Recently, I attended a conference and was sharing my new visual syllabus with some colleagues. After several interactions, I noticed the most frequent comment was, “What a cool syllabus…but is it accessible?” I was ecstatic to hear this question! You see, I’ve been working to expand the accessibility of resources at my college for a while, so it was great to see this on the mind of so many other educators. A little background about myself; I love designing, redesigning, and getting creative with my syllabus. I spend quite a bit of time and effort into creating this document every semester. I know that this may be the first interaction a student has with me and my course, so I grant myself the time to go a little overboard with the syllabus. I believe that all my hard work does have the intended impact. A few semesters ago, I had a student share with me that she dreaded taking accounting, but after receiving my syllabus, she knew she had made the right choice. She said, “A teacher that puts that much effort into the class…cares.” This reduced her anxiety and helped her approach the class with a positive attitude.
Now, I do change the visual theme each semester even though the content pretty much stays the same. I enjoy showcasing my personality and interests throughout this course document. Last semester, I had a Stranger Things theme that radiated 80’s vibes and contained numerous references to the series. This semester, I have a Pokémon theme centered around the card game. This change in theme keeps it fresh for the students and fun for me.
Is the document accessible?
Let’s return to the question posed by all my colleagues: “Is the document accessible?” The answer is no…and yes. Here, the term “accessible” might refer to the ability that a sight-impaired person can receive the information in the document as well as a sighted person. Having accessible documents and resources is a critical part of inclusion and equity in education as it allows those with a disability to obtain the information without complications.
My Pokémon visual syllabus was created for an in-person class and is distributed in several different ways:
- Hard copy: A printed copy of the syllabus is distributed on the first day. This document, in itself, would not be accessible to a sight-impaired person. They would need to use an electronic magnifier or electronic magnifier with text-to-speech in order to receive the information from the document successfully. Therefore, I would give the hard copy a low accessibility score.
- Soft copy (pdf): An electronic copy of the syllabus is attached to the welcome email students receive before the start of the course. If a sight-impaired student has access to a screen reader program, they will be able to use it to access the information via audio. However, the information can only be conveyed if the document has been created with accessibility in mind. This means setting up the file correctly, including alternative text for images, headings, and other proper settings. These features may be hard to learn and program for a novice, and inevitably, some features will not be coded correctly making it difficult for the screen reader program to translate. Therefore, I give the pdf version of the syllabus a medium accessibility score.
- Learning Management System (Canvas): This appears to be the best option for making the syllabus accessible. I move the syllabus information into our learning management system (LMS), making sure to use all the features native to the program—headings, styles, tables, etc. This ensures that the information is correctly tagged for any web-powered screen reader.
Pro-tip: Lots of great illustration programs are out there, including Adobe Illustrator, Procreate, and Photopea. But my favorite is the web-based design program Canva! It is easy-to-use for those with no design background, has numerous pre-loaded templates, and is fun to design in. Check with your IT department as your college may already have an institutional subscription!
Is the document relatable?
The term accessible can also mean whether something is easy to approach or understand. One of the best ways to create trust and engagement from students is by sharing parts of your personality with them so they get to know you and feel comfortable in class. This document can do that—let your interests, hobbies, or other “nerdom” shine through! It will help students see you as a person and help them become excited and engaged in the class.
Now, maybe you are thinking that you are just not a creative person. But I say, “Pish posh!” If you are an educator, then you are creative. As educators, we have to constantly think of new ways to communicate our concepts to different learners and motivate them in our classrooms. Your syllabus should reflect your interests or something you are passionate about. Grant yourself the time and grace to get creative with your syllabus. And if you want a set of eyes to review your work, just send it my way—we are all here to help one another.
You can also keep your theme running through the class; incorporate it into class examples, projects, assignments, quizzes, etc. For example, this semester I have my quiz problems based on the world of Pokémon. This can help ease quiz anxieties when they read a word problem about something they are familiar with.
Heck, I even award Pokémon card packs* to the highest exam scores. The class loves this! The recipient usually opens the pack right away, and the students have fun seeing and celebrating all their “pulls” from the pack.
So, to go back to the initial question of, “What a cool syllabus…but is it accessible?” I would respond, “Thank you, and yes! It can be accessible with some work.” Making a good syllabus is hard work. Making an accessible syllabus is also hard work. But making a syllabus that reflects your interests can make that hard work more enjoyable for you and offer many benefits to your students. Happy creating!
*A Pokémon card pack contains 10 game cards, both common and uncommon. The fun surprise is that students may even get a rare card worth $100 or more!
Teresa Thompson is tenured faculty at West Valley-Mission College District where she enjoys teaching accounting to her wonderful students. In addition to teaching, Thompson runs West Valley’s Entrepreneurial Center helping support students in their entrepreneurial pursuits.