PDF Syllabus Builder: Open-Source Tool for Online Instructors, Course Developers and Instructional Designers

Author Information
George Joeckel and Max Longhurst
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Utah State University
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

The time and space separation inherent in online learning demands that students receive organized and accessible information at their first point of engagement: the course syllabus. The Faculty Assistance Center for Teaching (FACT) at Utah State University has developed an open-source tool that creates a syllabus in a native PDF format—Adobe Reader.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

Users are guided step-by-step in populating six sections: information, course objectives, course resources, course activities, policies and grades. An example syllabus is provided to model content and design best practices. Users are assisted in the development of course objectives. The tool computes a points-based grading scale from provided grading component values. Campus policies and federal laws relevant to education can be incorporated into the tool to ensure that every learner is informed of her or his institutional and legal rights.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

FACT has adopted this tool for the development of syllabi for all new fully-online courses. The Regional Campus and Distance Education (RCDE) department will recommend this tool for all online instructors beginning Fall 2012. The Teacher Education and Leadership (TEAL) department has provided development resources based upon a faculty vote, and is using the tool to standardize the syllabi for its fully-online graduate-level Administrative/Supervisory Program. Several institutions have expressed an interest in piloting the open source version of the tool.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 


The developers chose to create this tool as an XML-based dynamic PDF (using Adobe LiveCycle Designer) for three main reasons:

• Adobe Reader is a free and ubiquitous software program 
• The tool operates on a local machine: no internet connection is needed; no browser version issues; runs on PCs and Macs
• Text-based PDF files are accessible to all students (508 compliance)

Learning Effectiveness

Research has demonstrated the importance of the syllabus as a learning aid. [1] By guiding the instructor through the creation of the syllabus, and by providing an example syllabus that models best practices in design and language, the tool creates a document that is specific to the needs of online learners.

Faculty Satisfaction

The tool incorporates a design framework developed for a specific context: higher education courses delivered via a learning management system. The Objectives-Resources-Activiites (OAR) model [2] is combined with three supporting sections--information, policies and grades--that instructors work through in six steps. Current users have particularly enjoyed the grading scale that is auto-generated based on the grading components that have been listed.

Student Satisfaction

Research has also indicated that the syllabus functions as a contract [3] and a communication tool [4]. The tool enables the adoption of a standardized format to promote a consistent and thorough framework for online learners. The example syllabus models policies related to instructor and student feedback, late work, information for students with disabilities, etc.


Enrollments in online courses at Utah State University continue to grow at double-digit rates each semester. As the number of students in each course rises, and as the diversity of the learning needs of online students continues to grow, the syllabus will face increased instructional demands. The PDF Syllabus Builder provides an effective method for disseminating and incorporating the best practices and standards being developed at all levels of the university.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 


*** Download the PDF Syllabus Builder at: https://elearn.usu.edu/OAR/PDF_Syllabus_Builder_v1_beta.pdf *** 

The user must have a computer and a screen, with copy of Adobe Reader--a free program available at http://get.adobe.com/reader/--installed.

System requirements (from the Adobe website):

Windows - Intel® 1.3GHz or faster processor - Microsoft® Windows® XP Home, Professional, or Tablet PC Edition with Service Pack 3 (32 bit) or Service Pack 2 (64 bit); Windows Server® 2003 (32 bit and 64 bit; Service Pack - 2 required for 64 bit); Windows Server 2008 or 2008 R2 (32 bit and 64 bit); Windows Vista® Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, Ultimate, or Enterprise with Service Pack 2 - - (32 bit and 64 bit); Windows 7 Starter, Home Premium, Professional, Ultimate, or Enterprise (32 bit and 64 bit) - 256MB of RAM (512MB recommended) - 260MB of available hard-disk space - 1024x576 screen resolution - Microsoft Internet Explorer 7 or 8; Firefox 3.5 or 3.6

Mac - Intel processor - Mac OS X v10.5.8 or v10.6.4 - 512MB of RAM (1GB recommended) - 415MB of available hard-disk space - 800x600 screen resolution (1024x768 recommended) - Apple Safari 4 for Mac OS X v10.5.8 and v10.6.4; Safari 5.0.x for Mac OS X v10.6.4

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

The PDF Syllabus Builder is available at no charge through a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. The LiveCycle Designer source files are available. An institution that chooses to modify the open source version may incur costs such as: the purchase of Adobe Acrobat Pro (which includes Livecycle Designer) and design and development expenses.

References, supporting documents: 

1. Parks, J.; Harris, M.B. (2002). "The purpose of a syllabus.". College Teaching 50 (2): 55–61.

2. Joeckel III, G.L.; Jeon, T.; Gardner, J. (2009). Instructional Challenges in Higher Education Online Courses Delivered Through A Learning Management System By Subject Matter Experts. In H. Song (Ed.), Distance Learning Technology, Current Instruction, and the Future of Education: Applications of Today, Practices of Tomorrow. New York, NY: Idea Group Publishing.

3. Slattery, J.M.; Carlson, J.F. (2005). "Preparing an effective syllabus: current best practices.". College Teaching 54 (4): 159–164.

4. Habanek, D.V. (2005). "An examination of the integrity of thesyllabus". College Teaching 53 (2): 62–64.

Other Comments: 
Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
George Joeckel
Email this contact: 
Effective Practice Contact 2: 
Max Longhurst
Email contact 2: