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John Buckley

Bill Cosby once said, "If students do it, it's plagiarism; if teachers do it, it's inspiration." I was reminded of this quotation recently when looking for information online. Numerous searches on Google yielded either nothing or an unmanageably large number of hits, until, in desperation, I tried online syllabi.

The syllabus is an important part of any course, whether delivered online or face to face. The traditional syllabus typically includes not only a schedule of topics, readings, activities, and assignments, but also such elements as goals, objectives, or expected outcomes for the course, grading policies, procedures, and any other information necessary for students to succeed. Therefore, the online syllabus provides an excellent opportunity to plagiarize - receive inspiration - by seeing how colleagues all over the country are teaching the same subject.

It should be said at the outset that an online syllabus is merely a syllabus which is available by accessing the Internet. The overwhelming majority of these syllabi are for traditional classes taught in person in a conventional classroom. The syllabus is posted electronically by either the teacher or the educational institution. The new technology, however, now makes it possible for instructors to create more detailed syllabi than in the past.

With an ever increasing number of teachers posting course materials online, the opportunity to benefit from the experience of others and avoid reinventing the wheel has never been greater. My search for "online syllabus," for example, produced over 52,000 results. That's still a lot, so, since I was only interested in seeing what readings were assigned in a particular course, I narrowed the search to one for "syllabus 'assigned readings' 'American history'" and received a more manageable 800 hits.

To say that there is an online syllabus for the course you teach would be an exaggeration, but not by much. A quick five minute search revealed syllabi in English, Spanish, biology, news writing, Constitutional law, philosophy, cultural anthropology, history, chemistry, and art history. Virtually all syllabi were for high school and college, with a smattering of middle-school courses.

There were, for instance, over 700 syllabi posted for online high-school English courses alone. The exact content varied from grammar and composition to English as a second language. There were, however, some excellent syllabi for classes that are taught less frequently. One Latin teacher featured a syllabus which included an introduction to the course, grading, book list, course expectations, assignment schedule, links to Latin study aids on the web, vocabulary in electronic form, and an online drill inventory. A community college English syllabus contained links to "hypertextbooks," sample exams, outlines of lectures, as well as the instructor's e-mail and contact information.

One serendipitous discovery was that some instructors provide links in their syllabi to primary sources which are not otherwise readily available. Such classes range from the high-school course which provides links to material not available in the school library to the college class featuring links to articles in professional journals, diaries, letters, governmental reports, and other materials that are either out of print or not likely to be available on campus.

So, whether you are interested in knowing what content is covered by other teachers in your field or simply want to see what others are using as required texts, the online syllabus is a quick, convenient, and accessible resource.

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