Landing : Athabascau University

The course as a contract: do enough students understand this?

I mean, I expect most students do. Understand, that is, that a course syllabus represents a contract, of sorts, between the student and the teacher: the syllabus contractually obliges the teacher to teach the course according to the syllabus (and not spring short-notice readings or unscheduled tests on students); conversely, it contractually obliges the student to complete the readings, learning activities, and assignments listed and described - in short, to do the learning work that the syllabus sets out for the course.

And, just as importantly, the syllabus obliges the student to abide by that back part of the syllabus about policies, expectations, responsibilities, conduct, academic standards, and so on. Even in just my four-and-a-bit years as an undergrad in the early 1990s, I saw course syllabi gradually grow (or bloat, if you prefer) to include more such policy language (or fine print, if you prefer). I had a first-row seat for watching the contractualization of the syllabus. This process was fully formalized in less than a decade, so that by the time I was a PhD student in the early Aughts, it was understood that a syllabus had to include the policy rider on conduct, time commitments, academic honesty, etc. - and it was understood that the syllabus thus represented a learning contract - almost legally binding, inasmuch as the policy of the university could be deployed with the force of law. Students were advised to read the syllabus front to back, and to regard it as a contract.

Which brings me to AU and the question of how well this understanding of the syllabus as contract is promoted here. AU serves a very diverse variety of students, but there's one demographic in particular that the institution claims to serve especially well: first-generation university graduates, that is, students who by completing AU programs become the first members in their families to earn postsecondary credentials. By enabling these students to earn postsecondary credentials, AU performs an important, even transformative service to the public interest, the economy, and civil society - don't get me wrong on this point.

But since so many students are thus coming to postsecondary education from backgrounds alien, indifferent, or hostile to it, their reportoire of assumptions and expectations differs vastly from that of students coming from families more familiar with postsecondary education - and academic culture. For these first-generation students, then, are we doing enough, as university educators, to help students understand a course syllabus as a contract?

The question has a few ramifications; for me, it arises as a result of my perennial encounters with academic offences - plagiarism. As the old, oppressive adage goes, ignorance of the law doesn't excuse breaking it; but (as I'm sure I'm not alone in finding), some cases of dishonesty in academic work seem really to be cases of ignorance of academic culture. Depending on their education and background, some students seem unaware that explicit acknowledgment of research sources is a standard expectation; some students seem unaware that this goes for all sources, including assigned readings, public online resources, and so on; and some students encounter academic documentation, or academic culture generally, as a profound form of culture shock.

At AU in particular, I'm willing to bet that more than just a few students are unaware that the syllabus for a given course includes relevant sections of the corresponding univeristy calendar. While it might make sense to include the policy language in a print syllabus distributed by hand in the traditional face-to-face classroom, in the distance-education context, the online syllabus simply includes links to relevant policies found elsewhere, in the online calendar. Take, for instance, my History of Drama course, Engl 303. The online syllabus outlines the course basics - its structure, evaluation, reading materials - and, for the sake of concise and readable webpage design, does not include the policy rider, but instead provides links to relevant calendar sections. For instance, under Evaluation, we read: "To learn more about assignments and examinations, please refer to Athabasca University's online Calendar." That link is crucial, since it spells out more clearly how the course evaluation scheme works. But what is equally crucial, although not spelled out, is the contractual link between the syllabus and the calendar: the calendar links are to the online syllabus what the long policy rider is to the print syllabus. The syllabus and the calendar together constitute the student's contract with the university.

For its part, the online calendar spells out the contractual relationship between student and university (as do traditional university print calendars), as a contractual relationship that covers the whole experience of the student's program of studies, not just one course. Here's the relevant clause from the undergraduate calendar, section 1.6:

Once you have completed and submitted the Undergraduate General Application Form, you have agreed to abide by the rules and regulations of Athabasca University. Your knowledge and acceptance of Athabasca University’s academic regulations, policies, and procedures is your contract with the University, particularly the Student Code of Conduct and Right to Appeal Regulations.

Whether or not the student reads the section or the whole calendar, submission of the application form implies agreement to the general learning contract. Another relevant section of the calendar explicitly and repeatedly refers to a course as a contract; in this context, the language of contract refers primarily to the course as a specified period of study, but it also reinforces the tacit understanding that the course is a contract.

Each individualized study course has a specific course contract start date and end date. From your course contract start date, you will have six months to complete a zero-, one-, three-, or four-credit course, and 12 months to complete a six-credit course. Your course contract end date is the last day of your individualized study course. Course contract end dates fall on the last day of a month.

Similarly, enrolment in a specific course implies agreement to its specific learning contract. On reviewing individual syllabi like that for Engl 303, it appears to me that the fundamental understanding of a syllabus as a contract could stand to be more clearly spelled out in our online syllabi. Doing so - even just by pointing to the "contract" clause in the calendar that I quote above - might be a means to help students, particularly students entirely new to academic culture, better understand this culture by prompting them to pay attention to the calendar policies, our proverbial fine print.


  • So, the contract specifies time expectations.  When assignments take longer than the contract states to be reviewed and returned to the student, what is the student to do but pay for extensions?  It seems like this contract is a one way street? 

    - Susan Annau

    an unauthenticated user of the Landing September 8, 2012 - 2:05pm

  • The university has a policy on learning support like that provided by tutors for teaching activities like replying to emails and marking assignments:

    If you find that it takes your tutor or instructor longer than the time specified in this policy (which should also be considered an integral part of the learning contract), you should notify both the instructor in question and the Learning Services coordinator, whose contact info is given in this policy.

    The contract is thus still a two-way street.

    Mark A. McCutcheon September 8, 2012 - 2:43pm

  • I doubt that as you stated the “proverbial fine point” is something many students think about.  

     A few years ago, as a college computer applications teacher, the campus manager asked that I included an overview on Plagiarism, and, throughout the semester reinforce the importance of citations.  I can only speculate as to why, but over  one third of the students did not seem bothered by not citing or including the URL’s  for their Word and Excel final exams.

     Student’s and their contract is similar to people who do not carry comprehensive insurance on the contents of their homes.  Until it becomes an issue that directly affects them, they are either unaware, do not take the time to find out the implications of breech of contract (being uninsured) or do not care.  For the latter, not much can be done; for most people a brief explanation and link will help them understand that it is a contract and comes with consequences.

    Barbie Bruce September 8, 2012 - 9:59pm

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