy skills required for this activity. Shapiro and Hughes (1986) argue convincingly that information literacy should be considered "a new liberal art." Faculty members should be mindful that the Internet is not refereed and that it is home to all biases and beliefs; younger students do not possess the research skills or critical apparatus needed to make the search for discipline- and topic-specific resources meaningful. Searching for links is, however, an appropriate activity for the discussion board, where social-informational literacy skills can be taught in the context of a participatory discussion (Shapiro & Hughes, 1986).

Collected resources should be organized such that students can progress through materials in a self-directed, autonomous manner. Even if the format appears hierarchical, entries in the Resources section should not be numbered or arranged alphabetically. They must be accessed randomly by the students, based upon their needs and interests. However, a relatively ordered display of well-harvested resources can do much to promote what Shapiro and Hughes (1986) call "resource literacy." If the medium requires the use of a plug-in, the instructor should give the URL for that plug-in and instructions for installation (assuming these are not provided on the download page). If the instructor has produced her or his own audio and video clips, it is important to provide both low and high bandwidth options for students. In this way, the instructor also promotes tool literacy (Shapiro & Hughes, 1986).

The Pedagogical Dimension of the Interactive Syllabus

Constructivism in the classroom promotes active learning processes that lead not only to the construction of a single meaning but also to a contextual system of meaning. The interactive syllabus is based on an understanding of this principle, as reflected in its presentation of subject matter. For instance, one objective in the Indochina/Vietnam portion of the imperialism interactive syllabus was to present materials that permit students to evaluate the differences between the French and American presence in southeast Asia. In the section on French imperialism, there is a historical chronology of Indochina and Vietnam with hyperlinks to more information about people, places, and events and to images that showcase the French presence (Figure 5). For the exposition of the American presence, links to movie trailers are presented in chronological order but without commentary, as resources for class and online discussions. Similarly, the interactive syllabus for a course on Picasso (Figure 6) contains a contextual chronology that highlights the writers, artists, and musicians that impacted Picasso's creative sensibilities (Figure 7). In the Jane Austen syllabus, there is an opus-driven chronology that explores Austen's life in the light of her own work (Figure 8). Each chronology offers extensive pathways with hyperlinks to a variety of media, enabling students to gain a broad understanding of the subject matter through their explorations. It is not necessary to explore the material in these chronologies sequentially. Each time students revisit a chronology, they construct new knowledge, reconstruct meaning, and add a level to their cognitive scaffold.

The interactive syllabus is an ideal medium for cognitive scaffolding and reflective thinking. Cognitive scaffolding means that a student needs to visit a learning space more than once in order to construct meaning; the student builds upon prior knowledge as well as new experiences gained from explorations. In between each visit, there must be time for reflective thinking. The interactive syllabus presents the student with a rich content environment in an open format, allowing the student to crisscross the learning landscape in an unstructured way and promoting organic, "free-range" investigation of course content. For instance, in the interactive syllabus for a course on Mozart (Figure 4), there are links to opera scores and libretti, sound files, and video files. Students can revisit certain works as many times as needed to understand fully Mozart's genius. In addition, the works are included in the assignments and on the discussion board, creating a bridge between virtual concerts in these course spaces and the resource section of the interactive syllabus.

Similarly, in the Picasso interactive syllabus, image galleries displaying paintings from different periods of Picasso's creative life are embedded in the syllabus so that students can study the artist in the context of this "virtual museum" (Figure 9). The advantage of these image galleries is that they reunite works from around the world that otherwise might never be displayed together. The instructor acts as a "virtual curator" of a collection that prepares students for assignments. Each work is carefully identified, including the copyright information, using Photoshop. In the assignments that follow, students are asked to view Picasso exhibits on museum sites and post relevant commentary on the discussion board.

The resources in an interactive syllabus provide a continuous point of experience to stimulate informed conversation on the discussion board, in keeping with Kolb's experiential learning theory (1984) and the social interaction model of learning developed by Vygotsky (1978) and Pask (1975). Likewise, in promoting an experience through which students create new contexts for their own learning, the interactive syllabus fosters the broader principles of constructivist pedagogy: At the outset of the course, students are offered the chance to take an active role in their education.


When aligned with constructivist course objectives, the interactive syllabus offers learners a pedagogically rich portal to course materials that form the basis of the course investigation. For the instructor, the interactive syllabus is a relatively simple way to engage students with different learning styles in unstructured explorations with a variety of content-rich media. The interactive syllabus benefits both well-structured domains and ill-structured domains. It can be easily integrated into a course management system, or it can be part of an online course with an open architecture. As such, the interactive syllabus is a far cry from its paper source and can become a dynamic component of any online course.

[Editor's note: This paper is modified from a presentation at the EDUCAUSE 2001 conference in Indianapolis, IN.]


Baniulus, K., & Tamulynas, B. (1997). Flexible learning in an intelligent tutoring environment. In P. Kommers, A. Dovgiallo, V. Petrushin, & P. Brusolovsky (Eds.), New media and telematic technologies for education in eastern European countries (pp. 395-409). Enschede: Twente University.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984.

Pask, G. (1975). Conversation, cognition, and learning. Amsterdam and New York: Elsevier Scientific Publishing.

Perkins, D. N. (1991, May). Technology meets constructivism: Do they make a marriage? Educational Technology, 31(5) 18-23.

Shapiro, J. J., & Hughes, S. K. (1996, March/April). Information literary as a liberal art: Enlightenment proposals for a new curriculum. Educom Review 31(2). Retrieved July 30, 2002, from http://www.educause.edu/pub/er/review/reviewarticles/31231.html

Strommen, E. F., & Lincoln, B. (2002). Constructivism, technology, and the future of classroom learning. Retrieved July 30, 2002, from http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/ilt/papers/construct.html

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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