Humans write syllabi, which means they make subjective choices about words, tone and content. And students read them—or not, depending on whether they have access, find them approachable or understand their significance. Even when students read these documents, their past experiences may influence how they make sense of them.
Some professors who recognize that syllabi are not neutral documents have experimented with creating liquid syllabi—public, accessible, mobile-friendly websites that include traditional syllabus ingredients along with humanizing elements that ensure students feel supported. Many report that their efforts to create liquid syllabi pay dividends in terms of student retention and success, especially for those who need frictionless access.
But some colleges do not recognize these innovative, tech-enabled syllabi. That means that some instructors perform this work on their own time, sometimes at their own expense, and in addition to writing and submitting traditional syllabi. Also, in bypassing the university’s website and learning management systems, some instructors feel vulnerable, even if they remain committed to providing students with barrier-free access to course information and materials.
“We lose most of our students between the moment that they register for classes and the first day of school,” said Jennifer Ortiz, professor of English literature at West Los Angeles College, one of nine colleges in the Los Angeles Community College District, whose liquid syllabus for her College reading and Composition II class is available before her class starts. Students who click on the link do not need to recall a username or password or navigate a cumbersome platform to receive her message recognizing their commitment to educational goals and acknowledging many societal challenges. “We’re trying to capture students before they provide up or say, ‘I don’t want to show up that first day.’”
Equity-Minded, Humanistic Syllabi
A syllabus is often considered a contract between an instructor and their students. It communicates how the course will be taught, outlines how students will be evaluated and promotes the values of an institution or an individual instructor.
“Syllabi can become instruments of all the ways in which you can fail this course or instruments of all the ways in which you can be successful in this course,” said Estela Bensimon, professor of higher education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education and director of the Center for Urban Education. Bensimon and her team created an inquiry tool that helps professors evaluate their syllabi from a racial equity perspective. Equitable syllabi demystify college policies and practices, communicate care and support, and communicate a belief that all students are expected to succeed, among other attributes, according to the tool.
But a syllabus that is difficult or impossible to access during the vulnerable period between when a student registers for a class and when the student starts the class may never make an impact—positive or otherwise. That’s because students often arrive at college with mind-sets. Those from nonmajority groups, for example, may wonder about whether they belong, a phenomenon known as belongingness uncertainty. Some may also feel at risk of confirming negative stereotypes associated with their identities, known as stereotype threat. Others from varied racial groups and genders suffer from impostor syndrome.
“When the human brain is in a state of belongingness uncertainty, it is scanning—oftentimes unconsciously—for the same things we scan for in a face-to-face environment,” said Michelle Pacansky-Brock, a faculty mentor for online teaching and learning at Foothill–De Anza Community College. “It’s scanning for verbal and nonverbal cues. It’s looking for a smiling face or a warm gesture.” Pacansky-Brock, who is the lead principal investigator on a project focused on humanizing online STEM classes, coined the term “liquid syllabus” in a 2014 blog post.
A brief, if imperfect, welcome video as part of an instructor’s liquid syllabus can help mitigate students’ sense of belongingness uncertainty, Pacansky-Brock said. Ideally, the faculty member would film the video in a nonacademic setting, use welcoming language that speaks to social inclusion and offer a window into who they are outside the classroom.
Instead of authoritative statements such as “no late assignments accepted,” the instructor could provide context about how late assignments may undermine a student’s overall studies and provide them with choices that include submitting on time for full credit or late for reduced credit.
Most important, when the welcome video is part of a liquid syllabus that is accessed via a public website, students do not encounter the barrier that learning management systems, which require usernames, passwords and navigation tools, sometimes present.
Frictionless access to mobile-friendly syllabi supports equity, as Black and Hispanic U.S. adults are less likely than white adults to have a traditional computer and broadband at home, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center study.
“In order for us to really close equity gaps, we have to begin thinking about how students access college materials, especially something as important as a syllabus,” Ortiz said, noting that when she was in college, she found the contractual language on syllabi intimidating. Her students access her liquid syllabi much more frequently than when the syllabi were stored in a learning management system. Many return to the documents throughout the semester, for example, for the hyperlinks she added to campus resources such as counseling, disability accommodations and basic needs.
“Higher ed isn’t a neutral space … Look at our racial equity gaps,” Ortiz said, noting that a syllabus is not just another document. “Faculty always say, ‘Well, the rules are on the syllabus’ or ‘look at the syllabus,’ so we know that this document is very important” in informing student experiences.
Barriers to Barrier-Free Syllabi
Many colleges aspire to provide students with mobile-friendly, frictionless access to course materials, but they have been slow to respond. Some faculty members have stepped in to fill that accessibility gap by offering liquid syllabi, even when doing so introduces other challenges.
“Some of our administrative duties haven’t been reconsidered”—that is, considering work done on making syllabi more accessible, Ortiz said. For each of the six classes Ortiz is teaching this semester, she was required to submit PDF or Word document versions of her syllabi. She also created liquid syllabi, which required learning new tech skills and making sure that important information was embedded on her course websites that exist outside the university system. “We’re essentially doing double work.”
Liquid syllabus websites that stand apart from the college’s learning management system and college website are not without risks. Because the websites are public, faculty who create them could be targeted due to controversial syllabus they teach or because of their identities.
“I’ve talked to the faculty of color who are concerned about sharing their appearance in video because they don’t want to be judged and discriminated against by their students,” Pacansky-Brock said. “There’s a lot that needs to be untangled. It’s complicated.”
Lisa Paciulli, a lecturer in the biology department at North Carolina State University, generally avoids putting personal information online, but she paid a graduate student with her own money to create her public, online syllabi because she feels strongly that students should have easy access to information about her courses.
“My secret hope is that the only people who will ever see [my liquid syllabi] are my students,” said Paciulli. “It would be better if it were somehow within the university website or system.”
The Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay offers support, including template design and word choices, for instructors who create liquid syllabi. But once the liquid syllabi are created, they “live” in the institution’s learning management system, said Breeyawn Lybbert, associate professor of chemistry, which requires usernames and passwords.
“There is some pressure [from liquid syllabi enthusiasts] to be part of the living document,” said Heidi Sherman, associate professor of humanities at the University of Wisconsin. Still, Sherman considers liquid syllabi to be a “great partner” for her general education students who, without easy access to course information “may be a bit less motivated to keep up with the work.”
The support she received from her university’s teaching and learning center ensured she did “not need to reinvent the wheel.” She also sees liquid syllabi as supporting sustainability efforts. “Before I used a liquid syllabus, I probably printed hundreds and hundreds of pages for the syllabi. So much paper and ink and money, and then students lost them.”
Despite risks of going outside college learning management systems and websites, many faculty members remain committed to the practice of ensuring access and inclusivity by way of liquid syllabi.
“So many times, we hear administration say that faculty don’t want to change,” Pacansky-Brock said. “This kind of grassroots adoption shows that’s not true. We need to pay attention to what’s preventing the change, recognize those as barriers and start to take those apart.”