Creating a “Collaborative Syllabus” Using Trello

I believe very strongly in creating a participatory learning environment for students but when it comes to creating a syllabus it seems like the only option is to use the standard “banking” model of education (Freire). As the instructor for a course, I lay out specific texts, assignments and themes for the students to digest in class and organize it in an easy to follow document we call the syllabus. [^1] But I want something that can move beyond this parameter and allow the students to participate in the actual development of the content within the syllabus.

My question is: How do I get the students more involved and interacting with the actual syllabus from its very creation to how it gets used in class throughout the semester?

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This is where trello flexibility comes into play.

I first approached Trello as a to-do list manager, which is why it didn’t click for me. Not that you can use it for to-do lists, you certainly can, but when viewed that way I missed the really interesting and creative uses of the app. Instead, trello is a visual-based project management system. What I like about it is that it is intuitive and easy enough to use that anyone can figure it out, and flexible enough that you use it for just about anything you can dream up. It can be used for such things as managing software development, to developing a proposal, to managing the workflow of an office, to home improvement, to creating collaborative classroom spaces.

Creating Collaborative Classroom Spaces with Trello

When I was reading about the various ways you can use trello (see here for ideas and uses), I found an example of a middle-school teacher who uses trello in his classroom for what he calls “Genius Hour;” a 2 hour time slot twice a week where his students are encouraged to co-operatively research together whatever interests they may have (The idea stems from something Google is famous for).

I took this idea and adapted it into my context within higher education to create a collaborative syllabus.

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Here is how I set it up.

First, organize the columns or “lists,” as trello calls, them based on the breakdown of the key phases or themes of the class and other ideas and resources you might want in the class. For my class on “Remixing Contemporary Quakerism” I created three phases of the class: 1. Framing Renewal / Remix; 2. Quakerism, Crisis and Renewal in Stages, and 3: Convergent Renewal. Next, I included things such as:

  • booklists
  • possible topics to vote on
  • Parking lot for ideas or questions
  • ideas for visitors you’d like to have come talk or experiences you’d like to have in the class
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Second, create one card for every class period you will teach with a thematic title, date, basic agenda for the class and any other useful info you need at a quick glance. (Use the quick tip for Submit multiple cards and checklist items).

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Third, populate cards with course content: outline of the class, assignments due that day, reading materials, .pdfs, and an image that will help symbolize the day. I like that I can drag and drop images, pdfs, etc. onto a trello card for students to access later. I also like that I can connect a trello card to my google drive for access to folders, slides, gdocs, and more.

Fourth, invite students into the board and invite them to interact with the class. Not only can students see the “big picture” roadmap of the class, where are we and where are we going – a valuable tool in constructing learning – but they can also comment within each board as a part of an ongoing dialogue and assignments.

They can also consider what ideas, resources, and questions things they’d like to see within the class.

  • Parking lot list
  • A spot for class questions
  • Research topics
  • Interest based learning: Have students turn class ideas based on their areas of interest into cards. Students can then vote on their favorite ideas and you can have those ideas developed furhter by the students and incorporate those into the course. Leave a couple class periods empty so that you can plug in student’s class ideas. Trello makes moving things around easy by dragging and dropping cards wherever you’d like.

Advantages of using trello to create your syllabi.

  • Each card becomes interactive, very easy to use, with everything you need for the class right there.
  • Students can comment within the cards.
  • Gives students a sense of “where we are now” but also helps students come as an equal to the class. They know what we’ll be talking about, what the basic agenda is for the class, what is expected each period etc.
  • It makes sharing the class very easy in the name of “public scholarship.”
  • It allows for the possibility of a participatory class not just in terms of the “engaged learning” that takes place within the classroom but at the very creation of the syllabus itself.
  • It looks beautiful, is easy to use, and because it is visually-based, it connects with learners who may often be overlooked within higher ed.

And a word about the older form of the syllabus.

Yes I still use it and have it. In fact, it is found in the first card on the trello board for each class. I think they are useful and necessary. But it is written in google docs so that we as a class edit it where necessary. The trello board is like a much more elaborate 3D world of the standard versions of syllabi.

Interested in an account? If you sign-up using this link and I get a free month of trello gold. Thanks!

Tips: Tips for Beginners
More Tips: Using Trello Like a Pro


[^1] “In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry. The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence. The students, alienated like the slave in the Hegelian dialectic, accept their ignorance as justifying the teachers existence — but unlike the slave, they never discover that they educate the teacher.” (Friere Chapter 2)