The Syllabus and a 21st Century Education

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Key Takeaways

  • The form and content of a syllabus offer important clues about the course instructor and the teaching style to expect in the course, giving students a preview of what to expect.
  • Nowadays, all course syllabi should indicate the huge range of resources available online and convert the content to be covered in the course into a high-tech learning system that provides a roadmap for students.
  • Taking the time to draw up such a syllabus can enhance learning outcomes in many ways, from encouraging greater collaborative learning opportunities to DIY learning.

Ten years in, how do you know whether an educator belongs in the 21st century, teaching next-generation students? Checking out his or her syllabus will tell you a lot. This roadmap for learning acts like a herald for pedagogical styles — and this far into the new millennium, the syllabus should be resoundingly digital!

Syllabus Styles

The syllabus is designed to provide students with information about the form and content of a course. It provides a view into the instructor's plans for content to be covered throughout the course, methods of learning anticipated, and schedule for accomplishing the different steps and learning tasks, culminating in a final exam or project. Traditional syllabi were often characterized by a static and linear learning plan. They usually referred to print versions of textbooks and reading assignments, tended to present inflexible schedules, and often focused on "lecture" and content delivery as opposed to hands-on, collaborative learning where the classroom ecosystem is primed for the generation of new ideas.

No doubt many, if not most, instructors these days have some form of hybrid syllabi where learning plans and schedules are sprinkled with some online activities. However, there is still a gnawing need for educators to complete the paradigm shift in the learning process — that is, to adopt and apply with creative abandon the slew of digital innovations available today.

Responding to Pedagogical Demands of the 21st Century

The transition from traditional to 21st century teaching styles demands that every instructor who has not already done so overhaul his or her syllabus and adopt some modern digital approaches to learning. Additional benefits to students include lowered costs for textbooks and entrance into an online society built around the content.

The following six examples describe practical ways you can load your syllabus with a new high-tech learning approach to benefit students throughout the course and even before the course begins.

Open Courseware

Instructors should offer alternatives to students as regards course textbooks and resources. Many free, online materials are available from open courseware sites, open-access journals, and online databases. Substituting appropriate open educational resources can keep textbook costs down. The syllabus should list readings and other course materials with live web links for easy access.


A 21st century syllabus should mention avenues for collaborative learning, especially the use of peer-to-peer learning through social media networks. Students should be able to find answers and test ideas online, and they should be able to tap into the "wisdom of crowds" — online, not just in the classroom. The syllabus should encourage or require them to participate in Open Study or other websites that promote peer-to-peer learning. The instructor might also want students to use Twitter, Facebook, wikis, or other collaborative tools.

Blended Learning and Virtual Access

Another crucial component of 21st century learning is the idea of just-in-time access to materials — being able to download files and "buy" texts as you need them. Although most do already, instructors should use a learning management system or website where materials (slides, lecture captures, and other digital files) are posted and can be accessed by students as needed. This information along with the instructor's contact details (online office hours, mobile device details, etc.) should be indicated on the course syllabus.

Learning Analytics

Instructors should be able to chart and follow their students' progress — or lack thereof. A number of learning management systems can provide a great deal of data for instructors to modify and adjust course content and presentation to help students learn the content more effectively. So long as the main learning objectives or outcomes are kept in sight, these learning analytics can be invaluable. Information about this kind of tool should be included on the course syllabus, alerting students of the feedback on their progress available to the instructor and encouraging them to access the learning management system frequently to stay current with the class schedule for learning concepts needed for the final evaluation of their learning.

Face Time

It has become a cliché nowadays to talk about our highly globalized world, where people can communicate with each other instantaneously and often free of charge. Because of this, it is amazing that the opportunity for such communication has not been more fully used in the classroom. Virtual face time with an expert, for example, can add variety to the learning experience in a way not possible with straight lecturing by the instructor or teaching assistants. In this way, students can interact with experts from around the world as part of their classroom experience. All instructors should therefore consider setting up a course Skype and/or other VoIP account — and ensure the students know about it through the syllabus. Other alternatives would be video conferencing or online chat/discussions with experts, eliminating the need for them to come to the classroom to interact with students.

DIY Learning

Finally, a 21st century syllabus must recognize, provide guidance to, and give credit to the idea of do-it-yourself learning, whether asking a student to watch software tutorials on or spend hours watching videos and learning specific topics being taught by the Khan Academy on YouTube. Encouraging students to share ideas in a wiki, on Twitter, or in online chat fosters collaboration that the instructor can guide without dominating. There has to be a way to embrace this new method of learning in the classroom, and it should be reflected in the syllabus document.


Two of the most talked about problems affecting undergraduate education are low student engagement and dismal college completion rates, particularly in the public sector.1 One reason seems to be that students feel lost in the classroom, failing to see the relevance many postsecondary courses have to their everyday lives. It is, therefore, high time we educators make some significant changes in the way we do things at higher education institutions. One of the ways we can implement 21st century educational reform is by updating the instructor-student learning contract — the syllabus. Making the syllabus more digital should be the first step for 21st century instructors teaching 21st century students.

  1. See Anthony Grafton's illuminating review of eight books on the crisis in higher education: "Our Universities: Why Are They Failing?" New York Review of Books, November 24, 2011.