How a ‘Syllabus Commons’ Could Change Higher Education

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In late January, I was part of a group of scholars at Columbia and Stanford Universities who unveiled the Open Syllabus Explorer — an online tool that aggregates data from over one million syllabi collected from college and university websites. So far the Syllabus Explorer does only a few…

In late January, I was part of a group of scholars at Columbia and Stanford Universities who unveiled the Open Syllabus Explorer — an online tool that aggregates data from over one million syllabi collected from college and university websites. So far the Syllabus Explorer does only a few things: It shows how often works are taught, what works are taught together, and where and in what field they’re taught. But we think it has the potential to evolve into something more powerful: a tool that can help us better reflect on what colleges teach and improve the quality of higher education globally.

The Explorer provides a rich empirical account of teaching across colleges and universities and — when the data is good enough — at a state-by-state and institution-by-institution level. It introduces a novel publication metric based on how often works are taught — adding some much-needed complexity into the metrics used to evaluate the influence of scholarly work.

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Re:Learning project provides stories and analysis about this change moment for learning.

Our data goes back about 15 years, so as we improve the ability to sort by date, the Explorer will help tell stories about the evolution of fields, formations of canons, and the teaching trajectories of individual works. As we improve the location filters, it will be possible for university presses to understand when and where their catalogs are taught, leveling the data playing field for small presses. Libraries will be able to use the data to refine acquisition strategies, and, of course, professors will be able to use it as an aid to course planning. As we layer in other types of data, many more types of analysis become possible.

At most institutions, debates about who owns instructional materials were won by faculty in the early 2000s — generally in the context of expected growth in online education. Yet collection policies remain inconsistent. Some colleges collect syllabi, some don’t; some publish them online, some don’t. Departments and individual faculty members routinely set their own policies. One of the few major public-policy initiatives in this area was a 2009 Texas state law that required public institutions to make syllabi (and other information) available online.

As long as there was nothing very useful to do with syllabi outside their classroom role, college policies and faculty norms regarding syllabi could remain diffuse. The discovery of something valuable and interesting to do with lots of syllabi changes this equation and will — we hope — prompt a discussion about how to collectively manage this important record of faculty work. Looking ahead, we see two ways in which this conversation is likely to play out.

Scenario 1: Colleges do, collectively, nothing. A few move to actively open up their collections. A few react negatively and block public access. Most administrators decide that the issue is politically fraught, and so defer to the individual instructors to make the decisions. But the status quo is unlikely to be preserved. Large publishers or education-technology companies will begin to mine syllabi and integrate curricular metrics into their marketing strategies and bibliometrics packages. Some of the valuable bits will eventually be sold back to colleges.

Scenario 2: Colleges work to create a "Syllabus Commons" in which they manage their curricular data as a shared public good. A Syllabus Commons would ensure that curricular analytics serve a broad array of constituencies in and outside academe, while remaining both open for research and subject to university control. Our project provides a foundation for a centralized Syllabus Commons, but other models are possible.

Importantly, a Syllabus Commons would not require publishing the underlying documents — though it could and, in our view, should do so when it has explicit permission. The Open Syllabus Project is a metadata commons in which the public resource is the aggregated information derived from the syllabi, not the documents themselves. These remain private, along with their personally identifying information.

There are several good reasons for setting up a Syllabus Commons in this way. First, it respects the wide range of views that faculty and instructors have regarding privacy and ownership of syllabi. There is no "exposure" of individual work — just recognition that teaching materials are part of the larger collective enterprise of education.

Second, it stays conservatively within U.S. fair-use guidelines with regard to digital archive projects: It is educational, noncommercial, derivative in nature, and does not redistribute copyrighted works.

A Commons of this kind can be built on open-access policies, which govern research in the University of California system and at a handful of other universities and which could potentially be extended to syllabi. But — and we think this is important — participating in a metadata commons does not require such policies. Because there is no publication requirement, a Syllabus Commons does not significantly impact the current research and publishing ecosystem.

Building new infrastructure is always fraught, as values and policy choices solidify into servers, wires, buildings, and jobs. We think that a Syllabus Commons represents an important opportunity for information self-governance in higher education. We have the capacity to create a valuable new public good out of materials that we already own and care deeply about. Over time, a Syllabus Commons can grow through individual faculty donation or — more rapidly and with deeper historical reach — through access to the syllabus archives maintained by many institutions. In either case, the project needs the support of faculty and administration. Let’s build a Syllabus Commons.

Joe Karaganis is vice president of the American Assembly, a public-policy institute at Columbia University.

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